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What Myanmar's truce means

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezOctober 15, 2015

After decades of conflict, Myanmar's government and eight smaller armed ethnic minority parties have signed a ceasefire pact. But key rebel groups have refused to join. DW speaks to Jasmin Lorch about the implications.

Myanmar Friedensabkommen unterzeichnet in Naypyitaw
Image: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

In a step towards ending more than 60 years of civil war, Myanmar's President Thein Sein and representatives of the eight ethnic minority rebel groups signed the pact on October 15 at a ceremony in the Southeast Asian nation's administrative capital, Naypyidaw.

The truce, a key goal of the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) ahead of the November 8 general election, enables the groups involved to begin political dialogue with the government. However, hopes of a nationwide ceasefire were dashed as several other rebel groups such as the Kachin Independence Army refused to join the deal.

Since 2011, Thein Sein's quasi-civilian administration has been trying to install a nationwide ceasefire by concluding bilateral ceasefire deals and holding talks with numerous ethnic groups who have fought the Burmese-majority government in the north, northeast and east of the country over issues such as autonomy and control over their natural resources.

Jasmin Lorch, a Myanmar expert at the Germany-based GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, talks in a DW interview about the significance of the limited truce and the ambivalent effects it may have on the ongoing peace process as a whole.

Jasmin Lorch Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
'The ceasefire agreement can play out in both ways,' says LorchImage: SWP

DW: How important is this deal for the stability of Myanmar?

The so-called National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which the government and some ethnic groups recently signed, can play out in both ways. On the one hand, it does constitute an important political signal that the government and the Myanmar army, which was a signatory to the treaty, are really serious about ending the country's civil wars. This may send a positive message to some other ethnic groups and the majority Burmese population as well, giving the peace process a new boost.

On the other hand, the deal also has the potential of endangering the current peace process and may even lead to more conflict. Some ethnic groups have been excluded from it; others have refused to sign it.

Against this backdrop, many ethnic groups may come to see the deal as an effort by the government to divide and weaken the ethnic groups. If this happens, some politically and militarily important ethnic groups may either leave the negotiating table or refuse to join the peace process in the first place.

What exactly does the agreement entail?

It entails a number of political principles that are to guide the peace process as it goes on. Some of these principles speak to the interests of the ethnic groups. For instance, there are references to the recognition of cultural diversity.

Other principles, however, clearly carry the signature of the Myanmar military. For instance, there is a strong emphasis on national unity and sovereignty. The agreement also entails provisions for trust-building measures in ceasefire areas.

But there are no provisions for independent monitoring of ceasefires. So far, there has been no agreement whatsoever on key political issues such as federal constitutional reforms. These subjects have been left to the political dialogue that is expected to follow the signing of the NCA.

What sort of changes could the deal bring about in rebel-controlled areas?

In the short term, the situation on the ground in ethnic areas is unlikely to change much. All the groups that signed the NCA had bilateral ceasefires with the government in place. In fact, this was a precondition for them to be able to sign the NCA, which does not override those pre-existing bilateral ceasefire deals.

What did the government offer the rebel groups to bring about the deal?

The signing of this agreement is to be followed by political dialogue over key issues, such as the establishment of a federal system, the question of whether and to what extent the ethnic parties will be allowed to keep their own armies, etc. The prospect of being involved in this political dialogue was a major motivation for some ethnic groups to sign the deal.

But there is a huge problem here: So far, the government insists that only those groups who signed the NCA will be allowed to participate in the political dialogue afterwards. This means that some very important ethnic groups may be left out of the political dialogue. This, in turn, can lead to divisions among the ethnic groups and endanger the whole peace process.

As you have already stated, larger armies, such as those of the Kachin and Wa ethnic groups, refused to sign the deal. Why and what does this mean for the peace process?

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is one of the most important armed groups in Myanmar, and its military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is believed to have over 4,000 soldiers. Up to now, the KIO does not have a bilateral ceasefire with the government, and fighting between the Myanmar military and the KIA is still ongoing in many parts of Kachin State.

Nevertheless, the KIO took part in the peace negotiations the government held with well over a dozen armed ethnic groups over the past years. But one of the main reasons why the KIO and other ethnic groups who participated in the peace talks chose not to sign the NCA is that they see it as non-inclusive.

Most notably, the government has prohibited some smaller ethnic groups to sign the agreement. One of them is the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) whose troops have been involved in heavy fighting with the Myanmar army this year.

What about the Wa ethnic group?

With an estimated 20,000 soldiers and around 10,000 militiamen, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is the militarily strongest ethnic armed group in the country. It has a bilateral ceasefire with the government but has not actively participated in multilateral peace talks between the government and the ethnic groups as of yet.

Due to its military capacity, the UWSA can rule its territory in a highly autonomous manner. To a certain extent, this is true for other ethnic groups, such as the KIO, as well. Many of them have established para-state structures, such as their own bureaucracies and their own ministries.

What does this mean for the prospects for a nationwide peace deal?

The NCA that was signed today is national in name but not in substance. The fact that the government went ahead with the deal even though some of the most important armed ethnic groups refused to sign it may have very negative repercussions on the peace process.

The ethnic groups are already deeply divided over the deal. If disunity between the ethnic groups increases, the whole peace process may be delegitimized and put into question. According to the government's plan, only those groups who signed the NCA will be allowed to participate in the subsequent political dialogue, which, in fact, will constitute the core of the ongoing peace talks.

Many powerful ethnic groups will likely perceive the government's decision to push ahead with the NCA at this stage as a deliberate strategy of divide and rule employed by the government for the purpose of weakening the ethnic groups.

Kachin Women's Association of Thailand
The conflict in Kachin state in northern Myanmar has been one of the main obstacles in reaching a nationwide ceasefire dealImage: KWAT

The agreement comes after more than six decades of fighting. Is it a coincidence the deal was announced just weeks before a crucial general election?

The government has always wanted to sign the deal before the elections in a bid to increase its control over ethnic territories and gain popular support. Some ethnic groups have criticized the government heavily for this.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition party, also refused to sign the deal as a witness, citing its non-inclusive nature. So, in fact, both the USDP and the NLD may try to make a campaign issue out of the deal and use it in order to gain support and attack each other. But this would not help the peace process in the long-term.

Jasmin Lorch is a research fellow at the Germany-based GIGA Institute of Asian Studies.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.