First published in The Sydney Globalist.
Government aspirations to finalise a nationwide ceasefire agreement by February 12, the 68th anniversary of Myanmar’s Union Day, remain unfulfilled, a sobering reminder of age-old tensions and broken promises.
On Feb 12, 1947, Shan, Kachin, Chin and Burmese representatives signed the Panglong Agreement to form the ‘Union of Burma’ and preceded the nation’s independence from British colonial rule. The agreement, spearheaded by General Aung San, marked a turning point in Myanmar’s ethnic conflict, promising full autonomy for frontier communities. More than six decades later, peace talks are still continuing, a ceasefire agreement remains unsigned and the legacy of Gen. Aung San, father of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is yet to ripen.
Dr Myint Cho, director of the Sydney based Burma Office, recognises the historical significance of Union Day but said the government’s failure to materialise a genuine union of Burma, has caused mistrust and suspicion.
“The ethnic minorities cannot trust a central government dominated by a Burmese majority. The civilian government has announced it is trying to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Union Day, but I don’t believe it can organise that kind of agreement without mutual respect and trust,” he said.
Negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire agreement began in 2013 but the National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC) have extended several deadlines since August 2014. Peace negotiators recently met in Chiang Mai, Thailand, ahead of the government’s desired Union Day deadline but with a number of issues unresolved and ongoing violence in the Kachin State, a seventh round of talks is required, although a date has not been secured.
14 of the 16 ethnic groups represented by the NCCT have existing bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government but the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have not renewed its agreement with the Myanmar army since the original accord collapsed in 2011. Following the demise of the bilateral ceasefire arrangement, sporadic violence has intensified in the Kachin state, significantly stalling nationwide negotiations.
In November 2014, artillery fired by the Myanmar army killed 23 unarmed Kachin cadets. The army claimed that the firing was inadvertent and offered no further explanations. Violence reignited when a state transport minister and three accompanying policemen were taken captive by the KIA in the following months. Although the officials were released, the consequential violence left 98,000 displaced in the northern state.
Recent reports of illegal Chinese loggers caught in the midst of government and rebel fighting also renewed decade old issues pertaining to land rights in the resource rich areas of the Kachin state.
In a statement issued by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), joint secretary, Hkun Okker said heavy fighting interfered with ceasefire negotiations.
“There are still military offenses, we need to stop military operations and fighting on the ground before we sign the document,” he said.
Against the backdrop of sporadic violence, NCCT peace negotiations have been drastically delayed and both the government and KIA have blamed opposing groups for failing to commit to serious peace negotiations.
The Information Minister and presidential spokesman U Ye Htut, accused the KIA of intentionally disrupting peace talks and stumbling the negotiation process. In a social media post, the Minister argued that the KIA had deliberately engaged in a military offensive to hamper peace talks. The blame game continued publically in an interview with Channel News Asia, when senior General Min Aung Hlaing, suggested ethnic groups were indifferent to peace talks.
He told Channel News Asia, “If they really want peace, there is no reason why they should not get it. If they wish to go along the path of democracy, and they have teh desire to bring unity and development in their region, they can choose this path.”
In response to government accusations, General Gun Maw, deputy chief of KIA, confirmed the NCCT’s commitment to peace and security in an interview with The Irrawaddy,
“What the Burma Army Commander-in-Chief said can be interpreted in different ways, but in fact, peace is the concern for all. Both the government and ethnic armed groups have responsibility. It is also important that the entire nation takes part in the process. I’d like to say that everyone is responsible,” he said.
Dr Myint Cho believes that armed ethnic groups are genuinely seeking guaranteed peace, acceptance and equality representation for all ethnicities in the army and public sphere.
“Ethnic armed groups should not be held responsible for any failure of ceasefire talks… the groups want a federal union army, not one that is controlled by one commander-in-chief and this is the main obstacle- how to form a genuine federal army including all ethnic minorities,” he said.
Dr Myint Cho of the Burma Office explained the government’s commitment to peace is deeply flawed and without fundamental amendments to the constitution and the cooperation of teh military, the government cannot promise a functioning ‘Union of Burma’.
“I strongly believe the government has no real commitment to holding substantial talks for ceasefire agreements and peace talks… there have been some limited reforms and some negotiations but the government has no real commitment for genuine reforms and peace processes. They are playing a political game to maintain the legitimacy of military control in all aspects of life in Burma,” he said.
The current constitution, ratified through highly flawed elections, boycotted by the NLD, guarantees military domination of the executive and legislative arms of control and without the cooperation and commitment from the army, the government cannot materialise a ceasefire agreement.
President Thein Sein’s government has proposed that a nationwide ceasefire agreement should coincide with the national elections set for early November but without adequate constitutional reform, the 68th Union Day will only be a glaring reminder of fragmented promises.