The Status of Myanmar’s Peace Process

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is the only major armed ethnic group that has not signed an initial ceasefire with the Myanmar government. But despite agreements with 11 other major rebel groups, lasting peace in the country is far from certain. The potential for renewed conflict between these groups and the Myanmar military is the greatest threat to continued democratic reform.

The ethnic minorities along Myanmar’s periphery have spent more than half a century fighting the government for autonomy and equal treatment. The result has been uncountable damage to national development, generations of citizens raised in an atmosphere of fear and distrust, and the entrenchment of military power as the only guarantor of national unity. A renewal of large-scale fighting with the ceasefire groups will severely damage the prospects of economic growth in Myanmar and in all likelihood convince the many generals who are uncertain of President Thein Sein’s reform agenda that democracy only leads to chaos. The result could be a military backlash.

Q1: What are the government’s plans for nationwide peace?

A1: The Myanmar government announced in late June that it would hold a major conference this month to sign a nationwide ceasefire with all major armed ethnic groups, but that timeline appears unlikely. Naypyidaw’s main interlocutor for such a conference would be the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella group representing 11 major ethnic armed groups. But the UNFC does not represent all ethnic groups, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) being the most prominent nonmember. The group has twice met with government negotiators and in February the two sides issued a five-point declaration on peace.

The most serious hurdle for the government’s nationwide ceasefire plans is that they first require an agreement with the KIO, which seems unlikely to happen this month. The UNFC, of which the KIO is a member, has made it clear that the peace process cannot move forward until the Kachin reach an accord with the government.

Representatives from ethnic groups and international observers view the conference, whenever it happens, as a hopeful step in addressing long-term issues beyond just initial ceasefires. It is expected to focus on politically contentious issues, including decentralizing power to the ethnic states. But even in the best case scenario, it will not resolve the most contentious political disagreements, including most ethnic groups’ commitment to rewriting Myanmar’s 2008 constitution and installing a genuine federal system.

Q2: What would long term conflict resolution look like in Myanmar?

A2: Longtime Myanmar watchers agree that a lasting resolution of ethnic conflicts requires more than forging ceasefires. Disputes are rooted in disagreements over autonomy, economic development, fair access to natural resources, and rights and protections for indigenous languages, cultures, and religions.

The central government’s current roadmap for peace calls for each ethnic group to proceed from initial ceasefires to state-level negotiations to more contentious political negotiations, potentially involving all relevant groups, with the federal government. The problem for ethnic groups is that under this plan, the government insists that all parties recognize the 2008 constitution and the highly centralized government it created, including a guaranteed political role for the military. This is a nonstarter for the UNFC and most others.

Instead, the umbrella Working Group for Ethnic Coordination drafted a framework for nationwide political dialogue in March that was accepted by the UNFC the following month. That document agrees with the government’s goal of a nationwide ceasefire, with the caveat that it includes all relevant ethnic and prodemocracy armed groups. But it also lays out a more inclusive bottom-up peace process driven by a “Panglong Union Conference,” which would bring together government, ethnic, and prodemocracy representatives to forge a new federal system. The document is admittedly ambitious, but workable.

Regardless of the path taken, sustained reconciliation must contain significant political, economic, and cultural protections that can ultimately be realized only by devolving significant power to the ethnic groups under a federal system. This is why the UNFC and most individual ethnic groups maintain that the government must fulfill the promise of the 1947 Panglong Agreement in which Aung San, representing the central government, agreed with representatives of the Chin, Kachin, and Shan to establish a federal union with internal autonomy for ethnic minority groups.

But peace will not be achieved through political compromises alone. A comprehensive strategy to ensure minority and ethnic groups are economically integrated into the rest of the country is critical. Decades of underinvestment in Myanmar’s hinterlands have contributed to massive economic and educational marginalization of ethnic groups. What investment has occurred is largely dedicated to natural resource exploitation, including environmentally disastrous hydropower and mining projects, from which local communities have benefited little if at all. Joint development of ethnic states’ resources, and sharing of concessions, must be a significant pillar of any lasting resolution.

The national government will also need to commit to protecting and preserving minority cultures and languages. Ensuring support for local language media outlets, allowing local language education in schools, and the legal enshrinement of the right to practice minority religions and cultural traditions is a vital aspect of lasting, peaceful ethnic reconciliation.

Q3: What is the status of bilateral ceasefire negotiations?

A3: Kachin: Representatives from the KIO and the Myanmar government signed an agreement on May 30 to reduce violence between their respective forces. The agreement outlines a monitoring mechanism to avoid the escalation of the conflict between the KIO and the government, but falls far short of a ceasefire. Despite ongoing clashes, the peace process continues to inch along in Kachin State, with the KIO this week announcing that it would reopen a liaison office in the government-controlled state capital Myitkyina for the first time in two years.

Wa: The UWSA, the strongest ethnic armed force in Myanmar, was the first to sign an initial ceasefire agreement with the civilian government that took power in 2011. That June 2011 accord was tested in recent weeks as the Wa objected to the reinforcement of government troops surrounding their territory in Shan State. Government and UWSA representatives on July 12, 2013 reached a follow-up deal that has defused the situation for the time being. But the UWSA and its roughly 30,000 troops have continued to acquire weapons and advanced equipment like helicopters and surface to air rockets that suggest they do not feel secure with their tentative agreements with Naypyidaw.

Shan: The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and its military wing signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in January 2012 following two years of talks. RCSS chairman Lieutenant General Yawd Serk met with President Thein Sein for the first time on June 3 in Naypyidaw; it was the first official meeting between leaders of the RCSS and the government in 50 years. But despite their agreement, sporadic clashes continue between the RCSS’ military wing the Shan State Army-South and the Myanmar military.

The other major Shan armed group, the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) reached a ceasefire with the government on January 28, 2012. Like the RCSS, the SSPP’s armed wing the Shan State Army-North continues to clash with government forces despite their agreement.

Karen: The central government’s most historic agreement was reached with the Karen National Union (KNU) in January 2012. The KNU and its military arm, the Karen National Liberation Army, had fought the central government for six decades without pause. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a splinter group of the KNU that broke off in 1995, also signed a ceasefire in November 2011. These agreements with the Karen continue to be marred by sporadic fighting, but appear less threatened than those with the Shan, which have several times appeared on the verge of falling apart.

Karenni: Representatives from the Karenni Nationalities Progressive Party (KNPP) and Myanmar authorities signed a peace deal on June 2012, and agreed on June 20, 2013 to form a panel to monitor their agreement. The eight-point accord reached last month includes plans to clear land mines and resettle some of the thousands of people displaced by fighting since the KNPP’s previous ceasefire with the former junta broke down in 1995.

Others: Other major groups that have signed peace deals included the Chin National Front in January 2012, the New Mon State Party in February 2012, and the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) in August 2012. The Chin negotiated a follow-up agreement in December 2012 that includes further details of economic, political, and cultural measures to promote peace. Their accord remains far from secure, but appears to go further than that of any other ethnic group.

The government and the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) reached a ceasefire deal in April 2012, but both sides have failed to implement most of the components of the five-point agreement. The most significant group aside from the KIO that has not reached a ceasefire with the government is not an ethnic group, but rather the pro-democracy All Burma Students’ Democratic Front.

Gregory Poling is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Amy Killian is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Amy Killian