Myanmar's government runs the risk of ceding so much control to the Tatmadaw (national army) that it simply becomes irrelevant to the peace process.
The next 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference is supposed to be just a few weeks away, but you wouldn’t know it from the Tatmadaw’s recent behaviour.
Extrajudicial killings, disruption of peace meetings, fresh offensives: if you are trying to get people around a table, it’s a strange way to go about it.
In recent weeks, we’ve had the deaths of four Karenni Army soldiers in military custody and the shootout at a Tatmadaw base that left two Lahu People’s Militia members dead. In the north, fighting has erupted with both the Kachin Independence Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army. Meanwhile, the Restoration Council of Shan State – a signatory of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement - has been blocked from holding public consultation meetings in Taunggyi, the state capital. At the same time, Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has regularly accused those groups who have not signed the ceasefire agreement of not wanting peace.
Doubtless the ethnic armies are not blameless. But taken together, there’s a pattern of belligerence that suggests the military is not committed to a negotiated peace settlement involving some give and take on key issues. On the contrary: final victory through brute force and intimidation seems more accurate based on recent behaviour.
But behind the headlines, the picture is equally bleak. There are essentially three groups in the peace process: those that have signed the nationwide ceasefire; the four active members of the United Nationalities Federal Council; and the seven-member Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, led by the United Wa State Army.
Although the FPNCC comprises the largest and most important ethnic armed groups in the country, the government hasn’t even been able to start a dialogue with the bloc.
Talks have instead focused on the less-powerful UNFC, but the killing of the Karenni Army members is likely to complicate progress.
All is not well with the signatories, though: they are upset about a range of issues, including the lack of a finalised peace dialogue framework, their inability to hold all national dialogue meetings and the government’s failure to convince more groups to sign the ceasefire.
They’re still in – for now. But those tensions are likely to come to a head when the next Panglong meeting is held.
It’s often overlooked how close the process came to falling apart last May, when the government and military tried to strong-arm ethnic armed groups into signing off on 37 points to be included in a future Union Peace Accord, following a dispute over several political resolutions.
That dispute took place when the overall context was much more favourable and conducive to agreement. Since then, attitudes have only hardened; the disappointments felt more keenly.
It’s hard to see similar progress being made at the next Panglong meeting, which is supposed to be held at the end of this month. If anything, it will only exacerbate the underlying tensions.
The government realised long ago that progress on peace would be tougher than it expected, and as a result pivoted to more of an economic development agenda.
There are risks, though. While it can’t implement the peace agenda that it desires, it also needs to remain active and engaged. It needs to build trust with ethnic armed groups and other stakeholders.
At present, the government runs the risk of ceding so much control to the Tatmadaw that it simply becomes irrelevant to the peace process. Not only that, it has, through its own mistakes and failings, alienated many potential allies.
The frustration among activists was palpable at the CSO peace forum in early January, when they defied instructions not to draft policy papers on basic federal principles for the Union Peace Accord.
Why civil society is not supposed to involve itself in the basic principles – the most fundamental aspects of a post-peace federal state – is unclear. But it suggests, at least, that something is very wrong with Myanmar’s peace process.
This article was first published by Frontier