Representatives of 17 of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups met in Thailand in late August in an attempt to find a collective approach to signing a ceasefire with the government in Naypyidaw. While the goal of concluding a deal ahead of the country’s November 8 general election remains in sight, the commitment to no ethnic group being left out of the process continues to be a stumbling block.
Much-needed political dialogue is set to begin within 90 days of signing the agreement and many meetings have been held among the groups themselves and/or with the government since 2013—a draft ceasefire deal was agreed in April this year. Throughout the process, negotiators have made several compromises to reach this stage, where only one major issue remains.
That issue is that the government does not want to sign the ceasefire agreement with six groups, including three armed groups that had recent skirmishes with the Myanmar army—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the ethnic Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Arakan Army.
The government is also unwilling to include the Wa National Organization, the Lahu Democratic Union, and the Arakan National Council, either because they have insignificant or no armed wings. The government has insisted that only groups it has already established a bilateral ceasefire with can sign the nationwide agreement.
By signing the pact, signatories will receive benefits including the right to continue to hold arms for self-defense, removal from the list of unlawful organizations, joint implementation of a code of conduct, joint monitoring of the ceasefire to prevent recurrence of clashes, and a meeting for political dialogue.
The Thailand summit happened a few days after the Myanmar government invited the armed groups to sign the ceasefire agreement individually. In response to that invitation, four armed groups expressed their willingness to do so, in a joint press release on August 18.
Out of those four groups—the Karen National Union (KNU), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, and Restoration Council of Shan State—only KNU is a member of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team that has been engaged in negotiation with the government since its formation in 2013.
The recent summit was crucial for a few reasons. First, there were concerns that the government’s invitation could bring disunity among the ethnic armed groups. Some worried that the government would put the blame on groups that are not willing to sign individually. There were also some apprehensions that the Myanmar army may use the issue as a pretext to launch offensive attacks against some armed groups.
Second, the summit happened less than two weeks after the the internal power struggle within the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party on August 12, which led to the ouster of party chairman and presidential hopeful Shwe Mann. The police response to that incident was seen by some as an indication that the government may not hesitate to use military force to overrule democratic processes.
Third, in an interview with Radio Free Asia in Naypyidaw on August 20, Myanmar’s Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing said the military would withdraw from politics when the ethnic armed groups come into the legal fold, give up their arms, and participate peacefully in building a democratic nation. The surrender of arms is not agreed upon in the ceasefire text.
An argument the Thein Sein administration makes to ethnic armed groups is that if the ceasefire agreement is not signed before the election, there is no guarantee that the next government will sign it. While there is some degree of truth in this statement, it can also be argued that the government is seeking to improve its international image by declaring the nationwide ceasefire.
The most significant outcome of the summit is the emergence of unity among armed groups on the general principle that a nationwide ceasefire cannot happen if some groups are left out to defend themselves. At the end of the 4-day event, the ethnic armed groups agreed to send leaders from the five major armed groups—Kachin Independence Army, Karen National Union, New Mon State Party, Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army, and Karenni National Progressive Party—plus three members of the senior delegation, to meet with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw.
In the process of negotiation, ethnic armed groups have compromised on the issue of sovereignty and have agreed to adhere to the three core principles of the government’s policy: non-disintegration of their union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, and perpetuation of national sovereignty.
The ethnic armed groups are committed to signing the ceasefire before the general election. At the same time, they are also willing to move forward gradually in their quest to resolve the decades-old ethno-political conflicts in the country. While the continued support of the international community is essential for the success of democratic transition and in bringing stability to the country, it must also take into account the concerns of all parties with regard to the ceasefire pact.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post. Nehginpao Kipgen is a political scientist and author of Democracy Movement in Myanmar: Problems and Challenges.