Glimmer of Hope for Myanmar’s Ethnic Conflicts?

After more than six decades of internal armed conflict, the next four weeks could be decisive for the attempt to solve Myanmar’s bitter conflicts with its myriad armed ethnic groups, according to a new report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The peace process was launched in August of 2011 when President Thein Sein made achieving peace a key priority of his administration. In two speeches in August 2011, he stated that he was “holding out an olive branch”to the rebels. Although it found some initial success, signing a nationwide ceasefire and opening a full political dialogue has been much more difficult, according to the IGC’s report, released on Sept. 17.

“Four years on, with campaigning for the November elections already underway, a deal remains elusive,” the report notes. “It is unclear whether a breakthrough can be achieved before the elections. Outside pressure will not be productive, but the progress to date needs to be locked in, and public international commitments to support the integrity of the process and stand with the groups that sign can now be of critical importance.

President Thein Sein met with a delegation of the rebels on Sept. 9 in the country’s administrative capital of Naypyidaw in what is regarded as a last-ditch effort to sign a ceasefire agreement before the elections.

“While both sides showed flexibility and avoided deadlock, no conclusive agreement was reached. Further discussions among armed group leaders and with government negotiators will be needed to determine which groups will sign and to fix a date for the ceremony, foreshadowed for early October. Hopes had risen on Mar. 31, when negotiators finalized and initialed a proposed agreement that had been approved at the highest levels of government.

“However, a summit of armed group leaders rejected it on 9 June, proposing several further amendments and establishing a new negotiating team. They also decided that no group would sign unless all did, including three currently fighting the military in the Kokang region, who, the government insists, must lay down their weapons or agree bilateral ceasefires first.”

Nonetheless, the two sides have worked hard to revive the process, the IGC said, and two further rounds of talks were held in July and August. A slightly revised ceasefire agreement was finalized, leaving the issue of which armed groups could sign the text as the last significant point of contention. Some armed groups signaled their willingness to sign while others stuck to their position that any signing must be inclusive.

The meeting with the president was intended to forge a compromise to overcome this last hurdle. But despite long and detailed discussions, doubts persist about which groups will sign, and when. Key will be the Kachin Independence Organization, which is in a particularly difficult position. A bold decision and strong leadership will be required if it is to overcome its concerns.

“What transpires in the peace process has important implications for the elections in ethnic areas. A nationwide ceasefire would boost trust between the armed groups and the government. The lack of a deal would make it significantly more challenging to arrange voting in conflict-affected areas and mean polling is likely to be cancelled in more places, increasing the risk of clashes or electoral security problems.”

Many of the obstacles will remain including a mutual trust deficit and ongoing fighting. The new administration will likely appoint a new lead negotiator, a military reshuffle has seen senior officers involved in the process retiring, and there will undoubtedly be new legislative representatives, requiring new faces that will need to gain trust.

“Progress at that point is unlikely to be quick or easy,” the report continues. “This is not a perfect or even strong ceasefire agreement: military issues such as force separation, demarcation and verification are vague, not included, or require further agreement to come into force. It nevertheless represents a major success given the complex situation. If signed, it could pave the way for a more comprehensive political settlement. If not, the risk is that an inevitable loss of momentum in the peace process could precipitate an upsurge in armed clashes and less effective means to de-escalate them.”

Failure to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement before the elections “would be a lost opportunity for a country mired in internal armed conflict for more than six decades,” the report concludes. “While the text is far from perfect and many concerns of armed group leaders are understandable, a decision not to sign carries potentially greater risks. With elections less than two months away, a long hiatus in the peace process is inevitable.”

But with no ceasefire in place, this period will be all the more fraught, and it is far from clear that a better ceasefire deal will be on the table. “Indeed, there is serious risk that conflict could escalate, further setting back the process. Postelection political realities will also complicate the situation. A rare moment of relative unity within the government and among armed groups has not yet translated into a signed agreement. It may be much harder to re-establish it to secure a deal in the post-election environment.

“Without this, the hopes of ethnic communities for a stable peace and a negotiated settlement to their longstanding grievances may not be realized, with the risk of the borderlands remaining marginalised and mired in greater insecurity.”