If Myanmar’s outgoing president wants to end decades of conflict he’s going to need to open up talks with more key players, writes Nehginpao Kipgen.
Members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a nine-member ethnic armed alliance that did not sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the military-backed Thein Sein government in October last year, met in Chiang Mai from 18-21 February.
The meeting was significant for two reasons. First, it took place ahead of a planned military offensive by Myanmar’s Army against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a UNFC member.
Second, the ruling and military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) ends its term in government in March. President Thein Sein wants to ensure his legacy by putting an end to decades-old armed conflicts in the country.
At the end of the four-day meeting, the UNFC accused the USDP government of using the NCA as a weapon against the group by creating racial hatred and a divide and rule policy.
The military alliance also accused the government of provoking clashes between the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the Palaung State Liberation Front/ T’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA). Conflict has also erupted between the Myanmar Army and the RCSS/SSA-S.
The recent armed clashes have resulted in casualties and the internal displacement of some 3,000 civilians. The international community, including the US government and the European Union, has expressed concerns that escalating tensions could jeopardise the country’s current moves to democratise.
If the Myanmar military attacks the MNDAA, there is a possibility that the other members of UNFC, particularly the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), would come to the aide of the MNDAA — something which the KIA leadership have previously hinted at.
And if the prevailing tension does not subside, the weak link of communication between the government peace negotiation team and the ethnic armed groups could further deteriorate. It could also reduce the likelihood of UNFC members joining the peace process.
Since the RCSS/SSA-S is a signatory to the NCA and the TNLA is a non-signatory, the escalation of tension between the two armed groups could also create a trust deficit among ethnic minorities, which could, in turn, have ramifications for the ongoing peace talks.
Amid the tensions, the government’s chief negotiator, Aung Min, who met the UNFC leaders in Chiang Mai said, “We have not closed the door to non-signatories. We are still trying.”
The government’s so far unsuccessful strategy has been to sign ceasefire agreements with ethnic armed groups individually. Meanwhile, the UNFC has reiterated that it will maintain its “all-inclusive” policy – meaning it wants all its members to be included in the peace process.
The UNFC leadership’s biggest apprehension is that the Myanmar government would use the NCA as a pretext to launch military attacks against groups the government is unwilling to sign a ceasefire with, which includes the MNDAA and the TNLA.
If the Myanmar Army launches attacks on the MNDAA, which seems imminent, accusations by the UNFC leadership will be justified. More importantly, it could destabilise the entire peace process.
As a researcher and a keen observer of Myanmar’s political developments, especially on issues regarding the country’s ethnic minorities, I believe that signing the NCA with the UNFC as a collective bloc is a positive direction for the country.
It would have been an entirely different scenario if members of the UNFC were rejecting the peace process. In fact, groups such as the MNDAA and TNLA, which the Thein Sein government has been reluctant to include in the NCA, have expressed their desire to sign the ceasefire agreement and be part of the peace process.
It is very likely that the National League for Democracy, which will officially assume power from April, will review the peace process to ensure that all armed groups participate. The party has announced that the peace process will be one of its priorities.
As President Thein Sein continues in his efforts to end decades-old armed conflicts, accepting the inclusive policy of the UNFC could be one of his most successful legacies.
Acceptance should not be taken as weakness on the part of the government, but rather a step forward for peace and stability in the country.
Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a Political Scientist, Assistant Professor and Director of Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including the forthcoming “Myanmar: A Political History” available from Oxford University Press.