Myanmar's peace process at a critical stage

opinion March 24, 2014 00:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

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The Fragile peace process between Nayphidaw and ethnic groups has reached a critical stage - it can either move ahead with a nation-wide ceasefire agreement soon or be dragged on without any deadline. Complicated the whole endeavor has been the political

President Thien Sein knows full well the present timeframe is the best to succeed. That helps explain why at the latest round of informal session in Yangon recently between the representatives of Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and ethnic groups went well. They agreed to form a joint working group to work together on a new draft ceasefire, instead of dwelling on their own drafts. As such, it would help to narrow differences on time-frame and substance of political dialogues that follows. 
After taking power in early 2011, Thein Sein reiterated that one of his top priorities would be the national reconciliation with all ethnic groups. He dropped the condition required all ethnic groups to join the border guard force before entering peace talks and offered to hold a national convention to seek a political solution.
For the past three years, more than 250 meetings and consultations among the conflicting parties were held at various levels. Ethnic groups have differences concerning the timeframe of nation-wide ceasefire and the framework of political dialogue. For instance, while the government prefers the ceasefire to begin first followed by political dialogue, the Kachin Independence Organisation wants dialogue to proceed first. The Restoration Council of Stan State/Shan State and the Karen National Union Army go along with the government’s plan.
But what is more interesting is the latest Tatmadaw’s position, which has maintained hard lined position all along. But at the Yangon meeting, Lt Gen Myint Soe, the Tatmadaw’s chief negotiator, was forward-looking and positive generating optimism that the ceasefire agreement could be signed within August or earlier. There have been wide-spread speculations as to the military’s latest moves, especially on the future of Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Any nationwide peace deal would further consolidate their leadership. Earlier, Thein Sein indicated that he would not entertain the second presidential run. He might have a second thought if the peace process yields results. Otherwise, Aung Hlaing could be his presidential successor.
Apart from local players, increasingly outside players are also engaging in the process. In numerous meetings in Chiangmai and inside Myanmar, Thai authorities have been providing security and logistic supports from all concerned parties. However, Thailand does not take part in the peace talks while China and the United Nations and of late Japan have representatives at meetings.
Thailand shares 2,400 kilometers of porous border with Myanmar where various ethnic groups have their livings straddling the frontier. Yangon-based Thai diplomats are closely following the progress that will impact directly on the cross-border security and other transactions. With the return of National Security Chief, Thawin Piansri, next month the Thai border’s security will receive the much needed focus.
China has made its presence felt in the peace talks. With the Kachin Independent Organization and United Wa State Army controls areas along the 2,204 kilometers border with Yunnan. This southern province has enjoyed cross-border trade for decades with Myanmar. Only recently, Beijing has increased its role in dispatching humanitarian assistance to displaced persons in Kachin-controlled areas. Changes that would give better access to Nayphidaw will change the current the border’s status quo.
In coming months, it would be interesting to watch how the negotiation continues as the current Asean chair navigates the peace process amidst the over-arching Asean-China relations, especially over the South China Sea disputes. Myanmar is also the coordinator of Asean-US relations. The Thein Sein government is working hard to ensure President Barack Obama’s return later this year for the East Asia Summit.
After the appointment of Mr Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation (NF) last February as Japan’s the special envoy for the national reconciliation for Myanmar, the low-profile philanthropist has increased contacts with armed ethnic groups with personal visits coupling with humanitarian assistance.
Japan’s recent aid package of US$100 million to help the peace process has also increased Tokyo’s role – much to the chagrins of other donors – particularly funding for ad hoc and outreaching activities in Nayphidaw and border areas. As all conflicting parties come close to peace, humanitarian assistance to families of combatants also must increase. In case, there is no more nation-wide fighting, huge funding is necessary to provide community-building related programs such as healthcare, education and occupational training.
As the 2015 election is approaching, the peace process has been much politicized. Both government and opposition are positioning themselves to take advantage of the outcomes – whichever way they go. That helps explain why the NCCT and ethnic negotiators realized that failure is not an option. Before their next meeting in Hpa-an, the joint working group’s task is enormous to consolidate all drafts and convergences.