Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar
Myanmar’s latest peace conference, held on 24-29 May 2017, made welcome progress. Following a deal brokered by China on the eve of the meeting, more armed groups came to Naypyitaw than expected. On the final day, they agreed on 37 “principles” for a future peace accord, including a key provision that the state will be a federal democracy. Yet despite these steps forward, fundamental questions remain regarding where the peace process is heading and how many armed groups are ready to participate. Without new momentum and broader participation, a negotiated end to the conflict will remain elusive.
Until just days before the conference, the dynamics appeared much bleaker. The event had been delayed by three months as the government struggled to convince more armed groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Only a few of the planned subnational preparatory dialogues had been held, and others – involving the Shan and Rakhine armed groups – had been blocked by the authorities, adding to frustration. In a further setback, in April the powerful United Wa State Party (UWSP) convened a summit of seven north-east-based armed groups. They issued a statement rejecting the current National Ceasefire Agreement text – an accord signed in 2015 by eight armed groups and the government that paved the way for political talks – and announcing a new alliance, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC, “Wa alliance”). A deadlock appeared inevitable since the government and military continued to insist that only by signing the existing ceasefire agreement could armed groups join the peace process.
What would have been a high-profile failure of Aung San Suu Kyi’s signature initiative was only avoided through Beijing’s last-minute shuttle diplomacy. After obtaining concessions from the Myanmar government and military, a Chinese envoy convinced representatives of the seven north-eastern armed groups to attend the conference. As a result, fifteen of 21 armed groups were present for the opening – the eight that signed the ceasefire agreement and the seven in the new Wa alliance – a symbolically important win for the government. Beyond symbolism, this also set an important precedent by allowing three previously-excluded groups – the Kokang, Palaung and Arakan armies – to join negotiations. It also could open up new channels of communication with groups in the Wa alliance.
Yet progress should not be overstated. The Wa alliance groups attended the opening session and dinner but were not permitted to participate in substantive sessions and returned to Kunming two days before the end of the conference. They remain unwilling to sign the current ceasefire agreement and the government remains unwilling to revise it. It is unclear how much appetite there is on all sides for concessions needed to bring these groups into the peace process.
Discussions with the armed groups that signed the ceasefire agreement also were far from smooth. Key “principles” related to self-determination and the possibility for states to have their own constitutions within a future federal structure could not be agreed as groups opposed the quid pro quo requirement that they reject any possibility of secession. This failure to achieve what should have been an acceptable compromise – state constitutions are a longstanding demand of ethnic communities and no group wishes to secede – highlighted deficiencies in the process and lack of trust. Furthermore, the principles that were agreed were pushed through the plenary without discussion.
With its last-minute intervention, China has assumed a high-profile role in the process. But the extent of its commitment remains unclear and its interests do not necessarily align with those of a robust peace process. If it stays focused only on delivering symbolic wins at critical moments, little may change. But if China is determined to see sustainable peace on its border, it can use its considerable leverage as well as sophisticated diplomacy and mediation to push all sides to compromise.
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