What’s holding up Burma’s nationwide ceasefire?

In this file photo, Lt-Gen Myint Soe of Burma's Defense Ministry (r) shakes hands with Maj-Gen Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Army during peace talks in Myitkyina, Kachin State in October 2013. (PHOTO: AP)
 
By Maung Zarni
Democratic Voice of Burma
August 12, 2015

Last week, the ninth round of ceasefire negotiations between Burma’s quasi-civilian government and the negotiators representing the country’s Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) ended without any conclusive agreement in Rangoon.
 
Now the Burmese government is to hold a high-level meeting involving President Thein Sein and EAO senior leaders in Naypyidaw on 19 August on one condition: that the EAOs agree to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) leaving out the following ethnic militias: Kokang group Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA); the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA); Arakan Army (AA); Wa National Organisation (WNO); Lahu Democratic Union (LDU); and Arakan National Council (ANC).
 
Such an agreement would be a decisive step towards ending the world’s longest running civil war, which is now in its 67th year. The immediate and first obstacle to peace can be seen as the exclusionary nature of the government’s offer of ceasefire.
 
Despite the possibility of even such an exclusionary ceasefire agreement, the current prospects for lasting peace in Burma remain unchanged. Two years ago, I wrote in the New York Times [Myanmar’s Drive for Peace, Maung Zarni, 3 Nov, 2013]: “On the eve of independence in 1948, the Burmese nationalist leaders promised that ethnic equality would be a cornerstone of the new Burma. But equality has remained elusive. Until the promise of equality and the vision of a federated union are genuinely pursued, the government’s offer of peace will have few local takers.”
 
Peace in Burma remains as elusive as it was two years ago – still hinging on the issue of genuine equality.
 
The government insists on excluding the above-named EAOs from the signing of the NCA, despite the explicit readiness of all ethnic armed groups to end hostilities towards the central Burmese government. This is officially justified on grounds that these groups do not have as yet bilateral ceasefire agreements with the central authorities as a requisite for nationwide ceasefire.
 
When these groups issued a joint statement to immediately start bilateral ceasefire talks the government simply ignored their call. Such is Naypyidaw’s credibility, or lack of it, and its anti-federalist deeds which disregard ethnic equality as a key principle of governance.
 
Burmese government representatives and ethnic leaders sit for talks at Myanmar Peace Centre in Rangoon in August 2014. (PHOTO: DVB)
 
On their part, the Senior Delegation argue that the official exclusion of a good number of EAOs who, in good faith, seek not only formal signing of a ceasefire nationwide, but whose civilian communities wedged in conflict zones desperately need the immediate cessation of ongoing military attacks.
 
The ethnic delegates contend that because of the overlapping and zigzag nature of boundaries and troop positions across the ethnic regions — all of which have experienced active armed conflicts — leaving some armed conflicts to simmer while holding fire in other regions raises a very real possibility of renewed wars in the foreseeable future.
 
Further, the ethnic minorities commonly see the exclusion of certain groups from the ceasefire pact as “a classic divide and rule strategy”, as an adviser to the Senior Delegation of EAOs put it.
 
The second obstacle is the lack of Burmese government credibility regarding its offer of ceasefire. The EAOs are extremely reluctant to sign the NCA in light of the irreconcilable gap between Naypyidaw’s official rhetoric of ceasefire, peace and ethnic equality encapsulated in the discourse of federalist power-sharing, and its troops’ ongoing, vicious military assaults against some of the ethnic communities.
 
Only recently, Burmese troops laid siege to Mali Yang, a Kachin Independence Army outpost named after a small Kachin village. According to the Free Burma Rangers, a professional non-governmental organisation that monitors active armed conflicts in the country’s ethnic minority regions, in the month of June alone there were 81 clashes and over 2,700 Burmese troop movements including airdropping reinforcements.
 
In addition, integral to its war efforts to break the will of the Kachin troops, the Burmese army is engaged in arbitrary arrests, forced labour and torture of innocent villagers, while blocking humanitarian assistance and the emergency rescue of civilians trapped in active war zones.
 
The third and perhaps most fundamental barrier to ceasefire and peace is the Burmese leadership’s refusal to accept ethnic equality to be enshrined as a foundation for a new and federated union of Myanmar. Less than two months ago, the country’s military-controlled parliament voted down a proposal to amend Article 261 of the military-drafted constitution so that the power to appoint chief ministers of different (ethnic) regions would be transferred from the central government to regional legislatures.
 
To the dismay of the country’s ethnic minority communities, the government refuses to devolve power to local legislatures – an anti-federalist move which effectively denies local ethnic constituencies of both the constitutionally recognised right and the real power to manage their own affairs, including choosing their own executive leaders.
 
With good reason, the minority negotiators continue to hold the view that Burma’s central authorities remain locked in an internally colonial mindset vis-à-vis other ethnic communities.
 
The EAOs’ Senior Delegation is fully aware of the government’s behind-the-scenes attempts to cut off all forms of support and involvement from China to some of the key EAO members.
 
The Christian Kachins, one of the militarily strongest ethnic groups along the porous 1000 mile-long Sino-Burmese border, have commercially, culturally and strategically important ties with their giant neighbor.
 
In a recently leaked video, a Burmese official was seen explaining to a group of anti-Chinese and anti-Muslim nationalist monks the reason why the government had arrested and then swiftly released 155 Chinese loggers from neighbouring Chinese province of Yunnan caught felling trees in northern Kachin State: as a strategic leverage to extract Beijing’s promise to choke off groups in the ceasefire negotiation process.
 
On the propaganda front, the Burmese government frames the ethnic leaders and negotiators who insist on an “inclusive ceasefire” where no ethnic community, armed or unarmed, is left behind as “idealist”, “rigid”, and “un-pragmatic” or “unrealistic”. Instead of bringing all who desire and clamour for ceasefire and peace on board the process, the government has opted for bilateral negotiations.
 
Unfortunately, some of the international peace supporters that wish to see Burma’s war zones transformed into stable sites for economic development, agricultural industries, new tourism businesses, and other lucrative enterprises have opted to accept this official but disingenuous portrayal of ethnic leaders in ceasefire negotiations.
 
Angering the senior delegates of EAOs, EU Ambassador to Myanmar Roland Kobia was seen lecturing the Senior Delegation of ethnic leaders in which he extolled, rather patronisingly, the virtues of “pragmatism” and the need to “make compromises” for the sake of ethnic communities in conflict zones during the official dinner the night before last week’s negotiations in Rangoon.
 
Between 2004 and 2008, I worked as a voluntary facilitator of Track II negotiations or “diplomacy without license” between Burmese military intelligence and former dissidents in exile, as well as certain Western governments. I know intimately how Burma’s military leaders approach any negotiations.
 
Importantly, I am from the dominant Burmese majority – from a large military clan whose members include the very first commanding officer to the now semi-retired Snr-Gen Than Shwe and a VIP military pilot for his predecessor, the late despot Gen. Ne Win. I confess how colonial we Burmese typically are in the way we perceive, treat and relate to the rest of the country’s ethnic peoples.
 
Burma’s leaders, particularly ex-generals and generals, lack both genuine acceptance of multiethnic peace on equal terms and an appreciation for the decades of bitter experiences of war-torn communities. Without these two essential pillars, sustainable peace in my country of birth is not conceivable, formal ceasefire or not.
 
Ten years ago, I trekked through parts of the mine-infested Karen war zones of Eastern Burma, while staying with the Karen National Liberation Army troops – the same troops that nearly killed my uncle, then a decorated Burmese army officer, in a battle. Through my stay there, I learned first-hand and came to appreciate deeply how desperately ethnic minority communities want and need not just an NCA on paper, but peaceful political solutions to their grievances and the resultant lasting peace.
 
After all, it is these ethnic peoples, nearly 40 percent of the country’s total population, who have borne the brunt of the nearly seven-decade civil war. They have been subject to all kinds of human rights violations, war crimes and atrocities at the hands of government troops, including rape of ethnic women and girls; forced labour; the wholesale burning of villages; confiscation of paddy, agricultural land, livestock and anything of value; countless loss of limbs and lives because of anti-personnel landmines; lack of personal and communal security; and the absence of a normal life.
 
One of the key negotiators and prominent leaders of the Mon people, Nai Hongsa, identified a fundamental obstacle to ending Burma’s civil war when he said: “We will achieve a sustainable Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement if we maintain our unity; it is our strength and we cannot let the Tatmadaw [Burmese army] divide us.”
 
Even in the 11th hour of negotiations – the self-chosen deadline for signing the ceasefire agreement by the end of this month – the Burmese government and its military are still resorting to divide-and-rule tactics; international pressure through donor governments such as Japan and Norway; military attacks; and blocking humanitarian assistance to innocent civilian communities in war zones.
 
Tragically, Burma’s peace remains elusive. And that’s bad news for the country’s war-torn communities and war refugees. 
 
Maung Zarni is a Burmese dissident scholar in exile with 27-years of involvement in the country’s politics. He has just completed concurrent visiting academic fellowships at Harvard and the London School of Economics.
 

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