Will Myanmar army allow Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement to be signed?
Recently the Myanmar Government announced that several groups who had their independent armies and had been fighting with the Myanmar government since several years would be signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Burmese government soon. This was after more than six months of deliberations with the main independent groups who had been fighting with the Myanmar government for several years and were maintaining their independent armies. Some of the more determined groups were refusing to sign the NCA, and the Myanmar government was in the process of negotiating with them to agree to sign it.
The Government of Myanmar and leaders of several ethnic groups had after discussions over several days agreed to sign the NCA in the first week of October. The senior advisor Hla Aung Shwe had announced that the NCA would be signed on 2nd or 3rd of October 2015. This has not happened. Meanwhile, more than 100 representatives from 18 armed groups attended a meeting in Chiang Mai on 29/30 September 2015 on whether to sign the NCA.
A summit meeting attended by President Thein Sein and representatives of more than a dozen armed groups ended inconclusively on 9 September 2015. Some groups have refused to sign the NCA unless the government allows all the groups, to join it. The Kachin Independent Organisation, the second largest of the dissident groups is recalcitrant, because three of its closest allies are still fighting the Myanmar army in the north-east of the country. And the Myanmar army wants them sidelined. Working out an accord acceptable to the guerillas was always going to be difficult, given their different interests. Some groups like the Karen National Union view the ceasefire as an economic opportunity, because it would open up access to the Asian highway network that is being built. Others like the Kachin are worried it will bring unwanted dam projects, excessive jade mining and more deforestation and undermine their calls for a more federal system. The greatest obstacle to finalising a comprehensive deal is: these minority groups share a deep distrust of the Myanmar army, which they see as an occupying force with a neocolonial mindset.
They are right. The author, Maung Zarxi grew up in Mandalay in an extended military family. He says-”Like the vast majority of the Myanmar people, we are Bamar and Buddhist and have been imbued with a dominant culture, that is distrustful of Muslims and condescending towards ethnic groups.” For many minorities Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1946 was less a moment of emancipation than a shift to another form of oppression–colonial subjugation morphed into centralised rule under a chauvinistic majority. This then is the crux of the matter. It is this chauvinistic behavior of the Myanmar army that is the main drawback to the signing of the NCA.
Almost seven decades later, Myanmar politics is inherently sectarian, and when the Government is not downright exploitative of minorities, it is paternalistic and domineering. Small wonder that our military leaders, who see themselves as national guardians of national sovereignty feel little need to pursue genuine peace with ethnic armed groups. Consequently, those ethnic armed groups that seek peace are wary of the Government’s recent overtures.
The commander-in-chief of the Myanmar army, senior General Min Aung Hlain did not attend the summit meeting in early September. Even as participants in the talks were gathering, in Naypyidaw, the army was attacking the third brigade of the Kachin Independent Organisation (KIA), apparantly unprovoked! Gen. Gun Maw, the KIA’s second in command, said that it is a pattern of behavior for the army to stage offensives and at the same time conduct negotiations. He seems to be correct. The army has been attacking areas controlled by the Restoration Council of Shan state, even after the group publicly stated, it would accept the ceasefire deal regardless of whether all armed groups would join it. The army is waging strikes, while the President is talking about peace. This does not reflect a split between the army and the executive branch; it is just the Government version of playing good cop/bad cop. Also the Government’s attempts to leave some groups out of the nationwide ceasefire agreement–for instance the Taang National Liberation army, the Arakhan army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance army is a ploy to divide and conquer the ethnic opposition. With the ethnic groups understandably skeptical, the only way to make real progress towards peace is for the government to offer them some significant military and political concession and fast! The army should immediately halt all hostilities and allow humanitarian relief to get through to war trapped communities, especially in the Shan and Kachin areas. The government must also drop its demand that other groups sign bilateral ceasefire agreements as a precondition to their being included in the comprehensive accord. And the commander-in-chief should publicly declare that the army would abide by the addendum to the proposed ceasefire. The addendum has not been made public but according to senior advisors to one major ethnic group that has been involved in the negotiations, it provides the government to undertake reforms, including allowing some parliamentary oversight, before the ethnic groups are asked to disarm. To overcome the distrust of minority groups, the government must also devolve more power to the ethnic areas. Both the commander-in-chief and the government should commit now to ending the current practice by which the President handpicks the Chief Ministers for the country’s fourteen regions and states. Texts should be inserted into the addendum of the ceasefire deal stating that the authority to select the Chief Ministers will be transferred to local legislatures, including the ethnic majority areas. These recommendations may seem like a tall order, but the moment is right. The government appears determined to arrange a signing ceremony for the ceasefire accord before the general elections in November, partly to shore up its popularity with both voters and international donors. The government’s current vulnerability is a precious opportunity for Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups. They must stand together and hold out on signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) until all of them are included in the deal and they have secured concrete military and political concessions. If the government is as serious as it claims about wanting peace it must let go of its oppressively majoritarian mindset and recognize ethnic minorities’ legitimate aspirations for more autonomy.
The problem is more complex than made out in the above paragraphs. The issue is fundamental. It is the superiority complex of the Buddhist majority in Myanmar over the non-Buddhist groups that live on the eastern periphery of Myanmar, like the Wa, Kachin, Kokang, Shan, Karen, Palaung, Padaung and other minor groups that have not embraced Buddhism as their religion. Some Shans and Karens are Buddhist, but many others are animist and they are looked down upon by the Buddhist Myanmarese. Also, the Buddhist majority look down upon the Muslims, even though they are ethnically Myanmarese. This is the root of the problem. If the Myanmar army does not step down from its assumed superior position of an upper class Buddhist majority and does not agree to treat the humbler groups who are animist like the Wa, Kokang and the Christian Karens and the Muslim Myanmarese as equals, the Nationwide Cease fire Agreement is not going to be signed.
By EN Rammohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF)