Myanmar has witnessed the longest internal armed conflicts in the world. Despite the several attempts to resolve the problem, several challenges remain.
The first challenge is the disunity among the armed groups. When eight ethnic armed groups signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015, it was seen by many as the culmination of more than two years of negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the country’s long-running conflicts.
However, the deal fell short of nationwide agreement with seven of the 15 armed groups invited declined to sign due to disagreements over the issue of inclusivity in the peace process, as well as the distrust of Myanmar’s semi-civilian government, headed by President Thein Sein, and the powerful military.
Since then, the peace process has largely stalled despite several cosmetic progresses. Armed conflicts between the non-signatory groups and the Myanmar army have marred the peace process. The NLD government initiated the 21st Panglong conference in late August last year but failed to convince the non-signatory groups to sign the NCA.
The initial anticipation of the NCA signatory groups was that the government would be able to bring on board the non-signatory groups at the earliest possible. They also anticipated that the non-signatory groups would eventually prefer to join the peace process rather than engaging in armed conflicts. However, members of the Chiang Mai-based United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) have not given up its fundamental demand of inclusive approach in the peace process.
The chance of finding mutual agreement between UNFC members and the NLD government has been hampered by the continued armed clashes between the Myanmar army and members of the Northern Alliance - the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) - in Kachin and Shan states along Myanmar-China border.
The government’s efforts to convince the non-signatory groups to sign the NCA and join the peace process met with further challenge in late February this year when the chairman of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) said that a ‘new path to peace’ was necessary because the government’s efforts to get other ethnic groups to sign the NCA have lost its momentum.
The position of UWSA is significant because it is the largest ethnic armed group with approximate 30,000 cadres. It also controls a significant swath of territory along Myanmar-China border in Shan state. In addition to its demand for federalism, the UWSA demands the upgradation of the Wa Self-Administered Division to a statehood status.
The second challenge is Beijing’s limited influence on the peace process. The advantage China has in Myanmar, over many other countries, is that its participation and assistance is welcomed by ethnic armed groups, the NLD government, as well as the military establishment.
Despite this wide acceptance, China has realized its limited influence. For example, despite the several appeals and meetings with ethnic armed groups, the Myanmar military and the NLD government, Beijing is unable to bring an end to the armed conflicts, particularly in Kachin and Shan states.
There are allegations from some quarters that China may be meddling in the internal affairs of Myanmar.
The third challenge is distrust between the Myanmar military and some ethnic armed groups, particularly the Northern Alliance members that have been engaging in armed conflicts, mostly since 2015.
The main suspicion of these armed groups is that the Myanmar military is not sincere about resolving the decades-old conflicts politically. The armed groups have alleged that the Myanmar military has been forcefully trying to neutralize them and seize control of their territories.
While the Myanmar military demands the laying down of arms from the MNDAA, TNLA and AA before signing the NCA and participating in the peace process, the armed groups see such condition as unacceptable which they consider as tantamount to surrendering their people and territory.
Both the ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar army blame each other for causing destruction that has led to thousands of civilians being made internally displaced persons or have been forced to flee across the border to China.
The fourth challenge and perhaps the most serious one is lack of mutual trust between the NLD government and the Myanmar military.
Though both sides have shown considerable respect and do not criticize each other publicly, the civilian government is apparently unable to prevail the military on the specifics of the peace process. In her capacity as the state counselor and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has been quite diplomatic in her dealings with the military establishment.
Though she has had several meetings with the military leadership over the peace process, she has apparently not been able to convince the military to end its operations along the Myanmar-China border.
Based on what has transpired thus far in the peace process, the Myanmar military appears to incline more toward pursuing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) strategy rather than security sector reform (SSR) process.
The military apparently still maintains its traditional psyche of the army being the ‘guardian’ and ‘protector’ of the state.
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including ‘Democratization of Myanmar’. His writings (both academic and non-academic) have been widely published in five continents - Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.