The pitfalls of rushing the peace process
After more than three years and a dozen meetings the Union Peace-Making Work Committee and the Nationwide Ceasefire Co-ordination Team announced after their talks in August the pledge to adopt a federal system, a key demand of the ethnic minorities, has been included in the draft text of the national peace accord.
Chief government negotiator U Aung Min, a Minister of the President's Office, seems hopeful that a ceasefire agreement will be reached by the end of September, with political dialogue starting in early 2015. The minister is bent on wrapping up the complicated peace process before the general elections.
Is it wise to hurry the peace process past the finish post?
There are lessons to be learned from the attempt to introduce a federal system in Nepal. The Himalayan country, as ethnically diverse as Myanmar with more than 100 minority groups, had suffered a decade of civil war when the push for federalism began in 2008. A constituent assembly was established, deadlines came and went and the ultimate failure to reach an agreement on exactly which type of federal system to adopt led to fresh elections, the formation of a new constituent assembly, and the entry into the political arena of new parties with undeveloped thoughts about federalism. The older parties were by then entrenched in fixed positions, which further complicated an already complicated situation.
Nepal went back to square one. Six years after the start of the push for federalism the deadlock persists. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is opposed to using ethnicity as the basis for a federal state while the Maoists of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal want each main ethnic group to have its own federal region. The Maoists are now accusing other parties of not being genuine in their quest for federalism. Will it ever end?
Myanmar is in for a difficult ride as well. The ethnic minority groups that are at the table during the political
dialogue phase will have differing perceptions of what federalism means and which version is suitable for their needs. That federalism has been declared acceptable by the government and the Tatmadaw does not necessarily mean their vision of a federal Union of Myanmar matches that of the minority ethnic groups. Federalism is a complex and thorny issue. It encompasses important issues such as resource sharing, defence and political autonomy. Federalism can mean many different things. Some within the Myanmar Peace Center, an organisation which relies mostly on the EU for its funding and which plays a central role in the peace process, have professed it unwise to sign a national ceasefire agreement and hurry on to the dialogue phase next year. These sources feel that a political dialogue pursued during what promises to be a volatile election campaign period will do more harm than good. The dialogue should not start in earnest until 2016, they say.
The USDP, though, seems eager to produce a result before the general elections, so it can create a scenario in which it could run as the party that finally pacified Myanmar. It is well aware that for now it is still largely in control of the political system but that after the elections the power balance might shift and the complexity of negotiations will increase.
The latest ceasefire draft might run for seven chapters and contain one hundred and twenty points, but most of the political issues are still unresolved. Those who think peace accords are easily agreed and implemented and the transformation to a truly federal state can be hurried in a few years, are delusional. Formulating deadlines will only serve to set up the process for failure and disillusion. The stakes are high, utmost care should be taken. If dialogue fails to deliver the political solution the minority ethnic groups are seeking Myanmar will be back to a position reminiscent of that at the end of the forties, when the ethnic insurgencies started.
True federalism is possible, even in a country as ethnically diverse as Myanmar, but it will take time, effort and patience to achieve. Peace agreements are hard won. Reaching a politically satisfying federal solution acceptable to all stakeholders will prove equally as hard.
Left: A Kayin State village, in an undated file photo. Ethnic minority groups have differing peceptions of what federalism will mean for them. Photo: Mizzima