As Myanmar’s government invites a group of eight ethnic armed groups to yet another round of talks on March 21 to the capital Naypyitaw, the ethnically divided nation is more clearly headed towards more war than peace.
The government refers to the invited groups, seven members of an alliance called the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) plus the Karenni National Progressive Party, as “non-signatories” because they have not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA)
The NCA, launched by Myanmar’s then president Thein Sein in October 2015 and now pursued by the elected government led by ex-opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is a misnomer as it only includes a small number of the country’s many ethnic armed groups.
Those eight non-signatory groups represent an estimated 80% of all armed rebels in the country, while the signatories, now up to ten groups, are mostly small entities which do not possess significant armed forces.
Indeed, some are more akin to nongovernmental organizations, or tiny militias that have cobbled together token forces after signing the NCA in order to shore up their credibility and leverage.
Two of the eight groups, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), headed to Naypyidaw this week have significant numbers of armed forces but have pulled out of the talks.
The chairman and vice chairman of the signatories’ Peace Process Steering Team, the KNU’s Mutu Say Poe and Yawd Serk of the RCSS, resigned from their respective posts this month because negotiations had to their minds “deviated from the path set by the NCA.”
They believe the country should be moving towards a federal union that guarantees equality and autonomy for various ethnic nationalities.
The NCA agreement includes a promise for political talks towards the creation of a federal union that guarantees future equality and autonomy for ethnic nationalities.
The reality on the ground, however, is that the Myanmar military’s approach to peacemaking is no different from past failed processes launched in 1963 and 1980, and other ceasefire agreements with two dozen armed groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s of which many were later broken.
Ceasefires, to be sure, are nothing new in Myanmar. The military’s policy has always been the same: peace in exchange for “rehabilitation” and business opportunities.
The groups that signed the 2015 NCA had expected a different deal, including a comprehensive rewrite of the country’s 2008 constitution, but that is not on the cards, according to the powerful military.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s commander-in-chief, has repeatedly said that it is the duty of the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, is to defend and protect that constitution, which was drafted under military auspices and adopted after a rigged referendum in 2008.
During talks with armed groups in 2018, Min Aung Hlaing went as far as to justify the military’s extraordinary constitutional powers, which include de facto veto power over any attempts at amending the charter.
“[Ethnic organizations] in some areas do not represent [Myanmar’s] 52 million people,” he now famously said. “Likewise the political parties represent only those who support them. Our Tatmadaw, being born out of the entire people, represent the state and the people.”
It is thus no wonder that the peace process, once seen as Suu Kyi’s signature policy, is now dead in the water.
The Tatmadaw’s cynical approach to dealing with ethnic armed groups is strikingly evident in the border towns of Mae Sot in Thailand and Myawaddy in eastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, also known as Karen state.
In the 1990s Mae Sot, until then a tumbledown frontier town, began its transformation into what it is today: a bustling cross-border trading hub.
Border trade, which for decades had been controlled — and taxed — by the KNU and other rebel forces was then made legal following the abandonment of Myanmar’s socialist policies in the wake of a nationwide democracy uprising in 1988.
The opening of a new, Thai-funded bridge across the Moei border river in 1997 represented a fatal blow to the KNU’s finances. Even Myawaddy, a former garrison town with minimal economic activity, began to prosper.
New shops and merchant houses were built and today a steady stream of trucks laden with all sorts of goods crosses the so-called “Friendship Bridge” that connects to Mae Sot. A second bridge built to the north of the current one has just been opened this month.
In January 1995, the KNU lost its headquarters at Manerplaw on the Moei river north of Mae Sot. It was captured by the Myanmar military-assisted Buddhist Karens, who had broken with the predominantly Christian KNU leadership in late 1994.
They formed their own Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which continued to cooperate with the Myanmar military in exchange for being allowed to engage in unofficial cross-border trade, including importation of consumer goods, cars and petrol which bypassed official tax collection.
Narcotics came into the picture in 1999. Until then, the KNU’s strict anti-narcotics policy had been enforced along the border, and Mae Sot was almost drug-free.
But later that year a convoy of 60 trucks escorted by between 300 and 400 soldiers from the United Wa State Army, which had and still has a separate informal ceasefire agreement with the government dating back to 1989, arrived in Myawaddy.
The armed group set up an office in a two-story building with a sign outside that announced that it belonged to the “Wa Peace Troops.” Hardly surprisingly, it was located next door to the premises of the town’s military intelligence unit.
Soon thereafter, methamphetamines, known as ya ba — or “madness medicine” — began pouring across the border into Thailand. DKBA officers are among the local dealers and producers, local sources in Mae Sot assert.
Some DKBA officers went further than others in cooperating with the Tatmadaw. Among them was Chit Thu, now the lord of a new boom town at Shwe Kokko north of Myawaddy, who turned his militia into a government Border Guard Force in 2010.
The rest of the DBKA, or mainly its 5th brigade, changed its name to the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) in 2010 to make it more religiously neutral. It signed the NCA in 2015, which led to yet another split among the Karen.
Those who demurred resurrected the DKBA with “Buddhist” in the name. The outcome has been a badly fractured Karen movement where, for many, the struggle for business opportunities has come to overshadow overarching political goals.
Armed clashes between rival Karen factions are now frequent. Even within the KNU there are serious disagreements between those who favor a resumption of talks under the NCA and those who feel the whole process is a sham.
Those in the latter camp also point out that many of their own leaders have grown rich on business deals awarded to them after signing the NCA in 2015. Little of those spoils, they say, have trickled down to the local population.
Political and ethnic activists in Mae Sot and Myawaddy say privately that nothing is likely to change without a fundamentally different approach to peace-making.
Those same sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the dangers inherent in local business conflicts, said the focus should be on political and constitutional issues, not on “rehabilitation” and business opportunities – a policy that history shows pits one armed faction against another to the detriment of peace.
But that appears unlikely as the Tatmadaw has made its hardline position clear against any constitutional change. Since the peace process began in 2011, the country’s civil wars have grown more intense, first in Shan and Kachin states in the north and northeast, and recently in Rakhine state in the west.
At the same time, well-funded foreign peacemakers who have stakes in the process continue to cling to the belief that the NCA is the best path to peace. But their projects and proposals consistently show a lack of understanding of the wars’ past and present dynamics.
But as long as foreign groups cheerlead the failed process, the Tatmadaw will have the upper hand and peace as elusive as ever without incentive to find alternative ways and means.
Frustrated activists and observers in Mae Sot and elsewhere, meanwhile, continue to ask: the current approach did not work in the past, so why would it work now?
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