Why There’s Less to Burma’s Peace Process Than Meets the Eye

Burma may be getting closer to ending its 60-year-old civil war. But there's still a long way to go.

burma nca cropped

If you’ve been following the news from Burma over the past two months, you’ll have probably heard encouraging talk of a looming end to the country’s decades-old civil war. According to the headlines, negotiators from the government and ethnic rebel groups have been closing in on the holy grail of a Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA), which aims to halt 60 years of ethnic conflict. Lately, though, it’s become painfully apparent that there’s a bit less to the whole story than meets the eye.

In a meeting last week, President Thein Sein urged the leaders of Burma’s political parties to work with him on launching an inclusive national dialogue aimed at creating a lasting basis for peace. The dialogue, which will include representatives from a wide variety of groups and institutions, is supposed to take a place before the general election later this year. The president described the dialogue process as a crucial precondition to reforming the constitution and establishing a federal state. According to the government’s peace roadmap, the conflict parties are supposed to draft a framework for political dialogue within 60 days of official signing of the ceasefire. The dialogue process is supposed to start within another 30 days after that.

The president is clearly eager to achieve a ceasefire agreement — a goal that has consumed enormous amounts of his administration’s energy over the past four years — as soon as possible. It’s important to remember that, even though the point of the NCA is to stop the various sides from killing each other, it’s not supposed to be a comprehensive peace agreement. Even so, reaching a ceasefire would be a major accomplishment for the Burmese president, and it’s clear that he doesn’t have much time in which to make it happen. By early 2016, he’s almost certain to have left office (since there’s little indication that he’s planning to run for a second term), and he’s eager to conclude the NCA and launch the dialogue while he’s still in power.

Yet his strategy raises questions. First of all, is it really feasible to reach the ceasefire agreement before the election? The answer is a qualified “yes,” since an NCA signed in haste will almost necessarily be fragile and incomplete. Second, will the ceasefire agreement necessarily lead to a political dialogue prior to the elections, thus promoting the broader peace-building process? Here the answer is almost certainly “no.”

Several of the major armed groups and the government reached a preliminary agreement on a draft text for the NCA on March 31, but the deal has yet to be signed. (The photo above shows President Thein Sein presiding over the March 31 negotiation.) Delegates of the rebel groups that agreed to the draft, and who have said that they would submit the text to a gathering of the ethnic leaders for final approval in early June, are now saying that they want to amend key sections.

While the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of ethnic groups, has been insisting that all armed groups should be included in the NCA, the military has refused to deal with one of the alliance’s members. That exception is the MNDAA, the political organization of the Kokang, who are currently locked in intense combat with the Burmese military in their remote northeastern territory along the border with China. Even though the alliance keeps insisting on an inclusive deal, I suspect that the government can eventually manage to persuade most of the ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA, thus putting the Kokang issue aside temporarily.

And this could lead to a rather ironic situation – namely that the ceasefire might end up being signed at a moment when more people are fighting and dying in Burma’s internal wars than at any other time in recent memory. In the northeast part of the country, the Burmese military is continuing its fight with the Kachin and the Kokang and their allies; in the west, government forces are still clashing with the Arakan ethnic rebels. The Burmese military has a long history of using “divide and rule” tactics against its ethnic rebel enemies; given the current situation, one is tempted to suspect that this is one area where little has changed.

And what about the groups that do sign up for the deal? Here, too, there are a whole series of problems that have to be addressed.

Signing on to the NCA is just the first step in a long and complicated process. Ensuring that the signatories live up to their commitments under the ceasefire is going to be a challenge. Based on past practice in other conflicts, a full-fledged ceasefire agreement should commit each conflict party to establish a military code of conduct dictating how their troops should behave, as well as an independent ceasefire monitoring mechanism to enforce the code. In Burma, though, the parties have not made any corresponding agreements, so there is no real mechanism to prevent backsliding.

Establishing a political dialogue will also require plenty of complicated negotiations. First the various parties have to agree on a group of “inclusive representatives” who will draw up the framework of the dialogue. Then the parties have to figure out who will actually take part in the process.

Another major obstacle on the path to a lasting peace is the Burmese military’s declared “six-point principles.” Its most controversial demand is that the ethnic armed groups must adhere to the 2008 constitution written by the military junta that then ruled the country. The constitution maintains a leading political role for the military, including an effective veto over future amendments. The ethnic groups worry that accepting the constitution could limit their room for maneuver in future negotiation with the government. An insightful report recently published by the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute neatly captured the sentiment among the ethnic groups when it noted that “acceptance of the present political system could mean envelopment in a constitutional straitjacket that will make meaningful dialogue impossible.”

At some point the peace process also has to address even more fundamental questions arising from the need to reform Burma’s political institutions. How should a new federal structure allow the regions to share power with the center? What about policies for disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating rebel fighters, as well as for reforming the Burmese military itself? And what can be done to end the broad range of highly destructive economic habits that have emerged during the long years of civil war, such as illegal resource extraction, land grabbing, and a rampant drug trade?

Finally, all the parties involved in the ceasefire also have to figure out how to reconcile the dialogue process with the possibility of a change in the government as a result of the election. (The precise date of the vote has yet to be determined, but right now a date in November looks most likely.) Sources close to the government have told me that the ethnic groups should seize the opportunity to sign the ceasefire agreement and enter the political dialogue before the vote. The implication is that the ethnic groups should seize what’s on offer while they can, since the next government could prove either unpredictable or more hardline. Ashley South, a consultant who has advised some of the ethnic groups, warns that a future government may not prioritize the peace process the same way that the current one does: “Indeed, a future government (especially if led by the [democratic opposition]) is likely to press the ‘reset button’ on political negotiations,” he noted.

Despite all these difficulties, though, it’s important to point out that at least one thing has changed for the better. President Thein Sein and his team deserve credit for creating a culture of dialogue where, until recently, only the principle of confrontation reigned. Today both the Burmese military and the major ethnic rebel groups are constantly being nudged back to the negotiating table by the president and his peace team even as bloody battles continue. The long-standing enemies are still talking. This is to be welcomed — even if the bar seems low to some critics.

So yes, talking is better than shooting. But those involved in the peace process still have plenty of work ahead of them if they want to prevent a return to war.

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