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Ceasefire signing marks end of the beginning

President Thein Sein and Vice President Sai Mauk Kham pictured signing Burma's Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

With the pomp and ceremony of the ceasefire signing in Naypyidaw now out of the way, the actors involved – government negotiators and leaders of the eight ethnic signatories – now have to focus their efforts on the next step in the fragile process: political dialogue.

Both teams have just two weeks to draw up an exact timeframe for the implementation of the ceasefire’s provisions. A ‘joint implementation committee’ met this afternoon to begin the task of introducing the wide-ranging, if not all-inclusive, agreement. The 12-page document’s 33 articles demand deep change to Burma’s political structure, including challenges to the military’s closely guarded 2008 Constitution.

A ‘political dialogue’ – to which non-signatory armed groups will be invited as observers – is contracted to commence within the next 90 days. The dialogue will be protracted; enough so to cater for in-depth discussion of the agreement’s sweeping broad pledges.

Included among the ceasefire accord’s clauses is everything from the simply stated ambitions of ‘environmental protection’ and ‘eradication of illicit drugs’ to the nitty-gritty of troop manoeuvrings and the behaviour of rank-and-file soldiers. It also grants government forces access to rebel-held territory.

The lengthiest topic for up for discussion – with most at stake for both the Burmese military and the non-state armed groups – will be security sector reform. This item covers national security policy, policing, immigration, and the judicial system. Changes to the security sector, as flagged in today’s wide-ranging document, represent a challenge to the military’s constitutional privilege as Burma’s “sole patriotic defence force”. The generals in Naypyidaw have already been forced to swallow one bitter pill in regards to this. This week, the removal of the eight rebel groups from the government’s list of unlawful organisations was de facto recognition that there is more than one army in Burma.

A pledge for the future formulation of a Pyidaungsu (Union) armed force, representative of all nine signing armies, has been solidified in the terms of the so-called ‘nationwide ceasefire agreement’, commonly referred to as the NCA. The ambition to create a Union Army is the most revolutionary element of an accord that seems – from an outside perspective, at least – to have learned from past mistakes made across a string of ceasefires signed during the 1990s.

The former junta’s preferred method of bringing armies together was to remould them as free-wielding ‘Border Guard Forces’. In eastern Burma in particular, these government-allied ethnic militias have shouldered much of the burden in the fighting between Naypyidaw and its former enemies.

Over nearly two years of ceasefire negotiations, the ethnic alliance continuously voiced support for the integration of ethnic armed forces into the Burmese Defence Services, or Tatmadaw, to produce a ‘federal’ or ‘union’ army. The idea has irked many on the government side, as a threat to the ultimate power of the National Defence and Security Council.

The council is made up of the president and vice-presidents, the commander-in-chief and his deputy, house speakers, and the ministers for defence, foreign affairs, home affairs, and border affairs. As the military maintains heavy influence in choosing these positions, the Tatmadaw is effectively self-governing.

It follows that equal footing for ethnic armed organisations in the post-ceasefire security sector demands the inclusion of commanders from the signatory groups within the National Defence and Security Council.

Admission of these old enemies could loosen the grip that graduates of the Defence Service Academy – including Min Aung Hlaing, Ko Ko, Thein Sein and Shwe Mann – have long held within the Tatmadaw.

The steps ahead following Thursday’s ceasefire will require some give and take on both sides within the realm of security sector reform. An equally representative union army would be a major concession by Naypyidaw, and moreover by the Tatmadaw.

On the other side of the negotiating table, the ethnic groups will now allow for government assistance and influence in their territories.

It is worth noting that it was reported today in the Myanmar Times that 13 persons have died and 200 are infected with cholera in an area of eastern Burma under Karen National Union control. Humanitarian access to such areas is now set to incorporate an unprecedented level of influence for government forces in territory previously considered ‘liberated’ by armed groups.

The ceasefire document provides for such collaboration in the rebel borderlands. Article 25 mandates coordination on receiving aid from donor agencies and the maintenance of the rule of law.

The permission of government agencies into areas that ethnic armies have for decades fought for and died for is a fundamental acquiescence.

Looking beyond the immediate horizon, some long-awaited progress on the task of demining in eastern Burma could be showcased as an early benefit within the new compact. Provisions for joint-demining efforts have been included in the ceasefire and point to a leap of faith by ethnic groups previously fearful of Tatmadaw troop activity in and around their areas.

Protracted and frank discussions are necessary if progress is to be made to these core issues of sovereignty on both sides, not to mention how the functioning and parameters of a rank-and-file unified armed force would look.

Naypyidaw should extend invitations to all non-ceasefire armed groups and political parties of all stripes to be full participants in upcoming dialogue stage, despite the risk that the programme could become bloated and further drawn out. It will help rebuild some of the faltered NCA’s lost inclusiveness.

Ongoing hostilities in the northeast of the country prompted the government to exclude three armed groups – the Kokang, Palaung [Ta-ang] and Arakan armies – from today’s ceremony. But the spread of the fighting has also been cited as a chief concern for the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Shan State Progress Party (Shan State Army-North), and has contributed to them pulling out of the NCA.

A strength of Burma’s peace process had been the hitherto willingness for delegates to stay at the negotiating table despite the fighting on the ground. Thursday’s signatories will hope that the inking of the ceasefire, with its broad but stated points to address localised conflict, will provide the time needed for lengthy discussions to come.