After two years of negotiations, Myanmar's government signed a ceasefire agreement with eight local ethnic armed groups on Thursday morning, one of the nation's largest peace deals since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. But the deal fell far short of the hoped-for nationwide ceasefire.
In September, seven members of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) backed out of the agreement after the government and its military, known as the Tatmadaw, refused to recognize three ethnic armed groups as part of the official negotiation team. The eight groups that signed the deal were among the 15 original members of the NCCT.
The signing took place in Myanmar's capital of Naypyidaw, with President Thein Sein, Myanmar Armed Forces commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, parliamentary leaders, and the leaders of the eight ethnic armed groups participating. The signing was witnessed by a United Nations envoy and delegations from China, India, and Thailand. Also in attendance were delegates from the United States, Japan, Norway, and the UK.
"The nationwide ceasefire agreement is a historic gift from us to our generations of the future," Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, said at the signing ceremony. "This is our heritage. The road to future peace in Myanmar is now open." He said he would continue with efforts to convince other groups to join the ceasefire later.
As hopeful as Thein Sein is about expanding the ceasefire agreement, it won't be a simple process. The groups that abstained did so because of the government's refusal to acknowledge three other ethnic armed groups — the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Arakan Army, and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) — who are currently engaged in heavy fighting against Myanmar's Armed Forces, officially known as the Tatmadaw, in northern Shan State.
But the failure to include these ethnic armed groups in the agreement isn't the only reason the others refused to sign the ceasefire, and there are rumors that China may have influenced some groups, pressuring them not to sign.
As for the groups that did sign, their relationships with the government won't be smooth sailing just because of the ceasefire. Though they have all signed what is still being referred to as the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, few groups can be said to stand firmly behind the deal as it exists now.
"The groups that agreed to sign are not a monolithic bloc," said Phuong Nguyen, a research associate for the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "There's a general recognition among them that only peace with the government and a political solution on issues of power sharing can bring about development in their own ethnic states."
Nguyen added that the Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest ethnic armed group in Myanmar, played a big role in convincing other groups to take part in the ceasefire talks.
"But inside the KNU, the decision to sign the [ceasefire agreement] was extremely controversial, with hardline leaders feeling that putting the KNU's signature on this ceasefire would be tantamount to betraying ethnic interests," she said.
Despite the fact that only eight of the 18 ethnic armed groups who had been involved in the peace talks signed the accord, it has already been hailed as a great victory and a shining historical moment in Myanmar's quest to end nearly 70 years of conflict within its borders.
"How many sign is not important," Thein Sein said. "How we implement the negotiated terms is more important. If we can implement it, the other groups will sign, too."
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But not everyone believes that a partial peace deal can really be considered a victory.
"If just these eight groups sign, how can we solve the civil war in Burma?" Tar Parn La, chief of the foreign department for the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, asked VICE News. "We want an inclusive NCA. If we leave some groups behind, how can we have a political dialogue and be happy? At the same time, we are in the political dialogue, [yet] our friends are dying on the ground. We don't want that kind of situation again."
This is what happened a little more than 20 years ago, Tar Parn La said, when many ethnic armed groups signed ceasefire deals with the now-former military regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Groups like the Kachin Independence Army and the Palaung State Liberation Army, the predecessor to the TNLA, abandoned the Karen National Union and the Karen National Liberation Army for ceasefire deals with SLORC. The result was devastating for the KNU and KNLA. They lost their stronghold in Manerplaw, and many Karen villages were burned to the ground, sending thousands of Karen civilians fleeing to refugee camps along the Thai/Myanmar border, and creating a refugee crisis that still has not been solved.
The decisions about signing the ceasefire aren't made in a vacuum. While things have changed since the Karen refugee crisis began, the agreement will still have an impact on Burmese citizens.
Yaw Htung, a program manager at the Ethnic National Affairs Center, believes that the Kachin Independence Organization is doing the right thing by abstaining from signing the accord.
"I feel it is positive," Htung told VICE News. "I hope that other civilians will also accept it just like me, because that is what the [people] want — not to sign unless there is a political guarantee and all the [ethnic armed groups] are included."
However, Htung doesn't deny that this strategy could be problematic on the ground and lead to heavier fighting.
In recent weeks, the Tatmadaw has ramped up its campaign against the ethnic armed groups in many areas across Kachin and Shan States, leading to near-daily clashes with groups like the Kachin Independence Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Arakan Army, and the TNLA. There have also been scuffles between the Tadmadaw and the Shan State Army-North, who've had a bilateral ceasefire agreement since 2011.
While the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is a good start, there is still a long road ahead for all parties involved in Myanmar's peace process. Issues like deployment of military forces to avoid confrontation, protection of civilians, and joint ceasefire monitoring still need to be ironed out, but the most important phase of the peace process is the start of political dialogue between the ceasefire signatories, which is supposed to begin within 90 days of the signing of the agreement.
In the meantime, the government is gearing up for nationwide elections, scheduled for November 8.
"Having a ceasefire in place [will] help pave the way for elections to take place in many ethnic areas later this year," Nguyen said. "Excluding large swaths of ethnic voters, who make up as much as 40 percent of the population, [would] severely damage the credibility of the elections."
She also noted that, unless the government can be assured that ethnic troops will be disarmed ahead of the polls or will not use their troops to interfere in any way, it might not be confident enough to let voting go ahead in many ethnic areas, as happened with the 2010 elections.
"There are already reports that elections will not take place in areas of Shan State that are controlled by the United Wa State Army, the Kokang, and the Mongla for security reasons," she said.
The United Wa State Party has had a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government since 1989, so they felt no need to sign on to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The Kokang and Mongla, on the other hand, have no agreements with the government, and the Kokang has continued to battle the Tatmadaw throughout the peace process.
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