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Two steps closer to peace? Mon, Lahu ethnic armed groups sign NCA

Nai Aung Min, general secretary of the New Mon State Party, signs the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in Naypyidaw on Tuesday. (Photo: DVB)

The New Mon State Party and Lahu Democratic Union signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) on Tuesday, fulfilling a pledge that the two ethnic armed groups made last month to accede to an accord initially inked by eight non-state armies more than two years ago.

At a stately ceremony held in the capital Naypyidaw, leaders of the NMSP and LDU signed the agreement along with Burma’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, top military brass including Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, and the country’s two vice presidents, Henry Van Thio and Myint Swe. Several members of the Burma-based foreign diplomatic corps were also on hand to witness the signing.

The accession of the NMSP and LDU marks one of the biggest breakthroughs in Burma’s peace process since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took power nearly two years ago. Still, about 10 other ethnic armed groups, including Burma’s largest, have yet to commit to the accord, and fighting between government troops and some of those non-signatories persists.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, Suu Kyi said the government would continue to strive to reduce conflicts among all of the country’s ethnic armed groups and the military.

“Our citizens need to be united. Firstly, we must build trust and understanding, for unity. That’s why we are inviting and negotiating with the remaining [non-signatory] groups to join the peace talks,” she said.

The state counsellor acknowledged that Burma, long-riven by ethnic disunity, is facing heavy pressure and criticism from the international community.

“Are we going to leave behind the same country with armed conflicts for our new generations or are we going to leave behind a unified and strong country worthy of respect by others? … In our time, do we have to live amidst war, the smell of gunpowder and the absence of green pastures?” Suu Kyi said.

Min Aung Hlaing echoed the state counsellor’s open-arms sentiment with regard to the remaining NCA non-signatories.

“The government, Tatmadaw and people hope to see signing ceremonies in future [with remaining non-signatories],” he said.

Khin Zaw Oo, secretary of the government’s Peace Commission, said at a press conference in Naypyidaw that officials involved in the peace process would continue working to persuade NCA non-signatories to sign onto the agreement by the end of the year.

“We have discussed with remaining groups but there were no results. We won’t stop the discussions with any remaining ethnic armed groups, but I can’t reveal now which groups can join the NCA,” he said, reflecting lingering uncertainty over which ethnic armed groups the government is willing to negotiate with.

Political analyst Maung Maung Soe told DVB on Tuesday that the government and military needed to resolve a problem that has arisen since eight non-state armed organisations first signed the NCA in 2015: the inability of some of those groups to hold national-level political dialogues among their people, as is stipulated by the agreement.

“If they [the government and military] don’t allow the holding of the national-level political dialogues, the signatory ethnic armed groups won’t be able to discuss [the outcomes of those discussions] at the coming Panglong conference,” he said, adding that without those national-level political dialogues taking place, the addition of two more NCA signatories amounted to little more than names on a page, and would not substantively further the peace process.

Aung Naing Oo, deputy speaker of the Mon State legislature, said the framework toward establishing a federal democratic Union was robust, and he emphasised the primacy of the need for the military and ethnic armed NCA signatories to keep their commitments to the accord.

“The NCA is the first step for the peace process. We believe that the peace process won’t be turned back. Regardless, Mon people are welcoming the NMSP’s signing of the NCA,” he said.

The US Embassy in Yangon released a statement on Tuesday in which it also applauded the two ethnic armed groups’ accession to the NCA.

“We recognize that this is but one of the many steps on a long road to sustainable peace,” the embassy statement added. “We hope that, by committing to engage in dialogue, all parties can continue to move towards peace and creating a federal union that protects the rights of all communities in Myanmar.”