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Burma’s ethnic armed groups and government negotiators now have less than two months to meet an August deadline for signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement, which would mark the beginning of the end to six decades of conflict. While that deadline will almost certainly prove flexible, those involved in the process agree that Burma is closer than ever to achieving peace.
“As an historian, I would like to say that this is the best chance to make peace in Burma. The government is willing. The people are willing… we should take that opportunity and try to take it in the direction we want,” said Harn Yawnghwe, executive director of the Euro-Burma Office (EBO), speaking at a conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Friday.
For Burma, however, whose central government has a history of using divide and conquer tactics against its many ethnic insurgencies, “closer than ever” could be a considerable distance. Ethnic armies still at war with the government might need some convincing that the “direction we want” actually exists, and that the EBO has any authority to broadcast it.
Hosted by the newly-formed Pyidaungsu Institute, a five-member panel of optimistic experts convened at Chiang Mai University to try to demystify Burma’s tangled path to peace. The Pyidaungsu Institute (PI), an ethnic research centre founded as an answer to the government-influenced Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC) and funded in part by the EBO, is meant to provide resources and space for community involvement in the peace process, which to date has been dominated by government forces and has appeared impenetrable and opaque to concerned communities.
The conference was initially conceived as an ambitious debut for the institute, but was markedly downscaled because of administrative pressure from the university in light of newly-instituted martial law in Thailand. Several distinguished players in the peace process showed up nonetheless, including PI founders Khunsai Jaiyen and Lian Sakhong, EBO’s Yawnghwe, MPC Associate Director Nyo Ohn Myint and seasoned peace advisor Hannes Siebert.“The government is willing. The people are willing… we should take that opportunity and try to take it in the direction we want” – Harn Yawnghwe, executive director of Euro-Burma Office
Discussion centred on the scope and trajectory of the peace process, which after much back-and-forth between the two sides at the negotiating table — the government’s Union Peace-making Work Committee (UPWC) and the ethnic armed groups’ National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) — has prioritised the signing of a single-text nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) as its cornerstone. This document, now headed towards a third draft, synthesises proposals drafted independently by each side and will subsume state-level ceasefires.
Yawnghwe emphasised to DVB on Tuesday that, “At the moment everyone is focusing on the draft of the NCA,” which, while it seems like a given now, was not the case only a few months ago.
Signing the accord is prerequisite to launching political dialogue and pursuing constitutional reform, as reiterated by Burmese President Thein Sein in his monthly radio address on Sunday. Ensuing dialogue, which many ethnic stakeholders have long demanded as a precondition for ceasefire, will be geared towards changing Burma’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution to allow for federalism and political autonomy for ethnic states and regions. Hence, the postponement of the dialogue is already viewed as a major compromise on behalf of the NCCT.
It appears to many observers that the NCCT has absorbed most of the compromise, while the UPWC hasn’t had to do much bargaining. It was the commander-in-chief of the Burmese armed forces who established the deadline for ceasefire, and the latest draft of the agreement, penned in late May, is “not much different” from the original document pushed forward by the UPWC in November 2013, according to a legal advisory group.
The Legal Aid Network (LAN), a non-governmental assistance programme based in Kachin State with an international oversight board, recently published a chapter-by-chapter analysis of the November draft on the premise that the newer versions are almost identical in substance to the UPWC’s original, which was based on state-level pacts. Yawnghwe agreed with this assessment, adding that the NCA “is based on the individual ceasefire agreements. The difference is not in the substance but to cover those [ethnic armed groups] who have not yet signed or cannot for political reasons sign ceasefire agreements.”
The LAN takes issue with several parts of the text, namely: vague and deceptive language; existing law clauses that could override parts of the agreement; and the document’s apparent acceptance of the 2008 Constitution as a legitimate legal charter. Yawnghwe responded that the newest draft of the NCA leaves out existing law clauses, but there is not yet a clear plan to reconcile the agreement with the most relevant preexisting law: the Unlawful Associations Act, which criminalises all of Burma’s ethnic armed groups.
“An underlying question, is how the existence and operation of the EAOs [ethnic armed organisations] can be legalized,” reads LAN’s report, citing the United Wa State Party (UWSP) as a cautionary symbol for other armed groups. The UWSA is Burma’s most powerful ethnic army, and has been tolerated by the Burmese government since an informal, oral ceasefire agreement was reached in 1989. The LAN argues that though the government recognised them as a lawful organisation, the agreement should have made the Wa army a part of the national Armed Forces. The fact that it didn’t demonstrates arbitrary and selective application of law, and could cause problems as the peace process enters a more mature phase, which will require the government to at least appear to be consistent.
Yawnghwe assured DVB that the current negotiations “call for the EAOs to be de-listed from the illegal organizations list when the NCA is signed”, but no one seems to yet have an answer as to how that will be either implemented or honoured. Speaking to DVB on Tuesday, Lian Sakhong, co-founder of PI and a high-level member of the Chin National Front, remarked only that “all who sign the national ceasefire, their names should be removed from the illegal organisations list, and they should not be punished under that law… Until it is signed, there is no way we can do that.”
This is an important point, considering that the Burmese military still operates with impunity in ethnic territories. The most recent example is the raid of a rebel liaison office in Kengtung, Shan State, just last month. An agreement to operate rebel army liaison offices is written into state-level ceasefire agreements. The most basic purpose of these offices is to bring insurgents out of the jungle and into the towns, where they can directly communicate with local Burmese authorities. The demonstrated consequence is that the offices turn some select rebels into sitting ducks.
It’s hardly irrelevant that the EBO, which partially funds the PI, also funds the establishment of liaison offices and pays staff salaries. Both institutions have a clear stake in the success of and public support for the offices. The Kachin Independence Organisation, which does not have a state-level ceasefire and is still in active conflict with the central government, does not accept EBO assistance for their offices. The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), which has been under ceasefire since 2011, has been among the most reluctant participants in NCCT negotiations with the government. It’s no coincidence, say some observers, that their offices have been subject to abuse by Burmese authorities. More curious is the fact that just one day prior to the raid, a senior Shan politician was arrested at his home without warrant and charged with unlawful association for communicating with members of the RCSS, which is still considered illegal.
Lian Sakhong maintains that “until and unless we sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement, we do not have collective action, collective responsibility.” Because there is no nationwide agreement yet, he said, violation of an agreement between the RCSS and the Burmese authorities isn’t really any of the NCCT’s business. It seems an odd position to take, sending a message that those ethnic armed groups still resisting the agreement for the same reasons they did last year must either get on board or be left out to dry.