Peace in our time

Ethnic armed groups have no incentive to sign the Myanmar government’s ceasefire deal before the November elections.

It is the single most important project in transitional Myanmar: reconciling the Bamar majority and the ethnic minorities, finding political solutions for deeply-held ethnic grievances and desires, and uniting all those living in the country in the embrace of a common Myanmar identity.

Still, peace seems an ever more distant ideal. The peace talks recessed after the text of a draft Nationwide Ceasefire Accord was signed on March 31. Four months ago hopes were high. The ethnic negotiators returned to their states to seek ratification of the draft from the leadership of their organisations. They came back with new demands and amendments. Apparently the mandate of the negotiators is rather limited.

After a long spell of inaction, talks resumed last week between the government’s Union Peacemaking Working Committee and the special delegation representing the armed ethnic groups. The three days of negotiations at the Myanmar Peace Center in Yangon recessed on Friday, July 24, with the familiar refrain that no agreement had been reached.

The process has so far taken eight rounds, and nearly two years, of negotiations.

U Hla Maung Shwe, a senior Myanmar Peace Center oficial, told reporters that both sides had agreed only to resume the negotiations in August.

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Those sitting around the table have no incentive to reach an agreement before the election. The Tatmadaw has been very clear about it. In a BBC interview broadcast on July 20, Tatmadaw chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said that eventually the army would withdraw from politics and return to the barracks. But only after a peace deal has been reached with all Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.

When the unelected military representatives in parliament used their veto powers in June to block five out of six proposed amendments to the constitution, they made clear that the Tatmadaw is still too insecure to relinquish its grip on power. So it is unlikely that the pre-condition for the military to leave the political arena – peace – will materialise anytime soon.

The renewed fighting in Kachin State this month is a clear indication that not all is well. As long as security issues remain, the army can plead that it still has a role to play, a card the military junta played over and over to legitimise its five decades of unlawful rule.

The ethnic armed groups don’t have pressing reasons to hurry up either. If they reach a ceasefire accord with the government before the general election, they have to deal with a new government to implement the agreement. It would be better to strike a deal with a government that still has a full term of five years to commit to it.

Also, it is likely that a government with a democratic flavour will be more disposed to make concessions than the hardline Union Solidarity and Development Party and army will ever be. It is crucial for the ethnics to get the political concessions they want. They can only disarm once.

For the ruling party it would, of course, be a huge success to achieve a nationwide peace agreement before November’s vote. It would be something the party could campaign on.

Some ethnic groups are aligning themselves with the National League for Democracy. They won’t provide the USDP with the electoral ace it covets.

Meanwhile, the international community is becoming impatient. Big donors are waiting in the wings to create a special fund to facilitate peace, and the development of former conflict areas. Preparations are underway to launch the peace fund in the six months. Some within this donor group don’t have the patience to wait for the NCA or the conclusion of the political dialogue phase that is to follow it: they favour launching their effort while many questions remain unanswered.

The already messy peace process promises to become even messier if large pots of money are thrown into a mix that has yet to settle.

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