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Asia

Myanmar draft ceasefire - Reason to be 'cautiously optimistic'

In a bid to end decades of conflict, Myanmar's government and 16 ethnic rebel groups have agreed on a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement. Analyst Phuong Nguyen talks to DW about the significance of the deal.

After seven rounds of negotiation, Myanmar President Thein Sein witnessed on March 31 the signing of a draft national ceasefire with armed rebel groups hailed by the United Nations as a "historic and significant achievement." The tentative deal, which doesn't include the rebels fighting government forces in parts of Shan state, will be presented to the leaders of 16 ethnic armed groups in each of their regions. The Myanmar Peace Center, which mediated the pact, will announce when and where the final agreement will be signed.

Myanmar is home to some of world's longest-running civil wars, going as far back as six decades. The agreement has been at the core of President Thein Sein's government efforts since taking office in 2011 after decades of military rule.

He pledged to make the ethnic issue a national priority and offered to sit down with dozens of ethnic armed groups on the premise that the country's ethnic conflicts should be resolved through political rather than military solutions.

In a DW interview, Phuong Nguyen, a Myanmar expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, says that the government and ethnic armed groups were able to hammer out this agreement partly by kicking some of the more controversial issues down the road. The analyst, however, adds that if both sides can reach a ceasefire accord, it will help pave the way for elections to be held in previously conflict areas in ethnic states.

Phuong Nguyen Expertin für Südostasien

Nguyen: 'The agreement is significant in that all sides represented at the table agreed on the content of the draft ceasefire text'

DW: How important is this ceasefire agreement?

Phuong Nguyen: The agreement is significant in that the government and all the ethnic armed groups that were represented at the table agreed on the content of the draft ceasefire text. Myanmar is home to some of world's longest-running civil wars, going as far back as six decades.

The original plan was to finalize all of the bilateral ceasefires by the end of 2013, hold a political dialogue in 2014, and reach political agreements with ethnic armed groups in 2015. However, one obstacle after another has beset the ceasefire process, including disagreements over the content of the text and protracted fighting in some parts of Myanmar. That's why the recent agreement was hailed as a landmark.

But we should be cautiously optimistic. The deal was only signed between the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents 16 ethnic armed groups, and the government's peacemaking team. Both sides attached great importance to the latest round of talks.

But while the government indicated it was ready to sign the text into a nationwide peace accord, the NCCT calls this a provisional agreement that it still needs to take to the leaders of its member groups for their approval. Also, there were some armed groups that weren't at the table. In addition, the two sides got to this agreement partly by kicking some of the more controversial issues down the road.

What had been the main points of contention?

On the text, the main points of contention had included the implementation of the ceasefire once it is signed into force and issues on how to transition from wartime to peacetime, such as what is a code of conduct that both government troops and ethnic armies could abide by, how to manage potential clashes, and what are the mechanisms for jointly monitoring the ceasefire.

For example, the government wanted to make sure that ethnic rebels stop recruiting and expanding their troops after signing the ceasefire and ethnic rebels wanted to retain their rights to tax local populations as they did during times of conflict.

The two sides also negotiated at length about what should be on the agenda of the political dialogue, which is the next step in the peace process following the ceasefire, and how ethnic groups will be represented at those talks.

Another controversial issue is the ethnic armed groups insist on having a federal army - as a way to reintegrate their troops - if they are going to stay in the Union of Myanmar peacefully. But military leaders cannot accept such an outcome, because the Myanmar armed forces already have an established command structure in place.

Thein Sein Präsident von Birma Myanmar

'The government of President Thein Sein has recognized the ethnic armed groups' demand for federalism as part of the peace talks'

The government's position is that if a country practices federalism, its army is a federal army. As for ethnic groups, they cannot agree among themselves on what they mean by a federal army. So both sides agreed to discuss this issue later on. On the signatories, the government still refuses to recognize some armed groups in the NCCT.

The NCCT, however, said that if its leaders are going to sign a nationwide accord with Naypyidaw, all of its members should be part of it.

What did President Thein Sein offer the rebel groups to seal the deal?

After negotiating Myanmar's independence from Britain in 1947, the country's founding father General Aung San - who is the father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi - promised to set up a federal union with ethnic groups in which they would have had autonomy in their own territories and affairs.

But following his death, the military went against those terms and sought to build a centralized state, as it equated autonomy for ethnic states with the disintegration of Myanmar. That's how ethnic armed conflicts erupted in the first place.

The government of President Thein Sein has recognized the ethnic armed groups' demand for federalism as part of the peace talks. The two sides agreed to build a union based on democracy and federal principles to follow their political dialogue.

This concession was extremely important in giving ethnic leaders confidence to move the ceasefire process forward. Of course, how political power and resources will be administered is an issue that still needs to be worked out.

How damaging is the fact that rebels from Kokang did not attend the talks?

From the government's perspective, I believe the absence of the Kokang is something they can live with. At present, the military seems determined to win back the Kokang Special Region, where fighting between government troops and a faction of the Kokang army broke out in February, through force rather than through talks.

The government has refused the Kokang's proposal to sit down for dialogue. There were allegations that the Kokang might have received assistance from actors inside China, and the government is united in sending the message that such acts will not be tolerated. Officially, Naypyidaw's chief peace negotiator Aung Min said that time is running short to include all ethnic armed groups.

But for the NCCT, the Kokang is one of their members which has not been represented at the negotiating table. And this goes back to the contention over whether the leaders of groups in the NCCT will be willing to sign a peace accord that excludes some of their fellow members.

While many have come into the political fold for peace deals, sporadic outbreaks of violence have continued. How far is this agreement likely to last?

It is hard to say. The conflict in Kachin state in northern Myanmar in particular has been one of the main obstacles in reaching a nationwide ceasefire deal. Reasons for clashes have ranged from the more technical such as a lack of clear demarcation between government-controlled areas and Kachin-controlled areas, to the more political such as who has control over the resources business. The Kachin Independence Organization is part of the NCCT, so addressing these issues in a way that all stakeholders find acceptable will be the key.

At this point, we are still waiting to see whether the two sides can take this draft text and sign it into an official nationwide accord, now scheduled for sometime in April. For combatant groups that are outside the NCCT and with which the government does not have ceasefires, this agreement has little impact on preventing future clashes.

What impact is this deal likely to have on upcoming elections?

If the government and ethnic armed groups can reach a ceasefire accord, it will help pave the way for elections to be held in previously conflict areas in ethnic states. During the last national elections in 2010, the government did not allow voting in many townships in five ethnic states due to its fear that ethnic armies could have been used to threaten voters.

Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT)

'The conflict in Kachin state in northern Myanmar has been one of the main obstacles in reaching a nationwide ceasefire deal'

Since 2011, the government has signed ceasefires with a number of groups, and the Kachin Independence Organization was the last major holdout. This agreement would see large parts of Kachin, Karenni, and Karen states being able to vote. And making this happen is very much in Naypyidaw's interest, as it needs to show the international community that the 2015 elections are as inclusive and credible as possible.

On a larger scale, the stability and hopefully decrease in instances of human rights abuses in conflict areas that potentially result from the nationwide ceasefire is vital for Myanmar in a year that could make or break its reform process as well as reputation. The current state of things is still fragile.

Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).