The meeting between the government and five non-signatory ethnic armed groups in Chiang Mai, Thailand on April 28 was a big disappointment after it failed to secure promises from the EAOs that they would sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
Such a let-down is common in Myanmar peace negotiations. There will be many more disappointments and uncertainties ahead but it should not deter the government negotiators in pursuing a more inclusive ceasefire.
Critically, it is not a lost cause. There is still time. Both sides can iron out their differences in the next meeting scheduled in Yangon before the next Union Peace Conference 21st Century Panglong (UPC) is held on May 24.
Getting the signatures of the five holdouts – the NMSP (New Mon State Party), KNPP (Karenni National Progressive Party), ANC (Arakan National Congress), LDU (Lahu Democratic Union) and WNO (Wa National Organization) – is the main agenda.
Sooner is obviously more preferable than later because it can create a better pathway forward in political negotiations. Delay in signing is not in anyone’s interest.
According to some ethnic observers, the stalemate in Chiang Mai was due to the problem of both sides having different expectations. The government thought the five groups were ready to sign. But the five groups wanted additional assurances.
There are other critical problems.
The five are the members of the UNFC (United Nationalities Federation Council) along with the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) and SSPP (Shan State Progressive Party-Shan State Army North). While the five have clearly expressed their desire for signing there is no definite indication yet from the KIO and SSPP to sign the NCA.
Naturally, the five groups want to see the inclusion of the other two in the NCA, completing the signing by all within UNFC. It is about unity having just one voice for all the groups and giving priority to collective interests over that of the individual group.
This has created a dilemma for the five as well as for the government. The pragmatic choice for the government is to focus on the five rather than all UNFC members, especially after the KIO and SSPP joined the Northern Alliance led by the Wato pursue another path to peace.
All the five groups have something to gain by signing the NCA.
The two biggest groups of the five – the NMSP and KNPP – have bilateral ceasefires. They have worked so well that not a shot has been fired since they were signed. It seems both sides do not want to jeopardize the status quo.
The rest of them – the three smaller groups – are not militarily active. So there is no military action from the government that can be counted as pressure. The military option is also unlikely under the circumstance as both sides are talking. All this means the five groups may have the option to prolong the talks.
But there is likely to be political pressure.
If the five cannot participate in the UPC because they haven’t signed the NCA, their voices will not be counted. This will be a significant missed opportunity.
The government is also under pressure to produce concrete results at the UPC. Despite its shortcomings, the government still has enormous support from the population. It has waited long enough for the UNFC to come around. Now it will wait for no one. That includes five groups or the UNFC; the UPC will go ahead with or without them.
The bottom line is that the exclusion of the five groups or the UNFC from the UPC will not be a game-changer for the government in pursuing peace.
Looking back, the final NCA draft was produced in March 2015. But the ethnic groups, including these 5 non-signatory groups, came up with more demands, which frustrated the previous government. The result was that the NCA could only be signed 7 months later in October 2015.
Counting from March 2015, the delay in getting all the original 15 groups onboard has lasted more than 2 years now. One can clearly discern the frustration on the side of the current government.
Meanwhile, the government and the Tatmadaw or the armed forces of Myanmar have stated over and again that they will not renegotiate the NCA and that it is the only game in town.
From the perspective of the non-signatories EAOs, they believe that signing the NCA is the path of no return and thus have stuck to the demands outside the NCA that the government is not prepared to accept.
Signing the NCA does not require giving up the weapons. Instead, the signatories will be exempted from the unlawful association act, and guaranteed official participation in the UPC.
After all, the NCA is just an agreement and everyone is free to walk out if it does not work. So far, the NCA signatories have shut that option and instead focused on moving forward.
For now, both sides will look for an exit strategy from the current impasse in the next round of talks. It may come in the form of signing a non-binding Deed of Commitment, reflecting the on some of the demands the UNFC have made.
The first such pledge called “the Deed of Commitment for Peace and National Reconciliation” was signed in February 2015 to break the deadlock on the few remaining hurdles in the NCA negotiations.
The key features of the 2015 DOC were to “conclude the NCA without delay and commence the political dialogue prior to the 2015 General Elections.” The emphasis was on urgently signing the NCA and setting the timeframe for political negotiations. Perhaps the DOC under current consideration should also take heart from the DOC from 2015.
The signing of the NCA by the five groups will help the peace process enormously. It will provide more legitimacy to the government, the five groups and the process itself. The large majority of the country’s area will also come under the nationwide ceasefire, opening better opportunities for communities affected by the armed conflict.
The concern that leaving KIO out of the signing could spur more fighting in the north should be put to rest as reports indicate that the Tatmadaw will meet them bilaterally.
Overall, given the positives, the five non-signatory groups should come to the table next time with a definite answer or timeframe to sign the NCA.
Aung Naing Oo is the author of “Pathway to Peace: An Insider’s Account of the Myanmar Peace Process.”
(Monday: The second of the series: Questions over State Constitution Agreement by Ei Ei Toe Lwin will be published)
Courtesy of Myanmar Times