Aung Min, the President’s Office Minister and lead peace negotiator, addressed the Upper House on Thursday to reconfirm the government’s commitment to achieving a nationwide ceasefire agreement, and he voiced his confidence that an accord could be reached soon.
“The peace process will not go backward, although there is some fighting,” he told journalists after the parliamentary session, referring to a growing number of clashes between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups in Kachin, Shan and Karen states.
Last weekend, President Thein Sein paid a visit to government advisors at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in Rangoon to provide support and instructions on achieving a nationwide ceasefire.
However, some three months after the government, army and the ethnic rebel groups began a new approach to the nationwide ceasefire talks by agreeing to jointly draft a single ceasefire text it is far from clear whether this approach is succeeding.
Some government sources involved in the peace process are even warning that if negotiations fail to progress in coming weeks, a nationwide ceasefire before the 2015 elections could become impossible and rebels might have to deal with a new, tougher commander-in-chief.
On Thursday, Aung Min expressed the government’s oft-repeated, optimistic assumption that a nationwide ceasefire accord with an alliance of 16 ethnic rebels groups is only weeks or months away. “We will meet with the ethnics leaders in Yangon after the ethnic armed groups’ conference in Laiza next week and the signing of the nationwide ceasefire accord will come in September,” he told reporters.
Since mid-2013, Aung Min has repeatedly said a nationwide ceasefire would soon be signed but the agreement has proven elusive. Formal nationwide ceasefire talks on drafting a single ceasefire text have stalled since June.
On July 24-26, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), an alliance of 16 ethnic groups, will meet in Kachin rebel-held town of Laiza to discuss whether they will accept the current draft of a single ceasefire text and the Burma Army demands for the inclusion of a six-point statement.
The government and rebels have not formally met since June and it appears the sides have reached an impasse in further developing the ceasefire text.
Among rebel leaders opinions are divided over the current draft and the negotiations and concerned about the army’s demands. Worries also abound over the ongoing fighting and the lack of a bilateral ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
Fighting and Mistrust
In recent months, fighting has intensified in northern Burma, spilling over from Kachin State to northern Shan State, with the Burma Army frequently clashing with the KIA, the TNLA, and the Shan State Army-North and even a Kokang rebel group. Clashes have also occurred in Karen National Union (KNU)-held areas in recent weeks, despite the relatively good relations between the KNU and the government and army.
Col. Mae Aye Sein, of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), said he is concerned over the Burma Army’s demand that its six-point statement becomes part of the ceasefire text. “It is impossible to sign a [nationwide ceasefire] if we are forced to accept the 2008 constitution, which is one of the demands of the army’s chief six-point proposal,” said Mae Aye Sein, of KNLA Brigade 5, a unit that is known to be skeptical of the peace process.
The army’s statement includes a number demands that many ethnic groups oppose, most prominent among them accept the military-drafted Constitution, which asserts all armed group come under the army’s central command.
Sources at the MPC have suggested that the army’s demands regarding the statement are flexible, but it remains unclear how the sides could reconcile the differences over such fundamental issues.
The ethnic groups, for their part, are demanding greater political autonomy and control over natural resources in ethnic minority region through the creation of a federal union, while they want guarantees that a political dialogue on these demands will start within months after a nationwide ceasefire is signed.
Mae Aye Sein said recent clashes in Karen State’s Papun and Bago Division’s Taungoo district and Tenasserim Division’s Dawei district cast further doubts over the peace process and the army’s willingness to end Burma’s decades-old ethnic conflict.
“The clashes were due to the government’s ground forces crossing beyond the line and into our areas of control,” said the colonel, whose unit is controls part of Papun District. “As the SSA-North and KIA are facing the same type of situation, we think that they [Burma Army] are testing our tolerance.”
Mae Aye Sein said KNU leaders had been willing to play down the clashes in order to maintain relations with Naypyidaw, adding, “Our leaders have been talking very carefully as not to damage the ceasefire talks.”
KNU secretary Pado Kwe Htoo Win, who initially had denied the reports of clashes, told The Irrawaddy remains optimistic about the peace process. “Renewed clashes won’t stop our peace effort, as there is a very few engagement compared to the past decades,” he said.
Leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which has been fighting an insurgency since a 17-year-old ceasefire collapsed in mid-2011, remain concerned over the peace process, with some voicing concerns that conflict could intensify if the ethnic groups decided to reject the nationwide ceasefire text next week.
“It seems there are many government troop deployments in Kachin State. We also have to be prepared and stay cautious,” said Daun Kha, KIO liaison office coordinator in the Kachin capital Myitkyina. He said recent clashes between the army and KNU and SSA-North showed that “even for the 14 ceasefire groups conflicts is still raging in their territories.”
The KIO and the government last met in May to discuss a bilateral ceasefire, but negotiations have stalled since.
In conversations with The Irrawaddy, government advisors at the MPC and senior government sources gave oblique warnings on what might happen if ethnic groups become apprehensive about the direction of nationwide ceasefire negations.
A source at the MPC, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ethnic groups should seize the opportunity that is being presented to them at the current stage of negotiations as the current Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing could step down after 2015.
“If a[nationwide ceasefire] could not be signed before 2015 due to the ethnics’ hesitation over the army’s proposal, which is not yet included in the single text, then nobody knows how things might go after a new army chief comes in,” the peace broker said.
Gen. Soe Win, the current deputy commander-in-chief, is being considered as a successor to Min Aung Hlaing, a senior government official said and he warned that he could take a more hardline approach to the ethnic conflict.
The official noted that Soe Win had, for example, threatened to attack the KIA in May unless they immediately released several government staff that had been detained by the rebels.
Hkyet Hting Nan, chairman of the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State, believes the peace process has been arduous and long but successful, adding that a nationwide ceasefire should be possible if current agreements are solidified and carried out.
“The process has been gradually improving,” said the Upper House lawmaker, who has been involved in KIO-government negotiations. “[But] there must immediate actions to implement the agreements they made after talks,” he said, referring to for example an agreement between the KNU and the government to establish a code of conduct, which has yet to be implemented.
He added, “It is hard to imagine whether the [nationwide ceasefire] can become a reality before the 2015” elections.
Additional reporting by Kyaw Kha.