A burst of shrap­nel leaves peace talks hopes in tat­ters

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Ge­of­frey God­dard

The path to na­tional peace in 2014 was a roller coaster ride of un­re­alised ex­pec­ta­tions. A promis­ing start to the year saw hopes reach an apogee of op­ti­mism in May be­fore dif­fer­ences scut­tled any prospect of Myan­mar cel­e­brat­ing the ar­rival of 2015 with a na­tional cease­fire agree­ment to end more than half a cen­tury of con­flict.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, it was dif­fer­ences over a pro­posed fed­eral army and to a lesser ex­tent, mech­a­nisms to mon­i­tor a cease­fire after a truce is signed, that bedev­illed the talks in 2014. It is the is­sue of a fed­eral army that may doom the cease­fire talks to fail­ure in 2015.

The armed eth­nic groups' in­sis­tence that a cease­fire agree­ment pro­vide for the cre­ation of a fed­eral army com­bin­ing their forces and those of the gov­ern­ment is res­o­lutely op­posed by the Tat­madaw.

A more im­me­di­ate chal­lenge for the fu­ture of the talks is whether the armed eth­nic groups can re­gain their trust in the gov­ern­ment after it was shat­tered by the Tat­madaw ar­tillery at­tack on a Kachin In­de­pen­dence Army of­fi­cers' train­ing camp on Novem­ber 19 that left 23 cadets dead. The KIA said four of those killed were Kachin and the rest were from other armed eth­nic groups that sent their troops to be trained at the fa­cil­ity, at Laiza on the bor­der with China.

“This has caused a tremen­dous ob­sta­cle in build­ing trust,” the United Na­tion­al­i­ties Fed­eral Coun­cil, a coali­tion of eth­nic groups, said in a state­ment on Novem­ber 20.

In a pos­si­ble in­di­ca­tion of a hard­en­ing of at­ti­tudes over the is­sue among UNFC mem­bers in the af­ter­math of the at­tack, a spokesper­son said in early De­cem­ber that armed eth­nic groups planned to join forces to cre­ate their own fed­eral army. The plan was un­veiled a week after Tat­madaw chief Se­nior Gen­eral Min Aung Hlaing in­sisted that Myan­mar could have only one na­tional army.

A fed­eral army has been mooted by the armed eth­nic groups since they formed the Na­tional Cease­fire Co­or­di­na­tion Team in Novem­ber last year to

ne­go­ti­ate a na­tional cease­fire with the gov­ern­ment.

As the year be­gan, the armed eth­nic groups re­it­er­ated their stand on a fed­eral army at a meet­ing of the NCCT at a Karen Na­tional Union base in Kayin State.

“We will only sign a cease­fire if dis­cus­sion on a fed­eral army in guar­an­teed,” Phado Saw Kwe Htoo Win, the gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Karen Na­tional Union, one of the 16 groups rep­re­sented on the NCCT, said on Jan­uary 20.

March & April: hope­ful months

In March, hopes for peace – and the out­come of the cease­fire talks –re­ceived a wel­come boost with a break­through agree­ment by the NCCT and the UPWC to form a joint com­mit­tee to merge their pro­pos­als into a sin­gle doc­u­ment.

The March talks be­tween the two sides also saw the Tat­madaw join the ne­go­ti­a­tions for the first time, at the re­quest of the NCCT.

De­spite some dif­fer­ences over the first draft when the two sides met in early April – in­clud­ing the NCCT's back­ing for a “gen­uine fed­eral sys­tem” – agree­ment was reached, set­ting the stage for fur­ther progress at talks in May.

Op­ti­mism about prospects for the May talks was high.

In his reg­u­lar monthly broad­cast on May 1, Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein hailed the com­ple­tion of a first draft at the April talks, de­scrib­ing it as a “pos­i­tive” de­vel­op­ment that had brought peace closer. “Based on th­ese re­sults, we will soon be able to sign a na­tion­wide cease­fire agree­ment,” the Pres­i­dent said.

Ex­pec­ta­tions re­ceived a fur­ther boost on May 4, when UPWC vice-chair U Aung Min, a Min­is­ter of the Pres­i­dent's Of­fice, said the gov­ern­ment was ready to com­pro­mise on more than half the re­main­ing de­mands made by the NCCT.

U Aung Min, who was re­fer­ring to the re­main­ing 45 points of the 122-point draft cease­fire, said that if the NCCT was ready to com­pro­mise on the other half “an agree­ment will be achieved”.

The ex­pec­ta­tions for progress at the May talks were jus­ti­fied. There was agree­ment on a sec­ond draft cease­fire ac­cord and a joint state­ment is­sued by the two sides after the talks ended on May 23 said the ne­go­ti­a­tions had been “open and friendly”.

June: Peace within U Thein Sein’s term?

In June, U Aung Min was feel­ing con­fi­dent enough about the talks to pre­dict an agree­ment be­fore the end of U Thein Sein's term in of­fice late next year.

“I be­lieve peace will be achieved within the term of this gov­ern­ment,” U Aung Min said in Nay Pyi Taw on June 30, adding that the ne­go­ti­a­tions were achiev­ing suc­cess be­cause both sides were de­ter­mined to ad­vance the process.

Fol­low­ing a pre­lim­i­nary meet­ing be­tween mem­bers of the NCCT and the UPWC in the Kachin State cap­i­tal, My­itky­ina, in early Au­gust, there was en­cour­age­ment from U Hla Maung Shwe of the Myan­mar Peace Cen­ter, the venue of the ne­go­ti­a­tions in Yan­gon.

“Both sides showed pos­i­tive in­tent, so we hope that this com­ing draft may be the fi­nal ver­sion, or at the very least, the sec­ond to last,” said U Hla Maung Shwe, who along with other mem­bers of the MPC has been play­ing a key be­hind-thescenes role in the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

It was not to be.

Au­gust: no progress on the draft front

The ne­go­ti­a­tions at the peace cen­tre in mid-Au­gust failed to reach agree­ment on a fi­nal draft ver­sion of a cease­fire ac­cord. The stick­ing points in­cluded troop de­ploy­ment plans after a truce took ef­fect and a cease­fire mon­i­tor­ing mech­a­nism.

As the ne­go­ti­a­tions re­sumed in Yan­gon on Septem­ber 22, U Aung Min said the peace process was at “cru­cial mo­ment”.

The two sides had “made progress never be­fore seen in Myan­mar's his­tory,” he said, but ac­knowl­edged the process had taken longer than ex­pected.

Lieu­tenant-Gen­eral Myint Soe, the head of the Tat­madaw del­e­ga­tion, said it was not par­tic­i­pat­ing in the talks to find fault with one another.

“We sol­diers are the ones who want peace the most,” he said.

NCCT vice-chair­man Nai Han Tha said Myan­mar's fu­ture de­pended on reach­ing an agree­ment.

“If we con­tinue like this, there's no hope for our coun­try; it could even­tu­ally be split into pieces,” he said.

“The des­tiny of our peo­ple de­pends on us.”

On Septem­ber 23, after the talks ended early that day amid sharp dif­fer­ences, Nai Han Tha blamed the Tat­madaw rep­re­sen­ta­tives for cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere in which com­pro­mise was dif­fi­cult.

He said the NCCT had re­jected an “un­fair” de­mand by the Tat­madaw that armed eth­nic groups re­frain from fur­ther re­cruit­ment after a cease­fire was signed.

Nai Han Tha said another rea­son why the talks had stalled was be­cause UPWC ne­go­tia­tors had been in­structed to back­track on lan­guage in the draft about the “es­tab­lish­ment” of a fed­eral army, in­stead ask­ing that it be to “plan” a fed­eral army.

Novem­ber: trust shat­tered?

In May, Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein had pre­dicted that a cease­fire would be signed “soon”. In a speech in Novem­ber, the Pres­i­dent was choos­ing his words more care­fully.

“If we are able to achieve a na­tion­wide cease­fire agree­ment, we will be able to es­tab­lish a code of con­duct that will have to be fol­lowed by both sides, which will in turn help lower the num­ber of clashes and hos­til­i­ties,” he said, a sce­nario that would be cel­e­brated in the ar­eas of Kachin, Shan, Kayin and other states where con­flict pre­vails. Peace will not come with­out trust. The vice chief of staff of the KIA, Gen­eral Gum Maw, said in Bangkok early this month that the Novem­ber 19 ar­tillery at­tack on the train­ing camp had left trust in the gov­ern­ment and the Tat­madaw at an all-time low.

But he was adamant that di­a­logue was the only way for­ward, at both the na­tional level and in Kachin State, where 120,000 peo­ple have been dis­placed since fight­ing re­sumed in 2011 after the col­lapse of a cease­fire agreed 17 years ear­lier.

“Our trust in the gov­ern­ment and the army is lower than when we started talk­ing,” Gen Gum Maw said dur­ing a visit to Bangkok on De­cem­ber 5, the As­so­ci­ated Press newsagency re­ported. “But the lack of trust is why talks are nec­es­sary.”

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