Four years after the signing of the much-touted nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), armed conflict is worse than before, ethnic people still suffer human rights violations at the hands of the Myanmar military, and natural resource extraction continues in ethnic areas regardless of the devastating social and environmental impacts.
At a ceremony to commemorate four years since the signing of the NCA, the failures of the agreement were laid bare. The ceremony itself comes in the context of heavy fighting in northern Shan State and Rakhine State in particular. Furthermore, key actors did not attend the ceremony. For example, the leader of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), Yawd Serk, did not attend as the military did not grant him permission to travel to Naypyidaw from RCSS headquarters via the Shan State capital, Taunggyi, despite him being one of the main speakers. This quite appropriately reflects the NCA, in that a big show in Naypyidaw was planned, but as regards substance, such as freedom of movement for ethnic leaders, the realities do not reflect the promises. Furthermore, the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar military, Min Aung Hlaing, again blamed EAOs for the failure of the peace process. Regarding the heavy fighting in Rakhine State, he put the blame of the violence squarely on the Arakan Army stated, “Those attacks are inappropriate for our democratization process. The Tatmadaw cannot just stand by and do nothing in response to those insurgent attacks.”
The NCA itself was signed on 15 October, 2015, after two years of negotiations with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). Yet despite the ‘nationwide’ title, many major EAOs did not sign, even though they were part of the negotiation process. Naw Zipporah Sein, Vice-President of the Karen National Union at the time, explained the flaws of the NCA in a four-point analysis: the process was exclusionary in that the Government refused to allow all EAOs to sign; the Government was negotiating with EAOs individually, rehashing the military’s old tactic of divide and rule rather than negotiating with EAOs as a bloc which was their preference; the military continued to launch military offensives during the negotiation period leading to a lack of trust from EAOs in the process; and the pre-existing ceasefire arrangements were continually being broken by the government especially in terms of codes of conduct and demarcation. This analysis, written shortly after the NCA was signed has proved prescient, and the issues raised continue to be salient today.
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speaking at the NCA ceremony, proposed a three step plan to reinvigorate the NCA process: continue holding Union Peace Conferences; involve non-signatory EAOs in the NCA, and for the people to enjoy the ’fruits of peace.’ Yet for such steps to be accomplished, the same issues that Naw Zipporah Sein highlighted in her analysis upon the signing of the NCA must be addressed. For example, the Myanmar military not complying with existing agreements in Karen State has caused fear among villagers in Mutraw district as the military seeks to take advantage of the ceasefire and rebuild two military roads that pass through civilian areas. Described as a “nightmare” for local people, a statement by the Karen Peace Support Network explained that “Fearing that this military road construction will renew war, cause violence, destroy their homelands, and drive them away from their home, on 25 October 2019, around thousands of villagers in Lutaw Township, Mutraw District gathered in two locations and called for the Burma Army to withdraw their military road construction as well as withdraw their military camp from Mutraw land.”
Furthermore, while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may have limitations regarding her control over the Myanmar military, her government could do more to rebuild trust in ethnic areas rather than facilitate the exploitation of natural resources such as coal at the expense of the environmental health and living conditions of local ethnic people. In her oral update to 41st Session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee reported how in the case of Tigyit coal mining power plant “independent scientific testing and expert analysis found that the air and water surrounding the power plant contains pollutants and concentrations of toxic heavy metals at levels which greatly exceed the national guidelines.” The decision to extend the operations of the Tigyit coal mining power plant in southern Shan State exemplifies this as it blatantly ignores the wishes and opposition of local people in order to gain profit and please neighboring China.
The refusal to allow the Arakan Army to sign the NCA four years ago and the subsequent outbreak in heavy fighting with the AA since November 2018 demonstrates that unless all actors engage in the peace process in good faith, conflict only intensifies. Yet the Myanmar military continues its offensives, further damaging trust with ethnic leaders and ethnic people. The militarization in areas such as Karen State, the exploitation of land in ethnic areas, and the ongoing armed conflict point to failure of the NCA process that was built on the shakiest of foundations. All actors involved in the peace process would do well to take on board the concluding recommendations from the recent Karen Grassroots Women Network, including to take “a much-needed new approach to overcome the stalled and delayed peace process.” A start would be for the Myanmar military to declare a unilateral ceasefire effective immediately, withdraw troops from ethnic areas, and engage in substantive political dialogue that includes amending the 2008 Constitution and working towards a federal democracy.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By 33 Civil Society Organizations
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
By Burma Campaign UK
By Fortify Rights
By Human Rights Watch
By Karen Grassroots Women Network
By UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”