In an attempt to find a common ground for signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), representatives of 17 Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) met in Chiang Mai from Aug. 21-24, 2015 this year. Political dialogue is set to begin within 90 days of signing the agreement. Similar meetings and consultations have been held amongst the ethnic armed groups themselves, or with the government, since 2013. Throughout the process, negotiators have made several compromises to reach this stage - only one major issue continues to obstruct the two sides from signing the NCA, which is a proposal put forward by the EAO that all ethnic armies be allowed to join the ceasefire. The Myanmar government has insisted only groups it has already established a bilateral ceasefire with are eligible to join the nationwide agreement. The government is unwilling to sign the ceasefire agreement with six of the 17 groups, including three armed groups that had recent skirmishes with the Myanmar army - the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the ethnic Kokang's Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA). The other three excluded ethnic armies are the Wa National Organization (WNO), the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) and the Arakan National Council (ANC), probably because they have insignificant armed wings. By signing the pact, signatories receive benefits including being allowed to continue holding arms for self-defense, removal from the list of unlawful organizations, joint implementation of a code of conduct, joint monitoring of the ceasefire to prevent recurrence of clashes and participation in political dialogues. The Chiang Mai summit happened a few days after the Myanmar government invited the armed groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement individually. In response to the government's invitation, four armed groups issued a joint press release on Aug. 18 expressing their willingness to sign. Out of the four groups, which are the Karen National Union (KNU), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNLA-PC) and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), only the KNU is a member of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) which has been engaged in negotiations with the government since its formation in 2013. The summit was crucial for a few reasons. Firstly, there were concerns that the government's invitation could plant seeds of disunity between ethnic armed groups. Some worried the government would blame groups unwilling to sign individually for wrecking the ceasefire. There was also apprehension that the Myanmar army would use the NCA as a pretext to launch offensive attacks against certain armed groups. Secondly, the summit happened less than two weeks of the internal power struggle within the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) on Aug. 12 ousted the party chairman and presidential hopeful Shwe Mann. The use of the police force was seen by some as an indication that the government would not hesitate to use military force to overrule democratic processes. Thirdly, in an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA) in Nay Pyi Taw on Aug 20, Myanmar's army chief Min Aung Hlaing said the military will withdraw from politics when the ethnic armed groups come into the legal fold, give up their arms, and participate peacefully in building a democratic nation. But the surrender of arms is not actually agreed upon in the NCA text. One argument the Thein Sein administration makes to ethnic armed groups is if the ceasefire agreement is not signed before the elections, there is no guarantee that the next government will sign it. While there is some degree of truth in this statement, it can also be argued that the government is merely seeking to improve its international image by declaring the nationwide ceasefire. The most significant outcome of the summit is that armed groups unanimously agree a nationwide ceasefire cannot happen if some groups are left out to defend themselves. At the end of the 4-day summit, the Ethnic Armed Organization agreed to send leaders from the five major armed groups - Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Karen National Union (KNU), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) plus three members of the senior delegation - to meet with President Thein Sein in Nay Pyi Taw. In the negotiation process, ethnic armed groups have compromised on the issue of sovereignty and agreed to adhere to the three core principles pushed by the government: non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and the perpetuation of national sovereignty. The ethnic armed groups are committed to signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement before the general elections on Nov 8. At the same time, they are also willing to move forward gradually in their quest to resolve the decades-old ethno-political conflicts in the country.
While the continued support of the international community is essential for the success of Myanmar's democratic transition and to bring stability to the country, it must also take into account the concerns of all parties with regard to the ceasefire pact. Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a political scientist and author of 'Democracy Movement in Myanmar: Problems and Challenges'. The article first appeared in Bangkok Post newspaper.