Despite the timing, the bewildering announcement was not meant as an early April Fool’s joke.
Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office issued a statement on March 30 claiming five more ethnic groups had agreed to terms on her government’s “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” (NCA) in addition to eight groups that endorsed the deal under a previous military-steered regime in October 2015.
The same day, Nai Hong Sar of the New Mon State Party (NMSP), one of the new supposed ethnic armed group signatories, said in a Radio Free Asia interview that he was surprised to see the statement as the five groups Suu Kyi cited had not yet decided to sign the pact.
He said each group would decide only after the Thingyan water festival, the Burmese Buddhist New Year celebration held in mid-April.
Two days prior to Suu Kyi’s announcement, the de facto national leader visited a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina, in circumstances that were widely criticized for a lack compassion and understanding of Myanmar’s decades-long ethnic strife.
Instead of traveling to the camp with the relevant ministers of social welfare, health or education, Suu Kyi was accompanied by two of the three ministers appointed by the autonomous military: the Home Minister and Minister for Border Affairs, both army generals.
Rather than offering government assistance for their humanitarian plight, Suu Kyi, a former Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy icon, urged the IDPs to be “self-reliant” and, as an example for others, encouraged them to seek employment at a nearby local holiday resort.
When one of the IDPs asked Suu Kyi if it was not the duty of the government – as the parent of the nation – to look after its children, the national leader responded sharply that some children tend not to “obey their parents.”
Indeed, the March 30 announcement also contained a veiled threat to non-signatory ethnic leaders. To the astonishment of many observers, the statement included language reminiscent of the vulgar propaganda deployed by the previous rights-abusing junta, warning “undesirable destructive elements” — that is “our brothers who are leaders of the ethnic national races” — “to be extremely careful.”
The statement did not say what awaited those same leaders who disobeyed her government’s orders. But Suu Kyi has stuck to the same hardline, uncompromising stance as her military predecessors, insisting that there can be no concessions or even humanitarian aid for the over 100,000 IDPs who have sought shelter in conflict-ridden areas in Kachin and Shan states not controlled by the government until local ethnic armed groups sign the NCA.
The agreement, which has been rejected by Myanmar’s main armed ethnic groups in the north, was instituted by the previous government as a face-saving gesture before the November 2015 election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept in landslide fashion. The election allowed for a transition to quasi-democratic rule where the military continues to play an outsized political role.
The results of an April 1 by-election to fill legislative vacancies created by national and regional level parliamentarians who were promoted to ministerial posts showed popular dissatisfaction with the NLD’s policies towards ethnic minorities.
The NLD won only nine of 19 locally and nationally contested seats, with the ethnic-based Shan Nationalities League for Democracy making impressive gains in Shan State. Even the military-aligned former ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won a crucial seat in Mon State.
To many, the NLD government’s ethnic policies are the same as the previous military-backed regime led by Thein Sein, a former general who initiated a “peace process” which did more to stoke than resolve the country’s many decades-old ethnic conflicts.
In June 2011, Thein Sein’s government forces launched a major offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), breaking a 17-year ceasefire that has since plunged the northern region into war-torn despair. The Shan State Army (SSA) was the next to come under government attack while Thein Sein claimed to sue for peace.
In early 2015, rebels in the Shan State’s Kokang region began to attack government positions, reigniting another conflict that had been dormant since the 1980s. During Thein Sein’s Western supported and financed peace process fighting in Myanmar’s frontier areas was as heavy as at any point since the 1980s.
The NCA, adopted and now being pushed by Suu Kyi, has thus been farcical from the start. Of the eight groups that signed on October 15, 2015, only three — the Karen National Union, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the Restoration Council of Shan State —actually had armed forces.
The other five are minor groups more akin to nongovernmental organizations than rebel armies. Of the five groups that were mentioned in Suu Kyi’s March 30 announcement, only two — the New Mon State Party and the Karenni National Progressive Party —have standing armies; the other three are also civil society-type outfits.
A meeting with seven major armed groups at the Panghsang headquarters of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in late February called for a new approach to the peace process, including an end to government offensives in ethic regions and a pledge to replace the present centralized power structure with a federal union.
The 20,000-25,000 strong UWSA, the country’s most powerful and best-equipped ethnic army, has had a separate ceasefire agreement with the government since 1989. So, too, do the 2,000-strong MNDAA and the 2,000 to 3,000-strong Shan State Army (SSA), though those agreements have not prevented recent outbreaks of hostilities.
The SSA, the 8,000-strong KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic Palaung army which now commands as many as 7,000 soldiers, another force based in Mong La in northeastern Shan State and a new smaller group known as the Arakan Army were all present at the UWSA-led Panghsang meeting that some analysts believe stole the initiative from Suu Kyi’s ballyhooed 21st Century Panglong process.
But there will be no end to Myanmar’s many wars if Suu Kyi fails to act as an honest broker between the military and ethnic armed groups and continues to show callousness towards the plight of IDPs, regardless of how many real or phony signatures she says she has on her misnomer NCA.