Seize the Moment for Peace
The Myanmar government's chief peace negotiator explains why now is the time to sign a ceasefire agreement to end the country's long-running civil war.
For nearly seven decades the central government in Myanmar [also known as “Burma” – Ed.] and ethnic armed groups have been at war. The country is now closer to resolving its armed conflicts than at any time since they began. The decisions taken over the coming days by the ethnic armed groups, many of whom have been fighting against the government for generations, will determine whether the country moves decisively toward a just and sustainable peace or whether we lose this unique opportunity, perhaps once and for all.
Over the past four years, President U Thein Sein has made peace a priority. In September 2011 he gave me the job of negotiating ceasefires with Myanmar’s 16 different ethnic armed groups, and we now have bilateral ceasefires with nearly all of them. These are initial ceasefires. They were always meant to be followed by a more comprehensive nationwide ceasefire, and then by political talks, including discussions on a future system of government based on federal and democratic principles. This is exactly what so many ethnic leaders have demanded for so long.
Yet clashes have continued. In the north, fighting between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army peaked in 2011-12. More recently, there have been battles along the Chinese border following an attack by the Kokang army on government positions early this year. It is precisely because of this continuing violence that we need to move urgently towards a broader national ceasefire and political talks focused on the root causes of conflict.
A draft of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) has now been completed. It is the product of 17 months of intense negotiations between the representatives of the Union Peacemaking Work Committee and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team that was appointed by a summit of ethnic armed group leaders in 2013. The draft was finalized and initialed by both sides on March 31. The Myanmar government, including the armed forces and parliament, would now like to sign the NCA and begin the planned political dialogue. What remains is for the leadership of the ethnic armed groups to give their agreement.
Over the past few weeks, the leaders of the ethnic armed groups have been meeting in the village of Law Khee Lar, near the Thai border, to debate the draft agreement. So far they have been unable to agree on whether they should sign it. I fear that we are on the brink of losing the best chance in our lifetimes to end once and for all the armed violence that has plagued Myanmar since independence.
The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is not just a piece of paper. It is an incredibly detailed accord that includes unprecedented concessions, specific military commitments, and a short timetable towards an inclusive political dialogue.
Under the National Ceasefire Agreement, the ethnic armed groups will be able to participate in the planned political talks without being compelled to lay down their arms. The peace talks will be inclusive, involving all ethnic armed groups on an equal basis, regardless of size. The NCA contains a commitment that the subsequent political dialogue will focus on a federal system; until just a few years ago this was a taboo subject in official circles, but the NCA now enshrines it as an aim of the talks. The NCA also commits the government to finding a political solution to the armed conflicts, a dramatic departure from the decades in which the only official policy was a push for military victory. What is also different about the NCA is this: it is not a government “plan” that the ethnic armed groups are being asked to accept. Instead it has been drafted from scratch, according to first principles, by a combined team from both sides, and finalized only after thousands of hours of deliberation.
But the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is much more than just a statement of principles. It includes specific and measurable commitments that will go into immediate effect. For example, as soon as it is signed, the government will remove ethnic armed groups from the list of organizations proscribed by the Unlawful Association Act. The two sides will form a Joint Monitoring Committee to monitor the agreed ceasefire provisions and a Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee to prepare and organize the planned political talks. A military code of conduct will be adopted by both sides, creating a framework for resolving disputes before they can escalate. All signatories, including the Myanmar Armed Forces, will implement a wide range of corresponding measures. Civilians in conflict-affected areas will soon begin to see quick and positive benefits. This in turn will energize the peace process.
I know that some of the ethnic armed groups are uncertain about whether or not to sign the NCA. I hope the bigger and more influential groups will now help to find a way forward from the current impasse. President U Thein Sein is prepared to invite all groups (even non-signatories, who will have observer status) to the planned political talks, in order to ensure that all can move forward together.
What I have written above is the official policy of the government. All branches of government, including the Myanmar Armed Forces, have agreed to sign the draft as it is. The president has consistently repeated the key points in his public statements and in all his meetings with political parties, civil society organizations, and foreign dignitaries, including his commitment to work towards a federal system of government. I can assure all our colleagues in the ethnic armed groups – as, indeed, I have done repeatedly before – that this government is 100 percent committed to finding a mutually agreeable end to the armed violence that done so much damage to our country. It should have no part in Myanmar’s future.
To be sure, the NCA is not an exhaustive agreement, but no ceasefire agreement is all-encompassing. The current agreement is meant as the best possible first step in a process that can include any decision, so long as it does not lead to secession by any part of the country or any infringements of Myanmar’s sovereignty. The political talks should start as soon as possible; the NCA specifies, indeed, that they must begin within 90 days of signing. To discard the NCA now, without a viable way forward, would be extremely irresponsible, and those that advocate this must bear the consequences.
We are at a historical watershed. Calculated risks must be taken if we are to have a brighter future for our children and grandchildren. I ask the ethnic armed leaders to make the right decision and to move forward with my government towards a lasting peace.
(The photo shows troops of the Karen National Liberation Army, one of the largest of the ethnic armed groups, on parade in January.)
KC Ortiz/AFP/Getty Images