Reviewing the Progress of the Peace Process in Myanmar

The article is published in Thinking ASEAN Issue 31 / January 2018

Beginning with the high expectations at the start of 2017, Myanmar’s Year of Peace instead concluded as the castle in the air with on-going armed conflicts in Kachin and Northern Shan States as well as the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State. The political commitments of the Government and Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signatories following rounds of 21st Century Panglong Conferences were still scant to create the synergy for an all- inclusive nationwide ceasefire and political reforms through the dialogues. Although a parallel peace process has been proposed by the Northern Alliance, the NCA Road Map is still the official position of both the Myanmar Government and the military (Tatmadaw), which have kept the NCA- led peace process afloat. However, the turbulence of 2017 has crafted a significant paradigm shift in the Myanmar peace process.These are the crucial factors that have shaped the landscape of the Myanmar peace process in 2017 -

The Rise of the Northern Alliance

The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Arkan Army (AA), which had both been considered as the proxy to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are now taking bold steps, creating a military coalition The Northern Alliance with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). With the political leadership of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) was established with the Northern Alliance, UWSA, National Democratic Alliace Army (NDAA) and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) at the 4th Phangkham Summit. Apart from the Northern Alliance, other members have already signed bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Government and have certain levels of political and administrative autonomy within their control areas. The political ambition of the UWSA, to acquire the Autonomous State from the Self-Administered Division, is the primary factor that led the creation of the FPNCC.

Both the Government and Tatmadaw do not recognize TNLA, MNDAA and AA as official dialogue partners; instead after a request from Naypyidaw, Beijing mediated, insisted upon, and logistically supported the Northern Alliance to participate at the 2nd session of the Panglong Peace Conference. A number of dialogues had been conducted both within Myanmar (Phangsan and Mongla) and China. Having the dialogues through UWSA and Chinese
mediation can be considered as a positive factor, however clashes have intensified between the Northern Alliance and the Tatmadaw during 2017.

The operation area of TNLA has expanded to the west and south of Shan State, reaching the boundary of Mandalay Region. This triggered conflicts between TNLA and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), creating tensions between Palong and Shan communities. Arkan Army also occupied the headquarter of the NCA signatory, the Arkan Liberation Party (ALP) in Palatwa to conduct operations in Rakhine States, which also complicated the situation at a time when the humanitarian crisis in the region was under the spotlight. Minor clashes remain with MNDAA along the China-Myanmar border but the Kokang region may linger for years before it can achieve the tranquility that existed before the 2015 conflict. Tensions between KIA and Tatmadaw remain and in early 2018, the Tatmadaw announced that they had occupied over hundreds of KIA outposts; a claim denied by the KIA.

Reaching a ceasefire agreement with the Northern Alliance and holding political dialogue with the FPNCC are keys to achieve a nationwide ceasefire. However, bringing the FPNCC, particularly the UWSA onboard the NCA roadmap is far reaching. Their proposals at the Panglong conference sought for a revision to the NCA and for an alternative track. Unlike the United Nationalities Federal Council, the FPNCC’s coordination with other Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) is limited, creating northern and southern blocs of EAOs and a distinctive and unique set of peace process roadmap. The rise of the Northern Alliance is the wake-up call to revise the peace process roadmap and spotlight the Government’s lack of peace process strategy to include non- signatories in the peace process.

Beijing’s Active Involvements 

Beijing’s involvement during the peace process was low compared with the EU until 2015. However, clashes along the Kokang– Yunnan border, the rise of the Northern Alliance and FPNCC affirmed Beijing’s crucial role in the process. The Northern Alliance’s appeal to involve Beijing in the Myanmar Peace Process shifted the paradigm from the western-led structural peace process (the NCA Roadmap) into more dynamic dialogues with EAOs along with the regional power house. Supporting Beijing’s grand project of OBOR, the Northern Alliance provides guarantees to the strategic interest of ‘the Panda’ over Myanmar. Mediating with the FPNCC, providing guarantees to support the peace process, and hosting some dialogue meetings in Yunnan may be considered as positive involvements, however, it still falls short. Beijing’s influence over its former ally, UWSA, MNDAA and NDAA is unquestionable, but there is still a big question mark on other EAOs as to what extent Beijing is using them as proxies.

The bumpy relationship with Beijing is over. Beijing has finally won the heart of Naypyidaw, but this time with the bonus. Siding along with Myanmar on the Rohingya crisis, its popularity among the locals has reached peak levels and pro- Beijing rallies were organized in Yangon. China’s courting of Myanmar through multi-level diplomacy has paid off, with the official visit of the State Counsellor to Beijing twice within a year, just a few weeks after the Commander in Chief of the Myanmar Tatmadaw had also visited. This is a major milestone in China–Myanmar relations since they were established in 1948. Beijing’s political will to achieve peace and stability along the border is crystal clear and it has shown its supports to the Myanmar Government’s efforts. However, whether the political capital of Beijing is enough to mediate between the EAOs and the Myanmar government to agree a common political roadmap is still questionable.

Panglong – Dialogue without Framework 

Soon after the signing of the NCA, the Framework for Political Dialogue was drafted and adopted shortly after the convening of the first session of the Union Peace Conference. After the National League for Democracy Government took over the peace process, the framework was reviewed and revised with the request from signatories on the assumption that they would join the political dialogue in the near future.

The first session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference was convened without a framework, while the second session used the previously adopted framework as well as a newly drafted framework put forward by the signatories. The Ethnic armed group signatories were also coordinating with non-signatories on the framework, however, only with the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and not with the FPNCC.This also pushed the FPNCC to not get involved in the NCA peace process roadmap.

The framework is still being reviewed and is unlikely to be adopted before the next 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference. The lack of framework gives the Government the power to control the process. Its efforts to interfere in the national-level political dialogue, for example, have caused tension with the Restoration Council of Shan State and the hosting of consultative meetings in Shan States has also been interfered.

It is still possible to continue the process without a framework by relying on the political capital of the State Counsellor. However, the danger in doing so is that it undermines and diminishes the value of the NCA as a guarantee between the parties to institutionalize the peace process.

Vague Future for the UNFC - KIA and SSPP’s withdrawal significantly weakens the UNFC. The Delegation for Political Negotiation (DPN) from UNFC had been in negotiations with the Government for nearly a year, but no breakthrough on negotiations has been reached. Within 16 months of the NLD administration, 8 official negotiation meetings were convened, but the 9th meeting has been postponed until further notice. Although negotiations are still going on, members of the UNFC are still undecided on the signing of the NCA. The Kareni National Progressive Party (KNPP) may not sign as the implementation of the NCA is seen as weak and there remains a lack of trust in the NCA track and political dialogue to act as a guarantee to achieve their political vision. At the same time, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) hosted a meeting to sign of the NCA at their headquarters. Although other members politically exist, their lack of active forces operating in Myanmar means they do not have leverage to hold the dialogue with the Government.

Violations and lack of implementations of the bilateral agreements as well as no significant progress on the NCA’s implementations are the primary concern for the KNPP and NMSP. The rise of the FPNCC with active forces and mediation from China have lowered the UNFC’s role in the peace process as well as its political leverage. As the attention is on northern Myanmar and the Government has managed to maintain a certain level of tranquility in southern Myanmar, realizing the UNFC’s 9 points proposal may be far reaching. If either of NMSP or KNPP signed the NCA, the UNFC may follow the fate of other ethnic coalitions in history.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Refugee Return 

The return of refugees and IDPs is one of the key points in the NCA and bilateral agreements as it directly impacts conflict-affected populations. However, the situation has not improved significantly and has even worsened due to conflicts in northern Shan States and Rakhine State.There is no clear plan for the return of IDPs affected by the conflicts in Kachin and Shan State, even though an agreement has been in place since 2012. As of June 2017, there were 166 IDP camps in northern Shan and Kachin states with nearly 100,000 people, as well as 9,000 IDPs in southern Shan State. This figure may increase after the Rakhine Crisis. As the fighting continues, there is little prospect of them returning home soon and the Government has not decided to provide funding to implement it.

Thailand, home to nearly 100,000 refugees in nine refugee camps and probably more who are unregistered, is the another story. Because the situation in southern Myanmar has improved in recent years, Thailand and international donors have begun planning the closure of camps along the border and some have already been returned to Myanmar with their own arrangements. This also creates social conflicts in the region due to land grabbing and ownership issues.

The UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, facilitated the return of some refugees in 2016 but there has been no further progress in 2017. Although the UNHCR submitted a list of prospective returnees in January 2017, it took more than six months for government officials to visit the camps in Thailand and verify them. Approval for repatriation is still pending from Nay Pyi Taw and the process has been delayed for a year.

This is mainly due to the unclear responsibilities and lack of coordination within the administration. In addition, the UNHCR policy of “do no harm” to the host community limits the support it can provide to the refugees. The Government of Myanmar has limited resources to lead the process and it may take many years, even decades, for social services in Myanmar to reach the standard provided in refugee camps in Thailand. This creates an unfavorable environment for the return of refugees back to Myanmar.

The Role of ASEAN 

As the Myanmar peace process is homegrown with little mediation from the international community, the role of ASEAN is limited (also due to the ASEAN non-interference principle). Having said that, Thailand may directly impact on the peace process in Myanmar, particularly on the refugee return. The ASEAN Community may also support the process through contributions and investing in the new industry zones along the Thai-Myanmar border and ASEAN highway. This may create jobs, improve the capacity of the locals and most importantly encourage economic growth in conflict affected regions. However, this still requires further exploration as to what and how ASEAN could contribute in peace building.

The “Myanmar peace year 2017” was not as successful as its name suggested but keeping the peace process is fortunate enough. It is clear that a parallel peace process is already taking shape and 2017 was the significant turning point.This is the time for the Government and Tatmadaw to review how to align and accommodate the parallel process along with the NCA roadmap. Implementing the NCA and building institutions to keep the peace process is crucial, otherwise, it may derail the NCA roadmap and may risk bringing Myanmar back to square one.

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