By Anna Plunkett
On February 13, 2018, the number of signatories on Burma’s National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) grew from eight to ten with the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) officially joining at a ceremony held in the state capital Naypyidaw. Peace and reconciliation have been the primary focuses of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) since its landslide victory in the 2015 election. The cornerstone policy has been the NCA, which was established under President Thein Sein’s government and aims to negotiate between the government and the numerous Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) throughout Burma. Despite multiple peace conferences since 2015, the addition of two new signatories to the NCA in February has been the first tangible development in Burma’s peace process under the new NLD-led government. So, is this development the breath of life the beleaguered peace agreement has needed – or has it simply masked the larger problems within Burma’s peace process?
Either way, it has brought a glimmer of hope to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace and reconciliation aspirations that have not only been her primary objective since 2015 but a lifelong cause. Best known for her years under house arrest, Daw Suu is internationally recognised as a symbol of non-violent struggle against oppression. However, since taking office in early 2016 she and the NLD have struggled to make any progress on this central objective despite inclusive peace conferences with a variety of armed actors. Thus, the signing of two new armed groups to the NCA is the first substantial and official development within a highly-coveted peace process.
The NCA itself was developed under the leadership of President Thein Sein, Burma’s first civilian leader, elected in 2011. A former general, President Thein Sein brought mass political and economic reforms to Burma – among them the NCA. The National Ceasefire Agreement aimed to bring peace to Burma and unify multitude bilateral ceasefires that have been previously established around the country. Although it failed to meet its national aspirations, eight of the fifteen invited groups signed the agreement in October 2015. This progress was marred with criticism after the main active armed opposition groups remained among the groups unwilling to sign the NCA.
This challenge to peace remains – Burma’s strongest opposition groups continue to oppose rather than negotiate with the government. Since 2011, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is actively engaged in combat with the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army). This war continues, mostly forgotten in the wake of the Rohingya crisis in the south of the country, which has seen the mass forced migration of almost 700,000 civilians into Bangladesh among claims of horrendous and systematic crimes against humanity. These crises within Burma’s borderlands highlight not only obstacles to the NCA but to Burma’s transition from war to peace.
The signing of two more groups to the NCA, the first substantial development since the original signing in late 2015, should be a cause for celebration. It represents long awaited progress in a war of almost seventy years. At the signing ceremony, Daw Suu confirmed the government’s commitment to fostering peace with the ten or so EAOs yet to sign the NCA. Nevertheless, the central concern remains the same – the largest EAOs still refuse to sign and conflict continues to plague many communities within the borderlands. There is no doubt that steps towards a more comprehensive NCA represent not only success for the peace process but for the NLD government, struggling to live up to citizen’s expectations as it is.
As things stand, these successes are more superficial than lasting. Less than one month on, cracks are beginning to show in this newly reconfigured ceasefire. At the end of February, a skirmish was reported between the NMSP and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in Ye Township of Mon State. Although fighting between the two groups is known to occur over land disputes, their newly forged alliance through the NCA provides a disconcerting backdrop to the escalation. This point is perhaps underlined by the Mon leadership’s refusal to give up their arms despite signing the NCA last month. A commitment to the peace process has been made, but the trust in it to work has yet to be forged.
Mistrust continues to undermine further agreements with non-members of the NCA. The Karenni National People’s Party (KNPP) has stated that it will delay its decision on whether to sign the ceasefire agreement until it can be established if the Tatmadaw were responsible for the deaths of three party members and a civilian. Although the Tatmadaw launched an investigation, the KNPP leadership remains unsure of its validity given the nature of the incident.
These proceedings demonstrate the fragility and complex environment in which the government attempts to forge nationwide peace and reconciliation. The signing of the NMSP and LDU has been a major step forward and may provide some momentum to what has been a beleaguered peace process. However, major obstacles to the NLD’s central objective persist. Fighting within the country continues between ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw, the Rohingya Crisis has taken on new proportions with villages now flattened within Rakhine State, and general mistrust of the army throughout the country remains high. Until the government can resolve some of these long-term underlying mistrust issues between the actors involved, it is unlikely that the peace process can be anything but tenuous.
Anna is a doctoral researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She received her BA in Politics and Economics from the University of York, before receiving a scholarship to continue her studies at York with an MA in Post-War Recovery. She was the recipient of the Guido Galli Award for her MA dissertation. Her primary interests include conflict and democracy at the sub-national level, understanding how transitions are implemented at the local level. You can follow her on Twitter @AnnaBPlunkett