After nearly two years of negotiations, Myanmar's hopes for a nationwide ceasefire have collapsed, and on Sunday, it was announced that only eight of the original 15 planned signatories intend to sign off on a proposed ceasefire agreement.
Touted as the country's best chance at peace in more than 60 years, the ceasefire talks finally fell apart after a meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, last week, when delegates from 18 different ethnic armed groups failed to reach a consensus on whether to sign the peace accord with the Burmese government ahead of scheduled November elections.
The various ethnic groups, which make up more than 30 percent of Myanmar's population, have been waging a continuous battle against the Burmese government since the country achieved independence from Britain in 1948. At the beginning of the insurgency, the government promised the ethnic groups broad regional autonomy, as well as a separate Kachin State for the largest minority group. However, in the ensuing decades, the government has failed to deliver on either promise.
In 2011, military rule of Myanmar ended, and talks between the government and armed groups began in earnest for the first time in nearly half a century. Relations, however, have remained rocky at best, and the government hoped that a nationwide ceasefire would allow the various sides to come together to discuss further political reforms. So far, the ethnic armed groups have shown a mostly united front, forming the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team to represent them in the peace talks, but the government has been less than willing to view all ethnic groups as equals.
The main stumbling point in the ceasefire agreement remains the inclusion of three ethnic armed groups — the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army, and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army — who are all currently engaged in heavy fighting against Myanmar's military, better known as the Tatmadaw, in northern Shan State.
The government doesn't recognize these three groups as part of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team and has barred them from signing the ceasefire agreement unless they first sign separate bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government and military, a precondition that has not been levied against other armed groups and that is seen as a ploy to divide the unified ethnic groups.
For the last few months, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team has pushed for an all-encompassing ceasefire agreement that would include the other three groups currently fighting in Shan State, but to no avail.
"There is really an air of desperation around the [ceasefire agreement]," said David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
One of the reasons the government wants to get the ceasefire agreement inked before November, he explained, is to garner praise for the president and the military, which they believe will help the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in the upcoming elections.
But that's not the only reason the government and the military want the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed as soon as possible, Mathieson said. The existing government is worried about holding onto their power through the November elections, and they don't want politicians who might be more sympathetic to the ethnic rebels' demands for peace, like Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, involved in the negotiations.
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"The [ruling] Union Solidarity and Development Party is keen on "quick wins," both to appease the domestic political base and in response to pressure from the international community," said Suzanne Kelly-Lyall, a policy advisor who specializes in South East Asian politics and security issues. "The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, if successful, will be a concrete accomplishment and help cement (current president) Thein Sein's leadership. The insularity is intentional."
Although the government was unable to convince the entirety of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team to agree to sign the accord, the government still scored a small victory by getting the influential Karen National Union to back the existing ceasefire agreement.
The Karen National Union (KNU) is seen as the mother of revolution in Myanmar and has been waging an insurgency aimed at gaining autonomy for the Karen people and their for more than six decades. Though still considered a powerful and influential group, the KNU began to fall on hard times after they lost their stronghold of Manerplaw in 1995, causing the group to fracture over hard feelings and religious lines. Though the KNU and their armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, once controlled large portions of Southeastern Myanmar, today they only control pockets of territory along the Thai/Burmese border and field a militia of barely 3,000 men.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), another influential group on the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, has, on the other hand, chosen to abstain from signing the agreement. The KIO are currently engaged in heavy fighting with the Tatmadaw; the government broke their bilateral ceasefire four years ago. They've stated that they will not sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement until all groups who are currently fighting are included in the agreement.
"Ultimately, a successful peace process must persuade all parties that more is to be gained through participation than from exclusion," Kelly-Lyall said. "At this point, it is unclear if groups such as the KIO believe the [ceasefire] will deliver — they need to be persuaded that the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party's Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement deal promises more than "frenemy" status. The eight armed groups have made a calculation that their rejection of the deal en masse gains them more bargaining chips, as the Union Solidarity and Development Party is under pressure from the international community to reach a pre-election deal."
Despite the apparent split between the armed groups over the signing of the ceasefire agreement, the agreement's real weakness goes much deeper, Mathieson says.
"You can't just go, 'Let's all take a leap of faith,' sign a framework between these groups, and then have a political dialogue," he said. "You need to have the political dialogue first, talk about the grievances and try to iron out what the differences are, and then try to map out a solution before you sign a ceasefire or peace agreement."
"Peace can succeed," Mathieson continued. "I think it would take a different approach to the one that has been seen over the past three years, and that requires far more people around the country to be involved in the process."
While it's unlikely that a true nationwide ceasefire will be achieved prior to the November elections, at least eight groups — including the powerful KNU — are expected to sign the proposed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement on October 15.
"We will keep inviting all ethnic armed groups to sign," Hia Maung Shwe, a senior member of the government's negotiating team, said.
And who knows, there's always a small chance that they'll all come around before then.
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