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Can Anyone Put Myanmar Back Together Again?

After decades of bilateral ceasefires with different ethnic groups, the government has been pushing for a national agreement. But they're not offering much incentive.

by Raymond Pagnucco
Feb 11 2015, 9:40pm

Photo by Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Over the last few years, Myanmar's quasi-civilian government, along with its military, have been negotiating with Myanmar's 16 major ethnic rebel groups to end the fighting that has plagued the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1948. Despite these efforts, the largest armed faction, the United Wa State Army — and its political counterpart, the United Wa State Party — have been skipping the talks, sending only an occasional observer.

Over the last 67 years of internal unrest in the country, there have actually been a number of bilateral ceasefire agreements signed between the Burmese central government and individual ethnic rebel groups and militias. But there has never been a nationwide agreement to end fighting. Most of the bilateral deals ended hostilities between the army and the rebel groups in exchange for lucrative business deals and promises of civil development in rebel-held areas. These deals have tended to break down over mistrust and broken promises. That, in turn, has led to more fighting.

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The 1989 ceasefire agreement with the Wa is an example of this kind of agreement. The Wa promised to end hostilities toward the government and sever ties with other ethnic rebels. In exchange, they received unofficial permission to engage in any kind of business they wanted. The most popular business in the Wa hills? The production of opium, heroin, and (more recently) meth.

In the quarter century since that bilateral ceasefire was signed, the Wa have carved out two large areas inside Myanmar's Shan State. One sits on the Chinese border to the north, the second sits long the Thai border in the southeastern part of the state. Both areas are governed and run by the Wa State Party. The autonomy granted by the Burmese government in their ceasefire is so complete that the government presence has been reduced to just one liaison office — effectively an embassy — in the Wa capital of Panghsang.

The Wa leadership actually has a better relationship with Beijing than they do with the Myanmar government.

Over the last three years, the new civilian government and military have been trying to shore up bilateral ceasefire agreements with various ethnic militias in order to improve relations with the West and help end the sanctions that have isolated the country economically since 1988. But the recent push for a comprehensive national ceasefire faces many obstacles, not least of which is the military's Six Points Proposal. It requires ceasefire signatories to accept the 2008 constitution, which includes a provision that absolves the military from any wrongdoing committed since it took power in 1962. In addition, the constitution is seen by many as leaving the military in charge of the country behind the scenes despite the election of an ostensibly independent civilian government.

The constitution proviso is a big reason why the Wa are keeping their distance. Despite the 26-year-long (and counting) ceasefire agreement between the Wa and the central government, the relationship is tenuous at best, and the Wa leadership actually has a better relationship with Beijing than they do with the Myanmar government. Beijing's relationship with the Wa goes back to 1989, when the Wa mutinied against the Communist Party of Burma, and today the Wa receive significant Chinese support in the form of civil and military technical advice, aid, investment, and arms.

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February 12 is Union Day in Myanmar, which marks the signing of the Panglong agreement in 1947. That marked the first attempt to bring the country's warring people together into a peaceful political union. This year's celebration was also when officials had hoped to conclude negotiations on a new national unity agreement. Recently however, the Kachin, Karen, and other ethnic groups have said they won't sign the agreement, which may be moot if the Wa don't budge.

And between Chinese backing, an army of 30,000, and a healthy cash flow stemming from unfettered drug production, the Wa won't be compelled to pull up to the negotiating table on Union Day — or any time soon.

Follow Raymond Pagnucco on Twitter: @RaymondPagnucco