A burst of shrapnel leaves peace talks hopes in tatters
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.”