MYANMAR’S MEDIATION BLUES: Negotiation or zero-sum game?

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The much hyped nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) Witnesses and Observers participation in a mediation process proposal, to be included with an ASEAN envoy, was muted which originally was scheduled to make public about the procedure after the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) virtual meeting of 27-28 May.

Peace Process Steering Team PPST meeting of 27 28 May
Peace Process Steering Team PPST meeting of 27 28 May

From the outset, the ten-member PPST, made up of NCA-Signatory-EAOs (NCA-S-EAOs), has been split into three factions, which are pro-Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw/National Unity Government (CRPH/NUG), for mediation among conflict parties, and undecided or neutral.

During the 3-4 April meeting of the PPST, to join CRPH/NUG were the All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF), Chin National Front (CNF), Lahu Democratic Union (LDU); for mediation  the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Karen National Union (KNU), even though it is divided between total war and mediation factions; and undecided or neutral, which were the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), Karen Peace Council (KPC).

But the latest situation after the 27-28 May meeting the positions of PPST members began to alter a bit, with ABSDF and ALP wanting to toe the line of mediation but prefer to wait for KNU decision which is still pending. The RCSS, PNLO and LDU are now for mediation but are keen to get all involved in the process.

When pressed for more information, an insider who prefers to be anonymous said: ”I can only say so much  that ABSDF and ALP want to follow up (mediation track), but seem to be uneasy about doing it without waiting for the KNU. The RCSS, PNLO and LDU, all Shan based groups, are for following up with the (mediation) process while not leaving the others behind.”

This means only three are solidly for mediation, while two want to go along but want to wait for KNU to come on board. The other five don’t see eye to eye with the proposal. 

But with the letters being sent out to the NCA Witnesses and Observers the PPST Acting Chairman Gen Yawd Serk may be forced to follow up the development of the proposal until it is decided by the concerned invited parties.

PPST Acting Chairman Gen Yawd Serk
PPST Acting Chairman Gen Yawd Serk

This is actually a daunting undertaking given that the two most visible adversaries, the NUG and the State Administration Council (SAC) or the junta, hardened stance and polarization.

The public mood, even though the population is reeling under the junta’s oppression, is undoubtedly for the uprooting of military dictatorship, which is understandable given the junta’s barbaric and inhumane crackdown of the public through indiscriminate killings, tortures and arrests, which are on going.

As of 1 June, (841) people are now confirmed killed by this junta coup, a total of (4443) people are currently under detention; of them (110) are sentenced. 1881 have been issued arrest warrants; of them 20 were sentenced to death and 14 to three years imprisonment with hard labor, who are evading arrest, according to The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

However, the United Nations Special Envoy (UNSE) Christine Schraner Burgener replied positively to the proposal: “Your proposal dialogue with all stakeholders, including the Tatmadaw, the competing authorities, Ethnic Armed Organizations, political parties, the various strike committees and civil society, could help support Myanmar on its path to democracy.”

But she was careful to reflect the public mood when she wrote: “As you suggest, it is the prerogative of Myanmar’s stakeholders to negotiate the terms of representation, along with the selection and constitution of a proposed national mediation team, This is challenging ground, and I trust that all stakeholders will engage with the Tatmadaw without affording them the legitimacy that instead belongs to an elected civilian Government.”

It is not clear even this UNSE formulation, which undoubtedly means an exit of the Tatmadaw from political arena, will satisfy the public and also the CRPH/NUG setup, as rightly or wrongly, they are convinced to be having an edge over the Tatmadaw and thus not keen to talk to it.

Ironically, the junta is also not so enthusiastic about the mediation proposal as it responded to the PPST to exclude the General Strike Committee (GSC), General Strike Committee Nationalities (GSCN) and CRPH/NUG because they are designated as illegal terrorist organizations, which in turn was the label given to the junta itself  by the CRPH/NUG.

According to the letter dated May 19  which was signed by Lieutenant General Min Naung on behalf of the National Solidarity and Peacemaking Negotiation Committee (NSPNC) chairman, the Tatmadaw could only accept the foreign countries as technical helpers, observers, and advisors but not involvement in the mediation as it is not within the bounds of NCA. Besides, PPST proposal involved organizations that are designated as illegal organizations and thus will be difficult to implement the peace process. And because of all these it is ready only to meet and negotiate face-to-face with the NCA-S-EAOs together with the government and the Tatmadaw.

In this sense, the government will be the SAC, which means the EAOs will be negotiating with the military and the junta as one.

The EU ambassador to Myanmar in a recent informal meeting to one top PPST advisor made a point that EU will support every effort and initiative to make peace and that the sooner peace returns to Myanmar the better it will be in a position to deal with the illicit economies like drugs, which have been rising in the aftermath of the military coup.

Differing opinion among PPST

Apart from the pro-CRPH/NUG, pro-mediation, and neutral stances, various opinions on the mediation proposal approach were aired at the virtual PPST meeting recently.

At the meeting one member said that if it is just the conflict between the National League for Democracy (NLD) and SAC it may be in order to mediate but now it is the conflict between the people and the junta which is impossible to mediate. Besides, if they didn’t side with the people, they might go down on the wrong side of the history was the message relayed by the said member.

Another said as the letters have been sent out PPST has to follow up and sound out the NCA witness and observer countries and can’t afford to leave it pending, as it would tarnish its reputation and also look unserious.

Yet some members were determined to stay undecided or neutral, which see the situation as being the power struggle between the junta and the NLD.

However, the unwritten but possible argument may well be that some don’t think that they can beat the junta and so “if you can’t beat them join them” mentality maybe the case. Thus, mediation stance may be because of genuine peace desire to lower the cost of war, in material and human costs, or  pure belief that the enemy may be unbeatable in confrontation mode.

CSOs’ reminder

Meanwhile, an open letter reminder of 191 civil society organizations (CSOs) has been circulating asking the NCA-S- EAOs to shelve the mediation proposal. It pointed out how the Tatmadaw has make use of the NCA to lessen the international sanction pressures to build up its economy and financial gains, which have helped in its military might expansion. It encroached in ethnic states under the pretext of development and tried to undermine the EAOs’ hold and influence on their territories. In short, the mediation proposal goes against the will of the people and urged the EAOs instead to help uproot the military dictatorship by trying to form federal union army together, helping the civil disobedience movement (CDM) and declare the EAOs’ controlled territories to be their own legitimate administrations.

Present situation

The recent development of hardening positions and armed conflicts between the stakeholders, especially between some of the EAOs which are militarily engaging the junta such as Kachin Independence Army (KIA), KNU and to a lesser extend the Three Brotherhood Alliance of AA, TNLA and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), including the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and local resistance groups, some identifying with the NUG’s People’s Defense Force (PDF) and some not, in Chin State, Sagaing, Mandalay, and Magwe regions are registered and ongoing.

The returning of the Gen Z from the military jungle boot camps after military training to urban areas and the recent first military training graduation of the NUG’s PDF have boosted the opposition camps’ aspirations to uproot the military dictatorship.

Bombings were reported in Yangon and many big cities across the country, with at least one drive-by shooting and assassination-type shooting in Yangon. It is not clear which group or groups were responsible, as there were speculation that the junta’s people might as well be involved to create a situation so that it could make use of blanket crackdowns.

At the same time, the junta is also training its family members to protect its inner defense line, indicating that its line of defense is spreading thin, while busy cracking down on the strikes countrywide and combating the array of armed resistance the country over, using attack helicopters to fighter jets.

Fierce fighting were reported in Kayah or Karenni State where the local resistance forces overran junta’s outposts and towns killing scores of the junta troops.

At least 80 junta soldiers were killed during the latest shootouts between regime troops and Karenni civilian resistance fighters in Demoso, Kayah State. The Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), a new group of civilian fighters including the existing state-based ethnic armed groups in Kayah State, said the shootouts happened when some 150 junta troops from Loikaw, the state capital, advanced into Demoso at around 1pm on May 31, according to the The Irrawaddy report.

Perspectives

To sum up, the public attitude, the CSOs and NUG are overwhelmingly not for third party mediation but pushing out the junta and military out of political arena once and for all.

As for the NCA-S-EAO members, they are not speaking with one voice, either for or against, on the proposed mediation process of the third party. It may be split fifty-fifty for and against among the ten members, provided the KNU endorse the mediation process. But it isn’t saying yes or no as a whole group for the time being.

At this writing, it is not clear whether the remaining PPST members will go ahead with the procedure or wait until a clear mandate emerge after the KNU congress which is scheduled to be held after the rainy season. For the moment, the Mutu Say Poe faction, now in power, is keen to carry on with the peace negotiation and there are those who want a total break with the junta, angling to win in the forthcoming congress, where new elections of the governing body will be chosen.

As the situation now stands, it is hard to predict on how the Myanmar's mediation blues will belt out in the near future. But sooner or later the choice will have to be made whether the adversaries are for negotiation or an all out zero-sum confrontation.

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