High Stakes in Myanmar’s Peace Process

The Myanmar government has pursued more than a dozen rounds of cease-fire talks with the country’s major armed ethnic groups over the past three years but has missed the timetable for achieving a nationwide cease-fire agreement several times.

The government’s chief negotiator, Aung Min, recently said he hopes to conclude such an agreement in September and begin political dialogue with ethnic groups in early 2015.

Ethnic leaders on Aug.15 announced the government had agreed to include in the draft agreement a pledge to adopt a federal system –one of their key and longstanding demands –moving the two sides one step closer to a much-anticipated cease-fire deal. This time, however, the stakes are much higher, as the 2015 general elections and the uncertainty that a new government may bring begin to loom large.

Without a lasting peace with ethnic minority groups, who make up around 40 percent of the population, any future administration will have difficulty ensuring a nationwide buy-in for its reform agenda and providing the political stability needed to manage and develop the country’s resource-rich frontiers, where most ethnic groups are located.

The peace process has taken on added importance amid concerns that reforms have stalled—some say backslid—over the past year. Nearly all of the country’s registered political parties recently urged the government to wrap up the nationwide cease-fire agreement and start political dialogue with ethnic groups as soon as possible.

Myanmar’s previous military regimes signed numerous bilateral cease-fires with ethnic rebels, but never agreed to the idea of a nationwide cease-fire deal or reached a political agreement to address the fundamental causes behind the armed ethnic conflicts, including a form of federalism, political and economic power sharing, equal rights, and self-determination for ethnic groups. This was due to the ingrained mistrust between the military and ethnic minorities as well as distrust and rivalry among leaders of these groups.

The peace talks launched under President Thein Sein in 2011 have been different from previous rounds. Thein Sein’s administration has invested in building trust with ethnic groups while seeking to involve players beyond the military, including government agencies at the state and union levels and the nascent legislature, to be stakeholders in the process. Meanwhile, armed ethnic groups have come together under the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) to collectively negotiate with the government’s team.

The government has signed bilateral cease-fires with 14 of 16 major ethnic armies and is in the process of negotiating a nationwide cease-fire draft with the NCCT. The two sides in April issued a single cease-fire draft text identifying their respective positions. And while ethnic groups initially viewed the Thein Sein government with suspicion, many have come to regard Aung Min as a credible stakeholder and government representative with whom they can discuss their concerns and demands.

The recent announcement by the ethnic leaders represents a major milestone in the peace process and a significant concession by the government, which had previously insisted that ethnic leaders’ demands for a federal union and equal minority rights be discussed at a later stage following the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement.

The apparent agreement (details are still scarce and the term “federalism” can mean many different things) may have been driven by the urgency not to miss another deadline before the fever of the elections, expected in November 2015, and political jockeying seriously kick in. The government and most ethnic groups seem to understand the uncertainty that a new administration may create for locking in the progress made under the current negotiations.

Aung Min has said the government is looking to start talks on the political framework in parallel with the ongoing cease-fire talks, with plans to launch a political dialogue within 90 days of signing the nationwide cease-fire agreement. The purpose of meetings on the political framework is to discuss issues including implementation and monitoring mechanisms of the nationwide cease-fire and the agenda of and participants in the national political dialogue.

Although some ethnic groups may not be entirely convinced the current government can satisfy all of their demands under a nationwide cease-fire, they may realize that a new leadership—meaning possibly a new president, a new commander in chief (who will be appointed in 2015), and a new peace negotiating team—may not be as accommodating as the current team.

While there have been recent encouraging signs, Myanmar’s history suggests there is no firm guarantee that the current peace process’s early successes can be preserved or that a nationwide cease-fire agreement, if signed, can be maintained over the long haul.

When Secretary of State John Kerry was in Myanmar for the ASEAN Regional Forum in early August, he reaffirmed that the United States will not turn a blind eye to critical reform issues in Myanmar. Kerry voiced concerns over human rights violations, communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state and other areas, and constitutional amendments. He also discussed the remaining U.S. sanctions against Myanmar and the importance of the 2015 elections in the country’s reform process.

The peace process deserves keen attention, as its fate will determine whether Myanmar will achieve sustainable peace for its peoples and escape from the cycle of decades-long civil wars. The United States should continue to show its support for the earliest conclusion of a nationwide cease-fire agreement and urge that the outlines of political dialogue be launched ahead of the 2015 elections.

For starters, regardless of whether Aung Min and the ethnic groups are able to deliver a signed nationwide cease-fire in the coming weeks, President Barack Obama should raise the profile of the peace process when he meets with Myanmar officials during the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw in November. The president and other U.S. policymakers should continue to stress that the United States will look at the status of the peace-building effort as a critical benchmark in the overall reform process and in assessing future U.S. engagement with the Myanmar government. No matter what path Myanmar takes after 2015, Washington should make clear, especially to the country’s military leaders, that it supports a sustainable political, as opposed to military, solution to the country’s armed ethnic conflicts.

In the near to immediate term, it is important that Washington maintains and seeks to expand diplomatic support and assistance programs designed to help foster trust between Myanmar’s ethnic groups and the government, and empower civil society groups to fully participate in the country’s peace-building initiatives and future political dialogue. Myanmar ethnic leaders have said they would like to have U.S. observers, along with representatives from ASEAN, China, Japan, India, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations, present at the signing of the nationwide cease-fire accord, a call Washington should consider, assuming the government agrees to this grouping.

Even if the nationwide cease-fire agreement can be reached before the end of the year, the next major challenge will be getting the political dialogue launched and allowing it to take root before President Thein Sein’s current term expires in early 2016. The road to achieving a lasting political solution to Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts will be long and difficult, and it is important that the United States and other countries that are serious about supporting Myanmar’s democratic transition channel as much attention and as many resources as possible to help ensure the peace process stays on track.

Murray Hiebert is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director (@MurrayHiebert1), and Phuong Nguyen (@PNguyen_DC) is a Research Associate at The Center for Strategic and International Studies, which made this report available to Asia Sentinel