The October 15 next month will be the third anniversary signing of Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). But if one counts the starting of ex-President Thein Sein’s peace initiative, it is going to be the seventh year, as he began with it shortly after coming to power in 2011.
Thus it is essential to assess the merit and shortcomings of the peace negotiation process dubbed Union Peace Conference (UPC), when it first started during the Thein Sein-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) regime, and now officially known as Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong (UPC–21CP), but popularly mentioned as 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC) under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government by the media.
In April 2009 when the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) unilaterally demanded that all ceasefire groups transform into Border Guard Forces (BGFs) under the Tatmadaw’s control as prescribed by the military-drafted 2008 constitution that there must be only one national army, the armed conflict started in earnest again with the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) in the northeast of the country bordering China, especially with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) or Kokang.
In 2011, USDP-led President Thein Sein government abandoned the BGF transformation demand and initiated a peace negotiation process with the EAOs. On 15 October 2015, the NCA was signed by 8 EAOs under USDP government and on 13 February 2018 another two signed under the NLD regime.
To date the NCA-based peace process is participated by the 10 EAOs, which field some 20% of all the ethnic troops combined, while the other NCA-non-signatory 10 EAOs have 80% of the troops. The estimation of the whole EAOs is said to be about 100,000.
Altogether four peace conferences were held to date. One under the USDP in January 2016 and three under the NLD regime. It was called UPC, while the last three were held under the official heading of UPC-21CP. They are popularly known as first, second and third 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC).
The first 21CPC was held in August-September 2016, where the EAOs and political parties invited delivered position papers without any decision made. The second 21CPC was held in May 2017 and third 21CPC in July 2018 were able to agree upon 37 and 14 principles into the Union Accord – to be used as guidelines in amending the 2008 Constitution. Moreover, the seven-party Federal Political Negotiation Consultation Committee (FPNCC) members were able to attend the opening ceremony of the second and third 21CPC, due to China’s intervention.
The third 21CP was held to keep the peace process alive, rather than to achieve any breakthrough, as it has been in stagnation since more than fourteen months, due to the problems to agree upon the discussion agendas in the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) and military clashes between the Tatmadaw and the two NCA-signatory EAOs.
Players and positions
The three most important players in the peace process are the NLD, Tatmadaw or military and the EAOs.
The NLD is for federalism as it has repeatedly stated, but it has never spelled out in concrete terms and only said that it will make use of the outcome from the UPC-21CP decision, which will be recorded in the Union Accord, to form federal union.
In contrast to the NLD and most other participants in the peace process, the military Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly made it clear during the past few years that, whatever the reform direction, the Tatmadaw is committed to sticking to the 2008 constitution. In particular, Tatmadaw leaders are averse to amendment of any of the basic articles that might result in the national armed forces losing their national privileges and political edge.
The EAOs’ take on federalism is based on 1947 Panglong Agreement. The gathering of EAOs and Ethnic Political Parties (EPPs) at Mai Ja Yang in KIA-controlled territory from 26 to 30 July, 2016 agreed on “8-point” principles in drafting a “federal union” constitution. Key policy areas included sovereignty, equality, genuine federalism, self-determination, protection for the rights of minorities, democratic rights, universal human rights, gender equality, and a multi-party system that is based on a secular form of governance. The political guidelines were based on a federal union constitution that was drafted in 2008 by an earlier Federal Constitution Drafting and Coordinating Committee, formed in 2005 by a network of EAOs and democracy exiles in the Myanmar borderlands.
It should also be noted here that the seven-member FPNCC’s federalism outlook is also based on 1947 Panglong Agreement with confederation-like system aspirations. It is striving for a separate deal outside the NCA-based UPC-21CP.
Military clashes have been ongoing between the EAOs and the Tatmadaw. Within the Kachin State it is with the KIA and in Shan State with the National Alliance -Burma (NA-B) made up of MNDAA, Arakan Army (AA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The KIA 6th Brigade also cooperated with the NA-B in military operations.
Inter-ethnic conflicts within the Shan State between the TNLA/Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) are also escalating due to territorial dispute lately, resulting in thousands of IDPs fleeing the fighting.
Politically, especially issues of conceptual differences; non-secession; security reform (federal army formation) are unresolved and cannot even agree on agendas to be included for formal discussion in the UPC-21CP, if one of the three cluster doesn’t agree with any proposed issue. The three clusters that made up in the UPDJC, the highest organ in directing the union political dialogue, are government, parliament, Tatmadaw; EAOs; and political parties; with 16 each and in total 48 members.
The repeated postponement of the third 21CPC for fourteen months and which could only be held in July this year was because of such debacles in UPDJC meetings and of course, also due to the armed conflicts between the RCSS, Karen National Union (KNU), the two NCA-signatories and peace negotiation partners, and the Tatmadaw on territorial dispute and lack of clear demarcation arrangement.
On another facet, the non-signatory FPNCC headed by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is for negotiation outside the NCA-based peace process. The government recently met with the NA-B, also member of the FPNCC, in China to negotiate its involvement in the process. But so far nothing has come out of it and only agreed to meet again in October.
Recently, a summit meeting was held in Chiang Mai from 8 to 11 September, by the 10 groups, collectively known as Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement-Signatories, Ethnic Armed Organizations (NCA-S EAO). They are the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF); Arakan Liberation Party (ALP); Chin National Front (CNF); Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA); Karen National Union (KNU); KNU/Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC); The Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO); Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS); New Mon State Party (NMSP); and Lahu Democratic Union (LDU).
Following the end of the meeting attended by 49 participants a five-point statement was issued.
The gist of it are:
- The attendance of the 49 top EAO leadership
- The need for speedy meeting between the government, Tatmadaw and the EAOs
- The re-election of the 8 signatory EAOs, represented by Peace Process Steering Committee (PPST), and 2 new EAOs (NMSP and LDU) to lead the peace negotiation
- Decision to hold a summit meeting of all EAOs, NCA signatories and non-signatories, based on national unity and federal democracy, which will be prepared and implemented by the (PPST)
- To further negotiate and implement the five discussion points which the NCA-S-EAO leadership have informed the State Counselor on July 13, with the government and Tatmadaw leadership
The five point issues are: the further holding of 21CPC; political discussion on rights of self-determination, ethnic equality, minority rights, formation of (new) state and union army (formation); finding clear and easy decision-making mode in political discussion; to be able to have effective leadership decision-making in cases the work groups and committees cannot decide; and the (inclusion of) left out EAOs.
Given such convoluted scenarios, it is hard to imagine on how to overcome the peace process stagnation. However, there is no other way around than to reassess the basic conceptual differences and the hardship in the actual implementation of the NCA-based peace process, both politically and militarily.
Regarding the basic conceptual differences, the core theme is the emergence of the 1948 Union of Burma that is having the most impact on all the stakeholders. The Bamar-dominated government and military elites propagated and actually believe that the present day Myanmar stems from the immemorial establishment of Myanmar empire, while the ethnic nationalities insist that it is a new political entity which emerged from Panglong Agreement of 1947, the only legal bond between them and Bamar State or Burma Proper.
That is why the federal system outlook differed between the ethnic nationalities and the Bamar-dominated power center. The former sees that they are striving for their birthright self-determination, while the latter views it as having to contain the unruly minorities that have to be reined in politically and militarily.
Precisely, all knows that the latest UPC-21CP in July was just a face-saving gathering for sensitive issues like “non-secession, one national army versus federal army, rights of self-determination, minorities” and so on cannot even be included in the discussion agenda.
Adding to it, the wars in the Kachin and Shan States go on unabated between the Tatmadaw and the EAOs and even further complicating the situation with inter-ethnic conflict between the EAOs, like RCSS fighting against the TNLA and SSPP combined forces for territorial disputes. And in the meantime, several clashes also occurred, due to demarcation dispute, during the last few weeks and also earlier between the KNU and the Tatmadaw.
Politically, the government has blocked State-level political dialogue in Shan and Rakhine States and just very recently a few weeks ago, the Shan unity meeting to be led by the CSSU was prohibited by the the government.
To sum up, a change of mindset from all stakeholders, especially from the part of the powers that be, is badly needed if the stagnated peace process is to become alive and move forward again.
To this end, perhaps a “conditional clause” approach might help to breath in more life to restart the process.
For example, in the case of the non-secession issue, the ethnic nationalities would agree not to secede if acceptable objectives for a federal democracy are agreed and adhered to in words and deeds. If such agreement is not achieved, they would continue to have the historical right to secede.
The same is with the establishment of a federal army. This would mean that the territorial integrity of each ethnic state is guaranteed, along with the right to take care of internal security, with proportionate participation in the national federal army for the purposes of protecting the country from external enemies – not to encroach on other ethnic states and territories in the Union. If this can be agreed, the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities will abide by the structures of a federal union. If not, they would maintain the right to opt out of it.
Finally, it is up to the stakeholders to rethink if the conditional clause approach should be employed to break the ice, give the peace process a chance and keep the glimmer of hope alive.