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Why Talks to End Myanmar’s Civil War Need Help From a Lucky White Elephant

As the country enters another round of negotiations that seek to bring an end to more than 60 years of conflict, they could certainly use a bit of good fortune.

by Raymond Pagnucco
Mar 25 2015, 7:18pm

Photo by Raymond Pagnucco

On March 1, a rare white elephant was captured in Myanmar's western Ayeyarwaddy region, bringing to nine the total number of captive white elephants living in the country formerly called Burma. The animals are a traditional symbol of power, prosperity, and national sovereignty, and many still believe they bring good luck. As the country enters another round of talks that seek to bring an end to more than 60 years of civil war, they could certainly use a bit of good fortune.

Myanmar embarked on a program of major political reform in 2010, holding its first political elections since 1961 and freeing many political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But since then, there's been less cause for optimism.

Two weeks ago, Myanmar's European Union-trained police force brutally cracked down on peaceful student protests. The protests in Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city, began in November and were prompted by a controversial education bill that students say curbed academic freedom.

The fighting in the country's northern Shan state widened when the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (the MDNAA or Kokang) attacked Burmese police outposts in the region, adding fuel to the many tense and complex civil conflicts that continue to rage.

Related: Video shows Myanmar police beating students and monks at education bill protest 

Despite these setbacks, peace efforts have continued. Last week, the group representing 16 of the country's major ethnic groups, the National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), met in Yangon with their government counterparts, the Union Peacemaking Work Committee and its technical team, the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC). The groups met for the first time since September to revive the stalled ceasefire talks. Although the government and various rebel groups have previously negotiated separate bilateral ceasefire deals in the past, these negotiations are intended to go beyond creating a peace and jumpstart the process of nation building.

The proposed ceasefire is backed not only by Myanmar's military (also known as the Tatmadaw) and civilian government, but also by most ethnic rebel groups. The EU and Japan have provided around $30 million to help the negotiations, which are being held in a sprawling complex of buildings in Yangon's Dagon neighborhood, built especially for these talks.

Lingering questions remain about establishing a healthy political dialogue in any future inclusive government, and there's still uncertainty about how the ceasefire is supposed to coalesce. Mistrust and old, unresolved grudges are a problem.

"One of the major stumbling points is the Tatmadaw's demands and the redeployment of troops," NCCT chairman Nai Han Tha told VICE News. "At the same time [the Tatmadaw] would like us not to entrench our troops and stop recruiting new troops."

These demands from the military — a major power in Burmese politics — are significant. The deployment and disposition of the armies built up by rebel ethnic groups are a point of contention.

The military claims the scaling down of rebel forces is a way to reduce tensions, but the rebels believe it's a way for the Tatmadaw to covertly redeploy troops. By shifting their forces around, the military can reclaim land ceded to the rebels by the recent ceasefire agreement. Once that happens, there's no way for the rebels to reclaim territory, short of breaking the ceasefire.

Related: Can anyone put Myanmar back together again?

To prevent the military from going around the civilian government and cutting its own deals with the rebels, the NCCT has proposed that the Tatmadaw can't represent itself in the political dialogue.

For the NCCT and the rebels it represents, the talks are about more than just laying down arms in the name of peace. They are a starting point for what Myanmar's many ethnic groups hope will be a political dialogue that will give rise to a new, stable political system. The NCCT is demanding an all-inclusive federal governmental system similar to the one agreed upon in the 1947 Panglong Agreement. The 1948 collapse of the agreement directly resulted in the civil war.

In addition to his role in the NCCT, Nai Han Tha is also head of the New Mon State Party, the political wing of the Mon State Army. He said the rebels are proposing a federal system where Myanmar's states "have their own self determination and have equal shares of power and resources."

"The federal government at the center will have the constitutional right to control the states," he said. "[This is the] kind of system we would like to maintain. The federal government and the state's government should hold the balance of power with the three pillars of the system. These three pillars are executive, judiciary and legislative."

At first blush, a federal system based on ethnic lines sounds like a pretty ambitious rebel demand. Most countries that rely on a federal system of government aren't drawn up over ethnic lines. The only model that comes close is India.

If the proposed federal system is to work, ethnic political parties that were previously banned must be allowed to take part in the political process, and voting rights must be extended to all ethnic minorities. This has yet to happen.

Related: An uncertain future for Myanmar's refugees

The talks last week supposedly ended on a positive note, but facts on the ground undercut that claim. Although conflict in Kokang-controlled areas was supposed to be discussed at the last meeting, the fighting has escalated, and one of the main Kokang strongholds near the border with China was overrun just a week ago.

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) Fourth Brigade outside of Ma Jia Yang has also seen heavy fighting and been under attack by the Burmese Air Force. Many of the senior KIA commanders who are heavily invested in the NCCT have been trying to negotiate a peace in Yangong and have been kept from the frontlines.

If the talks scheduled to reconvene on March 30 are called off because of the renewed fighting, perhaps it's a sign that Myanmar's rare white elephants aren't so lucky after all. 

Follow Raymond Pagnucco on Twitter: @RaymondPagnucco