Why has Myanmar’s peace process stalled? Because it divides ethnic groups

Rohingya women walk through Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, on 5 March 2018. Photo: UN Women

The Myanmar government created divisions between ethnic armed groups, preventing effective dialogue and perpetuating conflict. Unless the government can earn the trust of ethnic groups, peace talks will continue to stall.

By Skylar Lindsay

“The fighting has been going on in this area for so long that abnormal situations of war and fighting become somewhat normalised, day-to-day, life for people. No one should live a life like that.”

Kham Awn, of the Shan Women’s Action Network, was describing life in northern Shan State, Myanmar. The area has seen renewed violent clashes between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military in recent months, displacing thousands from their homes. A new report by Amnesty International documents war crimes by both the military and ethnic armed groups. 

But Kham Awn’s description could just as easily describe daily life elsewhere in Myanmar, especially in areas of Rakhine State, in the country’s southwest.

On October 26, the Arakan Army (AA) stopped a ferry in Rakhine State and took at least 50 people hostage. After holding them for over a week, the armed group released 25 civilians but kept the remaining hostages, who it claims are security personnel. Myanmar’s police have since detained and begun to interrogate the released hostages.

Though Myanmar’s peace process trudges on, a consistent lack of trust between the government and ethnic armed groups, fueled by violence and posturing, continues to prevent real progress. The Myanmar government’s approach to the peace process has divided ethnic groups, whether intentionally or not, undermining the negotiations, eroding trust, and perpetuating the conflict. Unless the Myanmar military ceases all offensives and the government commits to earning the trust of ethnic groups, peace talks will continue to stall.

“It is ethnic areas that are turned into battlefields,” Mahn Nyein Maung, a member of the Karen National Union (KNU) Central Standing Committee, said recently. “Though we can forgive and forget, the majority of ethnic people can’t do so. Their lives have been seriously impacted. As they are both physically and mentally damaged, it is very difficult to rebuild.”

The peace process staggers as Myanmar’s military attempts to divide ethnic armed groups

The Myanmar government’s principal peace negotiation tool is still the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed by 10 ethnic armed groups. The government’s Peace Commission is also pursuing bilateral agreements with ethnic armed groups who are not signatories of the NCA.

For NCA signatories, the agreement serves as a relatively reliable bulwark against renewed violence and also as a crucial step in the government’s 21st Century Panglong peace plan. But it also introduces divisions between ethnic groups. 

Only NCA signatories are allowed to participate in the process. The follow-up to the NCA centres around the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM) process, a series of meetings that have periodically brought together the 10 NCA signatories as well as the Tatmadaw.

This effectively establishes tiers of ethnic armed groups and introduces a dangerous dynamic between NCA signatories and non-signatories. Whether it’s their intention or not, it looks as though the government is working to create divides between ethnic groups.

But the NCA includes only 20% of the country’s non-state armed forces, according to the peace process monitoring team at Burma News International (BNI). Major actors like the United Wa State Army (UWSA) refuse to touch the NCA because it excludes so many fellow armed groups. Major NCA signatories have threatened to pull out of the process—both in order to maintain their legitimacy as non-state actors claiming to represent those who reject the status quo, and also to protest the government’s inconsistencies.

The peace process has built a dangerous dynamic for the majority of ethnic armed groups

Non-signatories have much more volatile relationships with the government, characterized by distrust and inconsistency. In December 2018, the military declared a unilateral ceasefire that explicitly excluded Rakhine State. When members of the Northern Alliance of ethnic armed groups, including the AA, launched attacks in northern Shan State in mid-August, the groups said the attack was intended to relieve pressure on the AA and draw the military’s resources away from Rakhine. 

An ethnic Rohingya child refugee begs on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Photo: Naz Amir

The members of the Northern Alliance—the AA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), though the KIA didn’t participate in the August 15 attacks—had been calling on the military to expand its ceasefire to include Rakhine as far back as April.

This was a warning from ethnic armed groups that they won’t allow the government to advance the peace process in some states while the military undertakes operations in another, but the military and the government have yet to heed the warning. The AA said in a recent statement: “If the Myanmar army is continuing [sic] heavy offensives against us, we will resort to responding by what we should do together with our alliance brothers.”

TNLA Colonel Mei Aik Kyaw reiterated his group’s support of the AA’s statement. “We have both political and military cooperation with the AA,” he told Radio Free Asia. “As a fellow ethnic armed group of the Northern Alliance, we have a duty to stand with the AA.”

Distrust deepens as violence and alleged war crimes continue in Shan State

Due in part to the military’s continued campaign in Rakhine State, there has been limited progress towards peace in northern Shan State Since since mid-August.

“Apart from a few peace talks in Kengtung, the government is doing nothing much to help ease the danger and hardships that people in Northern Shan State are facing,” Kham Awn of SWAN told ASEAN Today.

On October 31, members of the Northern Alliance met with Sun Guoxiang, Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs, in Yunnan, as part of an ongoing Chinese effort to broker peace. When the armed groups last met with the Myanmar military in mid-September, the parties agreed “in principle” on seven points, including to pursue a durable ceasefire. 

The military has begun to acknowledge that the peace process effectively ignores the key issues for some ethnic groups.

In October, at the fourth anniversary of the NCA, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said that the government should prioritize the demands of ethnic groups in the constitutional amendment process.

This is a trend that continues to undermine peace talks, both with NCA signatories and members of the Northern Alliance.

Politicians from ethnic parties have expressed scepticism. “Lip service alone is not enough,” said U Pe Than, a lawmaker with the Arakan National Party.

“If we are to move ahead in the peace process, there are three key stakeholders: [the] government, Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] and ethnic armed organisations or ethnicities. There is a need to understand the lives and wishes of ethnic people,” Mahn Nyein Maung of the KNU said recently.

Mahn Nyein Maung also specifically referenced the Myanmar government’s crackdown on the celebration of Karen Martyrs’ Day in August and the ensuing arrests of at least six ethnic Karen activists on charges related to illegal assembly. According to the KNU representative, these kinds of incidents “fuel the suspicions of ethnic people” and “will seriously affect the peace process.”

Will peace come from building coalitions across ethnicities?

The government’s failure to understand ethnic groups could also have political ramifications. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s main challengers in the 2020 election will likely come from ethnic political parties and ethnic party politicians have begun emphasizing the need to build coalitions across states and ethnicities. 

This has been a strategy among ethnic armed groups for years. Leaders of ethnic political organizations had endorsed the NLD in the hope that the party would address ethnic groups’ demands for self-determination. As the NLD government has largely failed on this front, it now seems that ethnic leaders are looking to build political coalitions and take matters into their own hands.

The impact of the government’s failure to understand ethnic groups is immediate and destructive, especially in Rakhine and northern Shan. Groups like Shan Women’s Action Network, Amnesty and Fortify Rights are working to document rights violations and the effects of war.

“Women and girls who arrested by Burma army soldiers were forced to walk to the frontline in conflict areas,” Kham Awn said. “Some have lost a leg or been injured by landmines and some have been killed by exploding artillery shells.”

Ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military often bear equal responsibility for carrying out attacks in the ongoing conflicts, but it’s the government’s posturing and its unilaterally-determined peace process that have failed to bring about a resolution. The government’s peace process has prioritized the state’s political goals and ignored ethnic demands for federalism, autonomy and equal rights. 

This agenda has, understandably, sown distrust between the government and armed groups. As long as violence like this persists, the government will be unable to build the trust among ethnic groups necessary to advance the peace process.