Monday, April 13, 2015

Ethnic Armed Groups: Partners or Doormats in Burma’s Peace Process?

By Pangmu Shayi / April 9, 2015

The signing of the draft text for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) by representatives of the government and ethnic armed groups on March 31, was undoubtedly a major public relations coup for the Thein Sein government. As to be expected, the administration did not waste much time trumpeting it. Information Minister Ye Htut, on his personal blog, even went so far as to say that the president and army chief Min Aung Hlaing are now in the “annals of peace makers”, of which there are but a handful in the whole wide world. Taking it further to the realms of the supernatural, a state newspaper heralded the capture of an albino elephant a month before as an auspicious omen for the success of the NCA.
On the international front also, the agreement received much backslapping, and UNICEF headquarters at New York, apparently carried away by the government’s euphoria, issued a statement erroneously referring to the event as “The successful conclusion of a National Ceasefire Agreement”.
This led leaders of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which negotiated with the government side on behalf of its 16 ethnic armed members, to tamp down the government’s hype and clarify that the agreement was merely on the text of the ceasefire draft, with approval still pending from top leaders on both sides to make it final.
It is a given that the government side will endorse, as President Thein Sein has already said he expects to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in April. On the part of the ethnic groups, it has been announced they will convene a general meeting before making a final decision on whether to approve the draft text or not. However, it is more than likely that it will be just a formality, as it is inconceivable the leaders would reject the work of their mandated representatives.
So it would seem quite safe to assume that the NCA will get signed in the near future, even if not in April, as the NCCT had indicated. The signing may be an important milestone, but whether it leads to lasting, genuine peace is another matter. The real hurdle will come in the next stage, when ethnic groups and the government side engage in serious political negotiations, slated to take place 3 months after the signing of the final document.
If statements made by Lt. Gen Myint Soe to the press, the very afternoon of the signing of the draft text agreement are any indication, the road ahead promises to be a very bumpy one indeed. By emphatically stating that the army would not give an inch on its 6-point conditions, the general is essentially saying that any proposal to amend the 2008 constitution is off the table. He even added rather ominously: “If our six points are accepted, there will be permanent peace in the country.” This opening salvo is an in-your-face gauntlet thrown at ethnic groups, for whom the 2008 constitution is the main stumbling block to aspirations for a federal form of government.
Granted there are other pertinent issues going forth, such as the exclusion of some armed ethnic groups from the treaty (belying the term nationwide), military related matters such as disarmament, demobilization, etc., and social issues such as the return and rehabilitation of civilians displaced by armed conflicts, but against the backdrop of the army’s unmistakable ill will, the overriding issue undeniably is: “It’s the trust factor, stupid” – to put it in American parlance.
The ethnic armed groups, and an international community anxious to maintain the status quo, might be willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt, but for the ordinary citizen, it will be a struggle to trust a government which cannot even keep its word to young unarmed students, whose knee-jerk reaction has all along been to lie and cover up for crimes and abuses of power.
A peace activist lamented thus on social media: If not for the brutality of thugs with “duty” red armbands at Sule Square, and the police at Letpadaung (cracking down on students protesting peacefully for education reform), today (March 31) would be a happy day for me. But I cannot find it in my heart to trust a government whose viciousness displays an “Us Vs. Them” ethos against the non-military population.
The concern going forth is whether the ethnic armed groups – with their history of fractiousness and penchant for signing ceasefire treaties, individually or as a group – would be strong and united enough to stand their ground and be able to participate as real partners in the political negotiations stage. A failure to make ethnic concerns heard and addressed in any satisfactory manner, would only pave the way for a new generation of discounted ethnic youths taking up arms, even if the current leaders decide to make peace with the government.
From the Kachin perspective, the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO), arguably the group with the most solid public support, is the one most at risk. The KIO may have the unequivocal support of the Kachin people for now, but memories of the debacle of the 1994 ceasefire are still fresh, and the people are not shy about putting the KIO’s feet to the fire if they consider them failing in their commitments. In a meeting with Kachin religious leaders in Myitkyina on their return from negotiations in Yangon, the KIO team was put on notice of their promise not to sign any agreement without the knowledge of the Kachin public, and not to commit to any ceasefire agreement without first achieving political goals.
Amid the pitfalls of dealing with a government whose political will to negotiate in earnest is in doubt, armed ethnic groups are faced with the challenge of taking on the government so that they get to be treated as true partners in the peace process, or of setting themselves up to be trampled upon like doormats.