Myanmar ceasefire has taken a blow. Will it be resurrected once again?
The signing of a national ceasefire agreement in Myanmar, a country afflicted by the longest-running civil war in the world, resembles Lazarus: like the biblical figure, it dies only to be eventually resurrected.
- Saturday, 03 October 2015
The latest twist in a process that has been going on for months took place on Wednesday in the Thai city of Chiang Mai, where 19 ethnic groups currently at war with the government were summoned to vote on the latest version of the agreement. Ten of them, including some of the country’s largest militias, declined to do so due to the authorities’ intransigence in excluding three of the most active rebel groups – the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – from the negotiations.
It was a blow to the central government, which hopes to wrap a national ceasefire agreement before the elections scheduled for November both to ingratiate themselves to the international community and to gather votes. To those who believe such deal would be a step toward peace – and many do not – it was a bad piece of news that may postpone the end of a war that began in 1948.
At the core of the conflict lies the country’s power-sharing system. The armed forces, which ruled the country directly from 1962 till 2011 and still retain a major influence on civilian authorities, support a highly centralized system, which concentrates power in the government’s hands. The rebels long instead for a federal system that would grant more autonomy to ethnic minorities and would allow them to exploit the natural resources located in their respective territories.
A solution has never been found, but the installation of a civilian government headed by former general Thein Sein in 2011 seemed to herald a turning point. Since then, authorities have tried hard to convince both ethnic minorities and the international community of their peaceful intentions, first by signing a series of bilateral ceasefire agreements with various rebel factions and then by launching negotiations for a national ceasefire which they say would pave the way toward political dialogue.
These negotiations went through a number of twists and turns. In March this year, the signing of a national ceasefire deal seemed only a matter of time. In June, the process appeared to have broken down. By August optimism reigned again, with only one problem remaining: the exclusion of three groups from the deal. And it is precisely on this point that this week’s meeting floundered.
According to government negotiators, these three groups ought to be excluded because they are still fighting against the national army (notwithstanding the fact that the MNDAA declared a unilateral ceasefire in June.) To the ethnic movements, however, an incomplete agreement seems both contradictory - because it remains unclear how a national ceasefire could possibly exclude three of the country’s most active groups - and dangerous, as they fear that the government’s undeclared policy is a divide and rule tactic aimed at breaking their resistance.
In this regard, it should be noted that in the past the armed forces often exploited bilateral ceasefire agreements to strengthen their presence in ethnic territories and foment discord inside the ethnic front.
Nor have bilateral ceasefires always been respected. In 2009, the army ended one such deal which had been signed with the Kokang rebels back in 1989, attacking their positions in the country’s north east and pushing them into mainland China. The MNDAA, the Kokang’s military which at present is not allowed to join the national ceasefire negotiations, launched a counteroffensive in February this year, igniting some of the worst clashes seen in recent years.
Something similar happened again in 2011, when the armed forces broke a 17-year old deal with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Myanmar’s largest rebel groups. Intense fighting continued until 2013 and to a lesser extent goes on to this day, with dire consequences for the civilian population. It is assumed that at least 92,000 people have been displaced in Kachin territory alone. According to Moon Nay Li, general secretary of the Kachin Women Association Thailand, an organization which provides support for displaced people, “the Burmese Army has not only targeted the KIA. Villages were attacked, too. Some people have died, while others were deported. Some women were raped.”
These offensives have taken place alongside the negotiations for a national ceasefire deal, creating a paradoxical situation and further eroding the ethnic groups’ trust in central authorities. For, while the latter said they wanted peace, battalions were being sent to fight the worst conflict since the 1980s.
There is now only one month before the elections. The ceasefire might simply fail or be signed only by some groups – an option which would erase its national character. The government might also come to accept the remaining groups, but this option remains farfetched, as authorities seem to see this point as nonnegotiable. Considering the twists and turns we have seen in the past few months, everything seem possible and nothing quite certain.