It is unfortunate that the Union Solidarity and Development-Military (USDP-Military) regime has to resort to its Plan B, partial-ceasefire signing, for its original plan of getting all 15 ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) aboard to materialize the real nationwide ceasefire has come to naught.
Nevertheless, the ceasefire signing was carried out in Naypyitaw, on 15 October, with pomp and ceremony hailed as nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), even though it could be hardly identified with the title it carries.
In order to justify the gathering and also to compensate for the mere 8 of the EAOs’ participation, out of government’s accepted 15 but count 21 nationwide, in the signing ceremony, President Thein Sein, in his opening speech said:
“ The government believes that it is more important to outline a peace process that is accepted by all than the number of signatories. With the understanding that it is essential to cement a foundation for peace process for the future of the country, the government made the commitment to finalize the NCA.”
“ Therefore, although some organizations are currently not ready to sign, the government decided to conclude the NCA with the vanguard group of organizations that are ready to proceed with the signing.”
“ However, we will continue with our efforts to bring the remaining organizations into the process. The door is open for them. Since the NCA is based on the terms that these organizations have negotiated and agreed to, the implementation of the NCA is in accordance with their intent. If requested by the remaining organizations, the government will coordinate and facilitate their participation in the various stages of the peace process.”
The Karen National Union (KNU) Chairman Mutu Say Poe stressed the necessary point of wooing the non-signatory to join the government initiated NCA as: “Additionally, I would like to especially request and urge the Tatmadaw (Burma Army) to resolve issues through negotiations rather than use of force in order to bring the organizations that are currently unable to sign the NCA back into the process. In opening the way for these organizations, de-escalation mechanisms are important, and the leaders who are signatories to the NCA will need to coordinate and find solutions.”
In the same breath, the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) in its statement following the NCA signing on 15 October pointed out:
“ To not let the clashes occur between the ethnic armed groups who have not yet signed the NCA and Tatmadaw, RCSS/SSA urges the government to be open-minded and continue negotiations.”
“ As SSPP/SSA is an organization that has been involved in drafting the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, RCSS/SSA earnestly requests the government to be open-minded, stop the clashes currently occurring between Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) and the Tatmadaw troops and begin bilateral negotiations.”
Lt-General Yawd Serk, leader of the RCSS, at a public meeting in Mandalay with the Shan people, on 18 October said: “ We need to wait and see two points. The first is if they have issued order (to stop shooting) to the Tatmadaw. How they will try to achieve ceasefire with other groups, other than us. Battles occurring with the SSPP/SSA would also have to be stopped. For without them, political discussions could not be started.”
Other than that, regarding NCA signing, he said it will only depend on the government’s guarantee whether battles will break out again or not.
He stressed: “ NCA signing ceremony is to stop the war nationwide. But only the government could guarantee, whether the battles will happen or not. It depends on them. During the state-level bilateral ceasefire agreement, the ethnic armed organizations have never started the attacks.”
According to NCA, all combatants ( government and EAOs) must be informed and clarified (of the ceasefire effect) within five days of signing.
“ We have issued orders, as soon as the NCA was signed. But we don’t see the Tatmadaw issuing orders to their troops,” said Lt-General Yawd Serk.
Regarding the same pressing issue, SSPP/SSA issued a four point statement, on 18 October, stating the Tatmadaw offensives on its positions around the headquarters and occasionally shelling the headquarters itself, starting 6 October, which has been ongoing.
The statement pointed out the fact that on 28 January 2012, it has signed union-level, bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government, which latter has the duty to comply with, even though the SSPP/SSA is not yet ready to sign the NCA, according to the wish of the government.
It also stated that despite the withdrawal of the its troops from a strategic river port at Ta Hsam Pu village in Khesi Township, according to the Tatmadaw’s ultimatum, it is still poised to conduct offensives on the SSPP/SSA.
The fourth and final paragraph stressed: “ Led by the SSPP/SSA Central Committee we will march towards a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with pride and dignity. We will continue to negotiate with the UPWC on building a federal republic. On the other hand, we solemnly declare that the officers and soldiers of the SSPP/SSA are ready to go into battle to relentlessly repel the unjustified Burma Army’s incursion by defending ourselves.”
Meanwhile, the 8 EAOs that have signed the NCA with the government issued an eight point joint-statement on 18 October.
The statement said that following the completion of the 7 August NCA draft, the 8 EAOs signed the NCA with the government on 15 October, after which they formed the Joint Implementation Committee Meeting (JICM), leading to the formation of Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) and Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), together with the regime.
It also vowed to solve the individual and collective problems together.
The last paragraph 8, however, outlined the 8 EAOs’ demands. They are:
- As NCA becomes alive, union-wide ceasefire and provocative attacks should be toned down.
- By promising to follow the NCA, solving political problem through political means, building the union with a federal system are accepted by the government and the Tatmadaw. And in order the NCA to be solidified, both signatories should work together, so that political discussions could be held successfully.
- IDPs in border areas be given humanitarian assistance be given speedily.
- Besides, all political prisoners, imprisoned students and sympathizers that are seeking to amend the educational system be released as soon as possible.
Echoing the same sentiment, the 88 generation group issued a statement on 17 October that the regime should not be pressuring the non-signatory EAOs militarily and politically and instead, should pushed for all-inclusive signing of the NCA.
On 15 October, similarly, some 18 Shan Community Based Organizations released a statement titled, “ If Naypyitaw wants peace, it must stop its military advances into Shan ceasefire territories”.
The statement said that on October 6, the Burma Army launched a large-scale offensive on territories of the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) in Mong Su and Mong Nawng townships, where heavy fighting, involving over ten Burmese battalions, took place and has caused over 1,500 villagers from these areas to flee their homes and farms.
The Shan CBOs strongly condemn this new offensive, the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, and the forced displacement of civilians. These attacks are part of a systematic military operation over the past few years by Naypyidaw to seize territory from the SSPP/SSA, in violation of its existing ceasefire agreement signed in January 2012.
The CBOs stressed that if the international community wants genuine peace in Burma, it is urgently needed to publicly condemn this new offensive and put pressure on Napyitaw to end its advances into ethnic territories and pull back its troops from these areas.
It also urge international donors to provide urgently needed humanitarian aid to those displaced by the recent conflict in Central Shan State, through local community based organizations.
The international community, including China, all welcome the signing of partial-ceasefire, dubbed as NCA, but cautioned that all inclusiveness of the EAOs in the process as a key to be able to achieve the cherished goal.
On the same day of NCA signing, the Peace Support group (PSG) released a statement saying: “ We recognise the need for all parties to continue to build trust and create avenues for the non-signatory groups to join the NCA at a time appropriate for them. Respecting the decisions of all parties, we will continue to support a process that aims to include all parties concerned in the Myanmar peace process in line with the aspirations of a Union based on democratic and federal principles as expressed in the NCA”
The statement emphasized: “The Peace Support Group is composed of the countries and organisations that have accompanied the Myanmar peace process, in political and practical terms. Today, we renew our long-term commitment and express our resolve to maintain our collective support to the peace process, and implementation of the NCA and to peace in Myanmar in the years to come. Our support will continue bilaterally, in accordance with our respective expertise and mandates, as well as through the forthcoming Joint Peace Fund.”
The Peace Support Group (PSG) (formerly known as the Peace Donor Support Group – PDSG) works towards ensuring effective coordination of the international community’s support to peace in Myanmar. It currently includes Australia, Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Finland, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, the United States of America and the World Bank.
In the same vein and on the same date, John Kirby, spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State made a press release emphasizing the U.S. endorsement of the NCA and at the same time cautioning the need of abstaining military engagement, in order not to undermine the peace process.
Part of the release writes: “ We call on all NCA signatories to adhere to the spirit and letter of the agreement they have signed today. Military action undertaken by or against any signatory or non-signatory to this agreement undermines the trust-building necessary for lasting peace, stability, and security for all.”
It also acknowledge the fact by emphasizing: “ We recognize that some groups were not able to sign today, and we understand and respect their concerns.. We welcome their commitment to continue discussions within their communities and with the government about the necessary conditions for signing at a future date, and we urge the government to engage constructively in a dialogue with these groups to pursue a more inclusive peace.”
Furthermore the release pin points: “ We remain concerned by reports of continued military offensives in Kachin and Shan States and the lack of humanitarian access to many of the more than 100,000 internally displaced persons in those areas.”
Two immediate pressing issues
It is not clear if the hasty signing of NCA, before the end of legislature period, would actually benefit the Thein Sein regime in its election campaign, given the incomprehensible and partial participation of the EAOs in the process.
But the two pressing issues facing the government and the EAOs alike are real challenges that need to be tackled head on if the NCA is move on. They are whether the signed ceasefire will hold and if the country will be effectively split into a ceasefire and war zones.
The likelihood that ceasefire could be derailed is quite high, given the warlike nature of the Tatmadaw, due to its rank and file indoctrination of its self-appointed, country’s saviour role and the unwavering duty to uphold national unity and defend sovereignty from the rebellious, non-Bamar ethnic separatist groups. And as such, the non-Bamar ethnic groups are seen as enemies, rather than co-inhabitants in a collectively owned union.
Apart from decades long, military occupation and encroachment of the ethnic homelands under the above mentioned pretext, the recent ongoing offensives of the SSPP/SSA, with a threat to overrun its headquarters; and just on the eve of the NCA signing, the Tatmadaw had waged running battles with the RCSS/SSA in September, despite the latter’s prior commitment to stand by the government, which nearly opted out of the regime’s initiated signing game in Naypyitaw, indicated that ceasefire violations are more likely to be instigated by the Tatmadaw.
But if the military could turn a new leaf and adhere to the ceasefire terms, for the benefit of all the people, chances of materializing the NCA could become a reality.
Another pressing challenge is that whether the Tatmadaw will look at the country’s conflict spectrum as ceasefire and war zones, which have to be tackled differently. If this is the accepted case, the battles would rage on in non-ceasefire, war zones and a semblance of peace would likely prevail in the ceasefire zones, that is if the Burma Army would actually adhere to the ceasefire agreement. On the other hand, if the regime would extend the nationwide ceasefire in a true sense and strive to include all the areas of non-signatory EAOs, the prospect of materializing the NCA will be much higher than expected.
But still there is a chance for the regime to make the NCA works, if it is willing to compromise and loosen some of its self-imposed rigid rules. For example, in order to woo the non-signatory EAOs, it could allow and agree to their fully-fledged participation in political dialogue phase, instead of imposing just observer status; stop the whole offensive and declare unilateral ceasefire nationwide; lift the unlawful association act; and change the government initiated to co-ownership of the NCA procedure, as originally agreed between two negotiation blocs.
And thus, the failure or achievement of NCA implementation solely depends on the regime and no one else, as Sao Yawd Serk, leader of the RCSS has rightly pointed out.
The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU) – Editor