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Myanmar Foreign Minister and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attended the opening ceremony of the Union Peace Conference at Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city, on 12 January 2016. AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Briefing 149 / Asia

Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue

After almost 70 years of armed conflict, Myanmar has a rare but fading opportunity to finalise a broad-based, federal settlement. The government must adopt a more flexible approach that allays opposition concerns, and armed groups need to go beyond preliminaries and engage in meaningful discussions.

Also available in: Burmese [PDF]

I. Overview

The current government term may be the best chance for a negotiated political settlement to almost 70 years of armed conflict that has devastated the lives of minority communities and held back Myanmar as a whole. Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration have made the peace process a top priority. While the previous government did the same, she has a number of advantages, such as her domestic political stature, huge election mandate and strong international backing, including qualified support on the issue from China. These contributed to participation by nearly all armed groups – something the former government had been unable to achieve – in the Panglong-21 peace conference that commenced on 31 August. But if real progress is to be made, both the government and armed groups need to adjust their approach so they can start a substantive political dialogue as soon as possible.

Pangalong-21 was important for its broad inclusion of armed groups, not for its content, and the challenges going forward should not be underestimated. Many groups attended not out of support for the process, but because they considered they had no alternative. Many felt that they were treated poorly and the conference was badly organised. The largest opposition armed group, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), sent only a junior delegation that walked out on the second day. An escalation of fighting in recent months, including use of air power and long-range artillery by the Myanmar military, has further eroded trust.

Such issues are not unexpected; what matters is the resilience of the process to deal with them. The announced scheduling of further Panglong-21 conferences every six months (the next for February 2017) imposes an artificially rigid timeframe that limits the flexibility required to overcome obstacles. Weak capacity in the government’s peace secretariat, the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC), is another challenge. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a sine qua non for participation in the upcoming political dialogue process – future Panglong-21 conferences and the discussions feeding into them – that has been clearly articulated by both the government and military. This will be even harder if the military continues its forceful posture on the ground.

Eight groups signed the NCA in October 2015, but at least ten other armed groups have reservations. Some, like the UWSP, have better de facto self-governance arrange­ments already and worry their status would be undermined by signing. Others are concerned that the new government has a more unilateral approach to the peace process and that if they sign, political solutions are more likely to be imposed than negotiated. Three groups without bilateral ceasefires are resisting government demands to issue statements renouncing armed struggle in principle.

The government should consider adopting a more flexible timeframe for the peace conferences and reassure armed groups by demonstrating a less unilateral approach to the process in general. It needs to ensure that civil society, women and youth have a stronger voice in the process. It should also take steps to ensure that it has the necessary support capacity in place at the NRPC.

Armed groups need to recognise that though they have legitimate concerns about the process, they are unlikely to get a better chance to achieve a negotiated political settlement. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal, democratic solution and has unparalleled political authority to deliver it, particularly with the Burman majority. Now is the time to start discussing the contours of that deal, rather than continuing to focus on preliminaries.

The alternative is not attractive. Time is not on the side of the armed groups. Unless both sides grasp the current opportunity, the prospect of a negotiated solution will recede, likely to be replaced by a messy, drawn-out endgame that fails to address the underlying grievances of the minority communities, including their demands for a federal system and greater equality. This would be to the detriment of peace and stability in the borderlands and to Myanmar’s future as a prosperous, tolerant and democratic country.

II. Peace Legacy from the Previous Government

A. Peace Process with Armed Groups

The administration that took power on 30 March 2016 inherited a peace process that had been in stasis during the lame-duck period leading up to the November 2015 elections and the lengthy handover period afterwards.[fn]For recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 146, Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive, 16 September 2015; 144, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, 15 May 2014; 143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014; also Reports N°s 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266 Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and, for more detailed historical background on the armed conflict, 214, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, 30 November 2011.Hide Footnote  The previous government had had considerable early success, agreeing bilateral ceasefires with fifteen armed groups between 2011 and 2013 (see Appendix B and the acronyms in Appendix C). There was much optimism on 31 March 2015, when the government and armed group negotiating teams initialled the NCA. However, concerns over the lack of inclusivity (the government did not allow the three groups without bilateral ceasefires – AA, TNLA and MNDAA – to sign) as well as about giving the government of then-President Thein Sein a major victory just ahead of elections, stalled the process. Eventually, eight armed groups signed the NCA at a ceremony on 15 October 2015; the remaining ten involved in the formal peace process did not. This led to some tensions between signatory and non-signatory groups.[fn]For all armed group acronyms, see Appendix B.Hide Footnote

The NCA contains basic principles recognising the territorial integrity of the state (making clear that separatism or irredentism is unacceptable), committing to “principles of democracy and federalism” and embracing the diversity of the peoples and cultures in “a secular state”. A military code of conduct prohibits certain conduct by all parties in ceasefire areas (attacks, reinforcement, recruitment, new bases, laying landmines, etc.) and sets out troop deployment provisions to avoid clashes. There is provision for a joint ceasefire monitoring body, and “interim arrangements” endorse armed groups’ de facto authority in their areas of control for a transitional period. The NCA is to be followed by a “political dialogue”, consisting of a Union Peace Conference to reach a comprehensive peace agreement that would be “the basis for amending, repealing and adding provisions to the constitution and laws, in line with agreed procedures” – that is, through the legislature – along with armed group disarmament and security sector reform.[fn]For a detailed summary of the NCA, see Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process, op. cit., Section IV.Hide Footnote

Finalisation of the NCA was thus only the first step in a long, difficult process needed to reach a comprehensive peace agreement. Many of the most challenging issues, including a possible form of federalism, how revenue would be shared, future status of the armed groups and their possible integration into the military, were deferred to the political dialogue, as were some technical military issues on ceasefire monitoring and code of conduct. It is thus neither a classic ceasefire agreement – many military issues, such as force separation, demarcation and verification, are vague, not included or need further agreement to come into force – nor a full political agreement, as it references many political issues but defers detailed discussion. This hybrid status reflects its genesis, the diverse actors and priorities around the table and political constraints.

Following the partial signing, the previous government took formal steps to implement the NCA, specifically:

  • A first session of the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting, the body mandated to oversee NCA implementation, was held 15-17 October 2015. It established the committees set out in the NCA to take the process forward: the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) for military and ceasefire matters and Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) for political dialogue. The JMC contains ten representatives of NCA-signatory armed groups, ten of government (including military), and four independent civilians; there are also subnational committees. The UPDJC initially had sixteen representatives each of NCA-signatory armed groups, government (including military and legislature) and political parties and was chaired by then-Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham.
     
  • A joint legislative session ratified the NCA on 8 December, giving it legal status.
     
  • A Framework for Political Dialogue was agreed on 15 December, including the mandate, agenda, working methods and proportions of representatives to be included in the dialogue.
     
  • The first Union Peace Conference was held 12 to 16 January 2016, with opening addresses by the president, commander-in-chief, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mutu Say Poe, the head of the Karen National Union armed group. The conference had 700 participants but, occurring in the lame-duck period after the elections, was largely symbolic, intended only to launch the process and keep to the NCA’s ambitious political roadmap. Armed groups that did not sign the NCA were invited to observe, but nearly all declined.[fn]In accordance with the Framework for Political Dialogue, the 700 seats were divided 75 each for government and legislature, 150 for military, 150 each for ethnic armed groups and registered political parties, 50 each for ethnic representatives and other relevant persons. The roadmap required the Framework for Political Dialogue to be agreed within 60 days of the NCA signing and the dialogue to commence within 90 days. One non-signatory group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang, did accept the invitation. Three non-signatory armed groups without bilateral ceasefires (Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) were not invited.Hide Footnote

B. Armed Conflict

Notwithstanding these important procedural developments, the peace process essentially was in stasis between the NCA signing and the new government taking up the issue in April 2016. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remained volatile, with fighting continuing to break out sporadically, and often unexpectedly, in many different parts of the country.

Most groups that signed the NCA are based near the Thai border in southern Shan State and the south-east. Their signing consolidated a fragile local peace, or at least absence of war, that had prevailed for some time. Groups based near the Chinese border did not sign, and the situation in many of those areas continued to be unstable, with regular, sometimes intense fighting, including between ethnic armed groups. The geographic split reflects very different political-economic realities between the areas, including access to funding and weapons and the distinct policies and approaches of China and Thailand.

Serious bouts of conflict since early 2015 include:

  • in Shan State, resumed major fighting between Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) troops and government forces in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone since February 2015, which was particularly intense from February to June that year and again in October 2015. Elsewhere in Shan State, there have been sporadic clashes between government forces and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and between that group and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South). There have also been clashes between government forces and the SSA-North, of particular intensity from October to November 2015 and in August 2016;
     
  • in Kachin State, between government forces and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) throughout the period, and in particular from July to November 2015, and again from April to August 2016;
     
  • in Rakhine State and southern Chin State, occasional, sometimes heavy clashes between government forces and the Arakan Army, in particular in April 2015, January 2016 and from April to June 2016; and
     
  • in Kayin State, clashes in July 2015 and again from August to September 2016 between a renegade faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and government troops together with Border Guard Force soldiers.

Such conflicts are usually accompanied by grave violations of human rights by all belligerents.[fn]See, for example, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar”, UN OHCHR A/HRC/31/71, 18 March 2016.Hide Footnote  They undermine stability and trust in the peace process and severely impact lives and livelihoods – particularly of those most at risk, including women and children – often causing internal displacements.[fn]For a detailed risk analysis, see “Kachin and northern Shan protection concerns and risk analysis”, Protection Sector, October 2015.Hide Footnote  Some 100,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states as a result of fighting following the 2011 breakdown of the KIO ceasefire. Fighting in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone displaced around 80,000 in February 2015, the majority to China, though most have now returned. At least 12,000 were displaced in northern Shan State in the first half of 2016 in the complex conflicts that included government forces, the TNLA and the SSA-South; most have returned home, but some 3,000 remain displaced. The fighting in Rakhine State in March-April 2016 displaced approximately 1,900, who have yet to return home. Most recently, fighting in Kayin State displaced some 4,000 in September 2016.[fn]Figures from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, except Kayin State displacements, from “Tatmadaw launch operations against KKO splinter group in Wah Boh Taung-Kyonhtaw, Methawaw regions”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 17 September 2016.Hide Footnote

III. The New Government’s Approach

A. First Steps

During the previous government’s tenure, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was invited, with other political parties, to participate in the peace process. Though it sent representatives, their engagement was limited. Aung San Suu Kyi kept her distance and was at times critical of the process. Her speech to the inaugural Union Peace Conference in January 2016 (above) was thus significant.

Suu Kyi had indicated that achieving peace would be a top priority for her government, and the NLD’s election manifesto addressed this as its first item, promising to “hold political dialogue based on the Panglong spirit in order to address the roots of internal armed conflict” – referring to the pre-independence Panglong Conference, convened by her father in 1947.[fn]“2015 Election Manifesto”, NLD, official translation, p. 5. For details on the 1947 Panglong Conference, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, op. cit., Section I. The 1947 Panglong Agreement was not a peace deal – there was then no insurgency – but an agreement by some ethnic areas (Shan, Kachin and Chin) to join an independent Burma in return for promises of full autonomy in internal administration and an equal share in national wealth.Hide Footnote  In her first major speech after the transfer of power, a Myanmar New Year’s message to the nation on 18 April, Suu Kyi stated that the government would aim to bring remaining organisations into the NCA, and “through peace conferences, we’ll continue to be able to build up a genuine, federal democratic union”.[fn]“State Counsellor offers New Year message”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 18 April 2016.Hide Footnote  She indicated that she would personally lead the process.

She gave the first concrete indication of her plans at a 27 April JMC meeting, announcing that a new 21st Century Panglong (Panglong-21) peace conference would be held within two months. This caused consternation among ethnic leaders due to both form and substance. There had been no prior consultation with ethnic armed groups or political leaders; and no details were provided on the initiative, which was seen as potentially signalling a unilateral shift in approach in a process with a legally-binding framework that had required months of detailed negotiation. The venue for the announcement compounded these concerns, as the JMC is tasked with military or ceasefire matters, not the political dialogue, for which the UPDJC is the mandated body.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ethnic party and armed group leaders, Yangon, May-July 2016. For example, a month later the leader of the Shan State Army-South, a major armed group that signed the NCA, expressed concern on both aspects. “Lt-Gen Yawd Serk: If this conference is wrong, it will affect the future of the union”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 26 May 2016.Hide Footnote

In a 26-28 May meeting of the UPDJC, which she chairs, Suu Kyi sought to allay some concerns. She confirmed she would continue to follow the NCA framework, and Panglong-21 was only a different name for the Union Peace Conferences that framework envisaged. While this reassured ethnic leaders, other comments raised new concerns, notably her stated intention to narrow the scope of discussions in the political dialogue from the five thematic areas agreed in the UPDJC to federalism and security.[fn]Ibid. “NCA to guide 21st Century Panglong Conference”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 28 May 2016. The previously-agreed five areas are set out in the Framework for Political Dialogue, which is being amended. The three thematic areas proposed to be dropped were: social issues (including culture, language, gender, resettlement, human rights, drugs), economic issues (including foreign investment, tax and revenue distribution and regional development) and issues around land and natural resources (including resource management and revenue sharing).Hide Footnote  This would leave out some key areas of concern and missed an opportunity to build confidence by addressing easier issues, such as language policy. With armed group leaders strongly opposed, the matter was not settled before the Panglong-21 conference, and discussions are ongoing. It is likely armed group concerns will be accommodated, and the dialogue’s scope will remain unchanged, though with some effort to focus on priority issues.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of UPDJC, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  There has to date been little outreach to civil society, and few efforts to engage a wider range of voices in the peace process, particularly women and youth.

The government also announced a new peace architecture on 31 May, with three sets of structures:

  • the NCA-mandated JMC and UPDJC, the latter now chaired by Suu Kyi and with party membership limited to those that won seats in the last elections;
     
  • a committee to transform the previous government’s Myanmar Peace Centre into a National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC). This new centre, launched on 11 July, is headed by Suu Kyi. Under it is a new Peace Commission, chaired by Dr Tin Myo Win, her personal physician and newly-designated chief peace negotiator.[fn]Established by President Office Orders 50/2016 and 51/2016, 11 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Unlike its predecessor, a semi-government body staffed mainly by non-government experts, it is a government institution under Suu Kyi’s State Counsellor Office, staffed by civil servants and governed by civil service laws and financial rules; and
     
  • a Panglong-21 preparatory committee also chaired by Dr Tin Myo Win and sub-committees to liaise respectively with NCA-signatories and non-signatories.

B. Peace Conference Preparations

Though the date for Panglong-21 slipped from her initial late-June proposal, Suu Kyi appeared determined to avoid major delays. This seems to stem from two considerations: not wanting to repeat the experience of the previous government, when negotiations bogged down over process, particularly which armed groups would be included; and a sense that her leverage would be at its greatest early in her term, due to the election landslide. Some observers also believed she wanted the conference before her September meetings with President Obama in Washington DC and at the UN General Assembly. Thus, at her urging, there was agreement with the NCA signatories for Panglong-21 to begin no later than 31 August, a very ambitious timeframe both logistically and for obtaining buy-in of non-signatory armed groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group leaders and international peace-process adviser, Yangon, July-August 2016. “Gov’t, NCA signatories agree to hold UPC no later than 31 August”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 29 June 2016.Hide Footnote

The intention to make Panglong-21 inclusive of all armed groups, stated from the outset, was positively received. This has long been a demand of the non-signatories. On 3 June, as a first step to secure their participation, Dr Tin Myo Win met the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the main umbrella organisation of non-signatories. He then met separately on 17-19 June with the UWSP and NDAA, non-signatories that are not UNFC members. Under the previous government, non-signatories were only invited as observers; the new government got around this by indicating that since the first Panglong-21 conference would be symbolic, with presentations but no negotiations or decisions, all armed groups would be “attendees” (tet-yauk-thu). The government position remained, however, that only signatories could participate in the future political dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Peace Commission, Yangon, August 2016.Hide Footnote

There were also negotiations with the three previously-excluded groups: AA, TNLA and MNDAA. Since these lack bilateral ceasefires, they are not eligible to sign the NCA, and the military previously insisted they must disarm, something the groups equated with surrender. The commander-in-chief subsequently proposed that it would be sufficient to put their arms beyond use in some verifiable way, along the lines of formulas used in Aceh, Nepal and Northern Ireland, but this was rejected.[fn]Ibid. Also, commander-in-chief meeting with press, 13 May 2016, reported in “Tatmadaw sets out peace conference conditions”, Myanmar Times, 16 May 2016.Hide Footnote  Negotiations then focused on a statement committing the groups to renounce armed struggle in principle. Considerable progress was made, with the only sticking point being the Burmese-language term for “armed struggle” versus “violence”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Peace Commission, Yangon, August 2016.Hide Footnote  However, no agreement was reached, the three issued no statement, and they were not invited to Panglong-21. Crucially, however, that did not lead to the UNFC and other non-signatories boycotting, though lack of inclusion had been a key reason cited by groups for not signing the NCA.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process op. cit., Section III.B.Hide Footnote  

In the lead-up to Panglong-21, representatives of seventeen armed groups held a major strategy meeting in the KIO-controlled town of Maijayang, 26-30 July, to coordinate positions on key issues; the UN and China attended as international observers. Four armed groups did not attend (UWSP, MNDAA, TNLA and NSCN-Khaplang). The UWSP, together with its NDAA ally, went to Naypyitaw to meet on 29 July with Suu Kyi and then the commander-in-chief.[fn]The NDAA participated in both the Maijayang meeting and the Naypyitaw visit.Hide Footnote

C. The Panglong-21 Conference

The conference, officially the “Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong”, was held in Naypyitaw from 31 August to 3 September. Suu Kyi’s opening address was followed by plenary speeches from the lower and upper house speakers, the commander-in-chief, the KNU chairman, NLD patron Tin Oo (an ex-commander-in-chief), the KIO vice chairman and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.[fn]The KIO vice chairman’s talk was a last-minute concession; there was initially no speaking slot for the non-signatory groups (Major-General N’Ban La also chairs the UNFC).Hide Footnote

Representatives of nearly all armed groups attended, except the AA, TNLA, MNDAA and NSCN-Khaplang.[fn]The first three were not invited; the NSCN-Khaplang, though invited, had long made clear it would not attend, as it is committed to the creation of an independent Naga homeland out of parts of Myanmar and India, which is politically inconsistent with the NCA and the peace process.Hide Footnote  Some 850 attendees participated over the four days. In a move armed group representatives welcomed for its transparency, the 72 ten-minute speeches were carried live on national television, “the first time in more than 50 years that they [were] able to express their desires and pent up aspirations to a national audience without fear of being arrested and put in prison”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group representatives, Yangon, September 2016. Quote from “Political Monitor No. 20”, Euro-Burma Office, 20 August-2 September 2016.Hide Footnote

The attendance of most non-signatories was an important step forward. However, it does not necessarily indicate significantly greater trust in the new government on the part of armed group leaders. It more reflects the very different political landscape – in particular, the domestic and international legitimacy of Suu Kyi. Many armed group leaders felt they had little alternative but to participate, despite reservations or concerns; some came under pressure from China to attend (see below).[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  A prominent ethnic politician, Khun Tun Oo, who chairs the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, did boycott on the basis that the conference was not fully inclusive of armed groups (though the decision was undoubtedly influenced by political tensions between his party and the NLD).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group representatives and analysts, Yangon, September 2016. “Khun Tun Oo absent from peace talks”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 31 August 2016. For details on the tensions, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s New Government, op. cit., Section III.C.Hide Footnote

Several groups felt the conference had been hastily convened, and there was considerable unhappiness at flawed arrangements. Armed group delegations were not met at the Naypyitaw airport and had to find their own way to their accommodation; delegations, including some senior leaders, were housed dormitory-style by the government; written documents and nameplates did not give military ranks of armed group representatives or other honorifics (failure to use the equivalent of “Mr” or “Ms” before a name is culturally very impolite in Myanmar). A major group, the UWSP, walked out after the first day, saying it felt discriminated against, though this was at least as much a reflection of its ambivalence about the NCA as it was over a specific issue; it had sent only a low-level delegation.[fn]The UWSP delegation had booked itself into a prominent hotel, rather than stay at the government-assigned accommodation. Since groups were not met at the airport, the delegation did not collect its conference passes, and on the opening day a government organiser arranged temporary “observer” badges so the delegation could attend the plenary. Since these were not valid for the following day session, when the UWSP was to give its presentation, security barred the delegation, which then walked out in protest before organisers could remedy the problem. Crisis Group interview, organising committee member, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Some of these issues arose from the tight timeframe for convening the conference, but others appear to have been the deliberate result of the government’s approach to organising it.

IV. Huge Challenges Remain

The government has indicated that it plans to hold such Panglong-21 peace conferences every six months.[fn]“Union Peace Conference to be held every six months”, State Counsellor Office statement, 15 August 2016.Hide Footnote  This would impose an artificially rigid set of deadlines on a process that must achieve the buy-in of diverse stakeholders on very contentious issues. Challenges lie in the preliminary matters that must be settled before the next session, the content of future political discussions and the political and security context.

A. Preparations for the Next Conference

Achieving broad participation by armed groups at the recent conference hinged on three things:

  • Suu Kyi, who won an electoral landslide, including in many ethnic areas, and enjoys strong international support as well, has great political capital and legitimacy. Most armed group leaders accordingly felt politically compelled to attend, unlike in the past. This was reinforced by the military’s support for the conference and the clear convergence of views between the soldiers and government on the peace process. China’s backing was also critical. The combination gave Suu Kyi a large advantage over the previous government, which had military support but far less legitimacy and no backing – indeed, sometimes obstruction – from China. (It also amplified the power asymmetry between the government/military and the armed groups, making the latter nervous.)
     
  • Decisions on difficult issues were postponed until after the conference. In particular, discussions on a revised Framework for Political Dialogue continue, and there is not yet agreement on topics to be included and how a series of “national dialogues” to feed into the next Panglong-21 will be conducted. Non-signatory groups declined to attend a September framework review meeting.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UPDJC member, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote
     
  • Perhaps most importantly, the requirement that armed groups must sign the NCA to participate was not enforced. This was possible because the conference was billed as a symbolic launch, without discussions or decisions. But it remains firm government policy and a red line for the military that armed groups wishing to participate in the political dialogue must first sign the NCA. This message was reinforced by Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who made the NCA a key focus of their opening speeches.[fn]Reproduced in Global New Light of Myanmar, 1 and 2 September 2016, respectively.Hide Footnote

The timeframe is extremely tight. The next conference is due in February and may be timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary on 12 February of the 1947 Panglong agreement, celebrated annually as Union Day. Before this, there is need for negotiations to secure signing of the NCA by non-signatories and agreement on a revised Framework for Political Dialogue (targeted for end of October), followed by national dialogues in each state and region. All these steps are difficult, time-consuming or both, particularly getting more groups to sign the NCA. The largest armed group, the UWSP, is very reluctant to sign, because it is a de facto mini-state with far more autonomy than anything the NCA offers. The closely-allied NDAA is likely to follow its lead.

The seven UNFC groups (see Appendix B), particularly the larger ones, desire to reach a political settlement on the grievances driving decades of conflict – fundamentally, lack of autonomy and equality. They recognise the current moment may be the best opportunity they will ever get, but exclusion of the AA, TNLA and MNDAA makes the NCA politically problematic for them and a ceasefire militarily unfeasible. They also have not yet been offered any concessions – not even of the face-saving kind – for signing,[fn]In particular, the UNFC has put forward an eight-point proposal for amending/supplementing the NCA. It will be very difficult for the government to accept any changes now that it is signed by the former president, commander-in-chief and legislative speakers, as well as eight armed groups, and been ratified by the legislature. Some of the specific proposals are also quite difficult, but a compromise must be found. See also, Sai Wansai, “Framework for Political Dialogue: UNFC’s boycott leads to peace process deterioration”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 21 September 2016.Hide Footnote  and will be reluctant to do so if the only reason is to gain access to a process they view as driven unilaterally by the government and insufficiently sensitive to their concerns. They worry that conforming to an artificial, government-imposed timeframe would set a precedent for unilateral imposition of any subsequent political solutions.

Some UNFC members may also want to delay major decisions until the KNU holds its congress in November.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior armed group representative, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  If a more hardline leadership results, they believe it could pave the way for this influential armed group to rejoin the alliance, enhancing its power and bargaining position. However, if the UNFC tries to prolong the process too much, it risks being marginalised, for example not being eligible to participate in the national dialogues, thereby giving government and political parties a stronger role in defining the peace process agenda.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group leaders, members of government peace bodies and analysts, Yangon, July-October 2016.Hide Footnote

The issue of the three groups, AA, TNLA and MNDAA, without bilateral ceasefires is even more difficult. Including them in the next conference requires, at a minimum, agreement on a statement renouncing violence in principle; even then, they could likely attend only as observers. Having declined that for the last conference, it is far from clear whether they will do so ahead of the next; the TNLA sent an open letter to Panglong-21 stating it would “never lay down arms or renounce arms, at any time or under any circumstance”.[fn]TNLA open letter to the Panglong-21 conference, 31 August 2016.Hide Footnote  This not only matters for inclusivity, but also has on-the-ground consequences. These groups are to various degrees allied with or supported by the UWSP and KIO, and they fight together in joint patrols and in some cases together with the KIO and SSPP. All operate in adjacent or overlapping territory, and it is hard to imagine any ceasefire being sustainable without the three non-ceasefire groups.[fn]See “Military confrontation or political dialogue: Consequences of the Kokang crisis for peace and democracy in Myanmar”, Transnational Institute, July 2015.Hide Footnote  

A huge amount of procedural work and negotiation is required before the next peace conference. In addition to the inherent challenges, the peace architecture has quite limited capacity. Lead negotiator Dr Tin Myo Win works extremely hard but has no chief of staff for the process and continues his medical work for Suu Kyi and as a surgeon at a philanthropic hospital. The NRPC, tasked with the day-to-day work, has only a handful of staff, compared with 120 under its predecessor. Because Suu Kyi decided to establish it as a fully government entity under her office (its predecessor was semi-independent, at least administratively), it must follow civil service staffing and budgeting regulations. Scaling up will take considerable time, and it will be difficult to draw on outside expertise.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, individuals with direct knowledge, Yangon, June-September 2016. The new multi-donor Joint Peace Fund is an initiative that can provide significant resources, but it cannot necessarily overcome the regulatory restrictions the NRPC operates under.Hide Footnote  There is thus a worrying lack of institutional capacity to support peace-process mechanics, and the armed groups also have little support capacity.

B. Questions of Content

Now that the peace process set out in the NCA has been launched symbolically on two occasions – the Union Peace Conference in January 2016 and Panglong-21 in August – the next conference will have to start addressing the substantive issues. Assuming that a revised Framework for Political Dialogue can be agreed and reasonable inclusivity of armed groups can be achieved through an expansion in NCA signatories, participants will then need to start grappling with the substance. All agree this will be very challenging, and it will likely be many years before a comprehensive peace agreement can be reached. Three key questions arise:

  • Is a negotiated federal solution possible? This is the main demand of armed groups and ethnic leaders, and Suu Kyi has strongly committed to achieving “the democratic federal union of our dreams”. The military is far more cautious. The commander-in-chief did not use the term “federal” in his opening speech at Panglong-21, emphasising “peace and unity” and that armed struggle is inconsistent with democracy. However, the military is not rejecting federalism; the commander-in-chief signed the NCA, whose first point is to “establish a union based on the principles of democracy and federalism”, and a senior military officer used the term at Panglong-21.[fn]Aung San Suu Kyi, opening speech, Panglong-21, Naypyitaw, 31 August 2016. NCA Section 1(a); speech of Lt. General Yar Pyae, JMC chair, at Panglong-21, reported in “21st Century Panglong commences in Nay Pyi Taw”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 1 September 2016.Hide Footnote  The potential deal is federalism in return for disarmament of armed groups. However, this will be complicated given the number of armed groups and their divergent interests, and the extent of federal powers that military and government are ready to devolve is not yet clear. There are also hundreds of armed militias, some of which have ethno-nationalist positions, but most are primarily economic actors.[fn]For details, see John Buchanan, “Militias in Myanmar”, The Asia Foundation, July 2016.Hide Footnote

  • Can the concerns of sub-minorities be accommodated? One of the more intractable issues is likely to be their status. Federalism has tended to be conceived, in geographic terms, as devolution of powers to the existing seven ethnic states.[fn]Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.Hide Footnote  This alarms smaller minority groups within these states, who fear that political domination at the state level will replace domination by Naypyitaw. This was already clear from the speeches at Panglong-21, where specific claims for new states were made by the Wa, Ta’ang and Pao (all currently having self-administered areas within Shan State) and the Red Shan (in Kachin State and Sagaing Region, where they have no territorial designation). Many other potential claims can be anticipated.[fn]See comments of Sai Htay Aung (Red Shan), Khun Myint Tun (Pao) and U Yan Kyaw (Wa), Global New Light of Myanmar, 3 September 2016; and TNLA open letter, op. cit., which specifically calls for creation of a Ta’ang (Palaung) State.Hide Footnote  Shan and Kachin political and armed group leaders in general oppose these proposals.
     
  • Will any negotiated solution be regarded as legitimate and be implemented? Even if a reasonably inclusive process can be achieved and consensus reached on the complex substantive issues, many constituencies may feel marginalised by the process. Minority ethnic representation is limited to those that have armed groups or political parties that won seats (in a recent change Suu Kyi initiated, those that did not win legislative seats in 2015 have only a token number at the peace conference and no UPDJC representation).[fn]See “Kayah political parties boycott Panglong Conference”, Myanmar Times, 22 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Many influential ethnic parties won nothing in the NLD landslide and will have a minimal voice in the process; some minority groups are not represented by an armed group; and questions can be asked about how representative armed groups are of communities in their areas.

There is a fundamental doubt about whether state-based federal solutions can appropriately be negotiated between armed groups and government, in particular when civil society voices, women and youth feel marginalised in the process.[fn]“CSOs pine for seat at table”, Myanmar Times, 26 August 2016; statement by Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process on Panglong-21, September 2016; “No women, no peace: Gender equality, conflict and peace in Myanmar”, Transnational Institute, 13 January 2016; “Youth ethnic alliance emerges after summit”, Myanmar Times, 3 August 2016.Hide Footnote  That process should be adjusted to ensure that it has broader legitimacy. Even where representation has strong legitimacy – for example, the NLD government’s support from the majority Burman group (and many others) – the population at large has had little engagement with the peace process and may oppose solutions that devolve too much political authority and economic control to minority areas. Minority communities will not necessarily see the NLD as representing their interests, even if they voted for it, because that vote was in many ways a referendum on military rule, reflecting determination to vote out the military-backed party.[fn]For discussion of the election outcome in ethnic areas and its interpretation, see Crisis Group Briefing, The Myanmar Elections, op. cit., Section IV.C; and “The 2015 general election in Myanmar: What now for ethnic politics?”, Transnational Institute, December 2015.Hide Footnote

While Suu Kyi’s focus has been on federalism and security – she initially proposed that the political dialogue deal directly with only those issues – minority communities have many other concerns. These include rights and discrimination, revenue sharing, natural resource management and language policy.[fn]For detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, op. cit., Section IV.Hide Footnote  Whether these are dealt with up-front as potentially more tractable confidence-building measures or sidelined by more fundamental issues can have a big impact on the dynamics of the peace process. Overlooking them would likely be a mistake.

C. The Political and Security Environment

Since the peace process was launched in 2011, it has had to face significant external and domestic challenges. Serious armed conflict on the ground and China’s role have been particularly important and are to some degree interlinked.

The most significant outbreak of conflict in recent years was the collapse of the KIO ceasefire in 2011, the seeds of which were sown prior to the 2010 election. Fighting resumed ahead of the formal launch of the peace process in August 2011, and a serious escalation in December 2012 threatened to derail it, but China’s intervention, prompted in part by fighting spilling over its border, pushed the sides back to the negotiating table.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°140, A Tentative Peace in Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict, 12 June 2013.Hide Footnote  Another major test came in April 2014, when serious clashes displaced some 5,000 civilians and eroded the trust of all parties in the NCA negotiations. The crisis deepened in November 2014, when an army mortar attack on a military training centre at KIO headquarters almost caused the talks to collapse. Serious fighting in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone between government forces and the MNDAA from February 2015 hardened opposing positions of the military and several armed groups over inclusivity, part of the reason why a number of groups were unwilling to sign the NCA that year.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process, op. cit., Section II.D.Hide Footnote

With a fragile peace holding in parts of the borderlands and clashes ongoing in many others (Section II.B above), the peace process is likely to continue to be buffeted. Rigid timelines for Panglong-21 conferences risk becoming an obvious target for spoilers and an unsatisfactory framework for adjusting to unpredictable but inevitable escalations in the conflict. The military may feel less constrained by the peace process than under the previous government; given the power asymmetries, it is likely to continue pressing its ground advantage, especially with NCA non-signatories and in particular if the peace process moves slowly or it feels that armed groups are being obstructive.

China’s influence can have a big impact on ground dynamics and the peace process, given its considerable leverage over the groups on its border. It has regularly intervened, positively and negatively. Relations with the Thein Sein administration were often strained, starting with suspension of the Myitsone dam project in 2011 and difficulties with the Letpadaung copper mine – both major China-backed projects – and long delays in announcing that a Chinese company had won the tender for the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port and special economic zone, a major Chinese strategic interest.[fn]See Yun Sun, “Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Beijing: Recalibrating Myanmar’s China policy”, Transnational Institute, 16 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Myanmar’s markedly improved relations with the U.S. intensified China’s angst that it had lost its “traditional advantage”.[fn]“China’s engagement in Myanmar: From Malacca Dilemma to Transition Dilemma”, Transnational Institute, July 2016.Hide Footnote  The poor relations, combined with specific irritants such as Myanmar’s intrusion into Chinese airspace in 2015 to attack the MNDAA, a flood of refugees into China and Naypyitaw’s invitation to Japan and the West to become involved in the peace process, produced a negative stance toward the NCA, to the point that persistent allegations emerged that China was lobbying armed groups in 2015 not to sign.[fn]China has denied the allegations, which were made publicly by a member of the Myanmar Peace Centre and subsequently retracted, and privately to Crisis Group and others by a wide range of people connected to the peace process. Whether true or not, it is clear from talk with armed groups leaders at the time that there was no Chinese pressure to sign the NCA and massive private financial support from China that the authorities must have been aware of. See “Fraud probe alleges Chinese firm sent money to Myanmar insurgents”, Frontier Myanmar, 3 February 2016.Hide Footnote  

The situation has shifted significantly under the new government. China feels Suu Kyi gives more priority to the bilateral relationship, and it supports her peace overtures. At the July summit of armed group leaders hosted by the KIO, the Chinese special envoy publicly called on all groups to attend Panglong-21, and Beijing successfully put considerable pressure on several to do so. China has also given several million dollars to fund the JMC but remains uncertain about the trajectory of relations, the chances for success in the peace process and how many years that would take; it is thus likely to continue to balance support for Naypyitaw and maintaining ties with armed groups along its border.[fn]Yun Sun, “Aung San Suu Kyi visit to Beijing”, op. cit. Crisis Group interview, Myanmar expert on China, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

The Panglong-21 conference encapsulated both the significant advantages Suu Kyi has for forging peace and the enormous challenges she must surmount. The broad attendance of armed groups gives hope of a more inclusive, successful peace process, but it would be a mistake to think that the fundamental problems have become easier to solve. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most groups to sign the NCA, a sine qua non the government and military have each expressed. The announced scheduling of Panglong-21 conferences every six months artificially limits the flexibility required to secure signatures. Weak capacity in the government’s NRPC peace secretariat makes the job more difficult.

The government should consider adopting a less rigid timeframe and less unilateral approach and take steps to ensure it has the necessary support capacity in place. Armed groups need to recognise that, though they have legitimate concerns about the process, they may never get a better chance to negotiate a settlement. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal, democratic solution and has the political authority to deliver. Now is the time to start discussing the contours of that deal, rather than continuing to focus on preliminaries.

Yangon/Brussels, 19 October 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar. CRISIS GROUP

Appendix B: The Main Ethnic Armed Groups and their Ceasefire Status

  1. United Wa State Party (UWSP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 6 September 2011. NCA-signatory: No
     
  2. National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA, “Mongla group”)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 September 2011. NCA-signatory: No
     
  3. Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army (DKBA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 3 November 2011. NCA-signatory: Yes
     
  4. Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-South)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 2 December 2011. NCA-signatory: Yes
     
  5. Chin National Front (CNF)  
    Bilateral ceasefire: 6 January 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
     
  6. Karen National Union (KNU)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 12 January 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
     
  7. Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-North)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 28 January 2012. NCA-signatory: No
     
  8. New Mon State Party (NMSP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 1 February 2012. NCA-signatory: No
     
  9. Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 February 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
     
  10. Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 March 2012. NCA-signatory: No
     
  11. Arakan Liberation Party (ALP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 5 April 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
     
  12. National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang
    Bilateral ceasefire: 9 April 2012. NCA-signatory: No
     
  13. Pao National Liberation Organisation (PNLO)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 25 August 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
     
  14. All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 5 August 2013. NCA-signatory: Yes
     
  15. Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO)
    Bilateral ceasefire: (30 May 2012)*. NCA-signatory: No
     
  16. Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: No. NCA-signatory: No
     
  17. Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA, “Kokang group”)         
    Bilateral ceasefire: No†. NCA-signatory: No
     
  18. Arakan Army (AA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: No. NCA-signatory: No

* An agreement was signed on 30 May 2012. It was not a formal ceasefire, but contained inter alia a commitment to “efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities”.

† The MNDAA’s 1989 ceasefire ended after an army attack in 2009, with one faction being routed (and its leaders fleeing to China) and the other agreeing to become a Border Guard Force unit under partial army control. The routed faction subsequently reactivated, with support from other groups.

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) is an armed group umbrella organisation, whose seven members have not signed the NCA: SSPP/SSA-North, NMSP, KNPP, KIO, Lahu Democratic Union, Arakan National Council, Wa National Organisation. The last three do not have significant armed forces, so have not been directly included in the ceasefire process.

Appendix C: List of Acronyms

AA: Arakan Army

ABSDF: All Burma Students Democratic Front

ALP: Arakan Liberation Party

CNF: Chin National Front

DKBA: Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army, Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army

JMC: Joint Monitoring Committee

KIO: Kachin Independence Organisation

KNPP: Karenni National Progressive Party

KNU: Karen National Union

MNDAA: Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang)

NCA: Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement

NDAA: National Democratic Alliance Army (“Mongla group”)

NMSP: New Mon State Party

NRPC: National Reconciliation and Peace Centre

NSCN-Khaplang: National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang

PNLO: Pao National Liberation Organisation

RCSS: Restoration Council of Shan State

SSA-North: Shan State Army-North

SSA-South: Shan State Army-South

SSPP: Shan State Progress Party

TNLA: Ta’ang National Liberation Army

UNFC : United Nationalities Federal Council

UPDJC: Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee

UWSP: United Wa State Party

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi sits for group photo during the Panglong Peace Talk with ethnic representatives to mark 70th anniversary of Myanmar Union Day in Panglong, Southern Shan State, Myanmar on February 12, 2017. LAMIN TUN / AFP
Report 308 / Asia

Rebooting Myanmar’s Stalled Peace Process

The polls approaching in Myanmar are an opportunity for the government and ethnic armed groups to re-examine their positions in the country’s peace process. All parties should use the election-related hiatus to ask why talks have not succeeded and how to make them more productive.

What’s new? After close to two years of a stagnating peace process, the Myanmar government, its military and ethnic armed groups signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement resumed negotiations aimed at holding a Panglong-21 peace conference later this year. The peace process will then enter hibernation while national elections take place.

Why does it matter? Recent negotiations have focused mainly on ensuring that the peace process continues after the election. But genuine progress toward ending Myanmar’s long-running ethnic conflicts is unlikely to be made without a decisive change in approach, particularly from the government.

What should be done? With the National League for Democracy likely to win another term, the government, military and ethnic armed groups should use the hibernation period constructively to review causes of the current impasse, rebuild trust through sustained informal dialogue, and take steps to reinvigorate the peace process from 2021.

Executive Summary

A flurry of negotiations among Myanmar’s government, its military and ethnic armed groups belies deeper problems in the country’s moribund peace process. The government and armed groups that have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) are eager to hold a Panglong-21 peace conference before electoral dy­namics take precedence later this year. As a result, two prominent armed groups that had suspended their participation have formally re-entered the peace process. Although these are positive developments, even if it takes place the conference would be largely symbolic and do little to address the fundamental obstacles on Myanmar’s road toward sustainable peace. By putting formal negotiations on hold for at least six months, the election and subsequent transition period constitute a unique opportunity for a rethink. All parties involved should use this window to examine blockages that have hindered genuine progress so far, multiply informal meetings to rebuild trust and examine ways of reinvigorating the peace process from 2021.

Although negotiators have made some modest progress, conflict has intensified in Shan and Rakhine States, and the government has been unable to convince the country’s most powerful armed groups to sign the NCA.

When Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) took office in March 2016, hopes were high that it would consolidate the peace process launched under her predecessor, Thein Sein, in 2011. The results, however, have been disappointing. Although negotiators have made some modest progress, such as agreeing on 51 points for a future Union Peace Accord, conflict has intensified in Shan and Rakhine States, and the government has been unable to convince the country’s most powerful armed groups to sign the NCA. Formal political negotiations with the ten armed groups that have signed the agreement have stalled, culminating in the temporary withdrawal of the two most important of them – the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State – from the peace process in late 2018. Although the NLD administration initially said peace negotiations were its top priority, it has shown neither the determination nor the capacity to take the process forward. Since 2017, its focus has shifted increasingly to other issues better suited to the project of shoring up political support among its ethnic Burman base.

The approaching election, slated for November 2020 but now subject to possible coronavirus-related delays, has given new impetus to the peace process. Informal talks over the past six months have encouraged the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State to return to the peace process, and formal meetings with all signatories have been convened since January with the aim of holding a Panglong-21 conference before election dynamics come to dominate the political landscape in the second half of the year. The COVID-19 outbreak is likely to make this original timeline impossible, but negotiators on both sides are intent on holding the conference before the vote. Despite this renewed commitment, the primary objectives for both sides are modest. The NLD sees the Panglong-21 meeting mostly as a way to boost its political campaign, while ethnic armed groups want to ensure that the peace process continues after the vote, regardless of who comes to power.

The election will bring further risks for ethnic conflict and the peace process.

The election will bring further risks for ethnic conflict and the peace process. Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity with the Burman majority is likely to ensure that the NLD wins enough seats to select the president and form the next government, but ethnic minorities are increasingly aggrieved at her government’s Burman nationalist tone and the overwhelming Burman dominance in political institutions. The discontent is most evident in Rakhine State, where the political marginalisation of the Rakhine ethnic minority under the NLD has boosted support for the Arakan Army insurgency. Armed conflict and insecurity are likely to result in the cancellation of voting in some constituencies in minority areas, particularly in Rakhine State, which will only deepen local minorities’ alienation.

The election period, however, will also be an opportunity to reflect on how to take the peace process forward. The formal negotiations will likely be put on hold for six to twelve months, until after the next cabinet is sworn in (scheduled for late March 2021). The current government, the military and ethnic armed groups should use this period to review their own strategy and goals, ramp up informal dialogue and examine crucial issues that have so far been put aside, such as the growth of the illicit economy and the mounting might of military-aligned militias. Even if the COVID-19 pandemic delays the Panglong-21 conference, there will still be a significant period during which formal peace negotiations will not take place. This downtime constitutes a unique opportunity for all parties to reflect on how to restart the process with a more constructive approach in 2021.

If the NLD forms the next government, as appears likely, it should use its second term in office to reinvigorate its leadership of the peace process. Overcoming the deadlock in negotiations toward a political settlement requires a fundamental shift in approach. As a first step, Naypyitaw should overhaul institutions like the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre, to rely less on former government bureaucrats and instead draw in new negotiators and advisers from a range of backgrounds, such as business, academia and civil society. The key to substantive progress, however, lies in renewed political commitment from Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to the peace process, a stronger sense of empathy with the grievances of ethnic minorities, and a clear vision for where the peace process is going.

Yangon/Brussels, 19 June 2020

I. Introduction

In 2011, President Thein Sein’s new government launched a peace process aimed at ending decades of conflict by reaching a political settlement with Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups. His administration quickly signed bilateral ceasefires with most groups, eight of which also signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015. Negotiators then drafted a framework for a political dialogue process, and convened the first Union Peace Conference in January 2016, shortly before Thein Sein left office.[fn]For Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar’s peace process since the 2015 elections, see Asia Reports N°s 307, An Avoidable War: Politics and Armed Conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 9 June 2020; and 287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; and Asia Briefings N°s 161, Conflict, Health Cooperation and COVID-19 in Myanmar, 19 May 2020; 158, Myanmar: A Violent Push to Shake Up Ceasefire Negotiations, 24 September 2019; 157, Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar, 6 August 2019; 154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019; 151, Myanmar’s Stalled Transition, 28 August 2018; and 149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Thein Sein’s administration was unable to convince the most powerful armed groups to join the process.

Thein Sein’s administration was unable, however, to convince the most powerful armed groups to join the process. The government’s exclusion of three other groups from signing the NCA had raised concerns among potential signatories about the agreement’s inclusivity. Some also had reservations about giving Thein Sein a political boost shortly before the 2015 elections. Ten groups did not sign the NCA, and as a result could not participate in the launch of the political dialogue.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) government that came to office in March 2016 thus inherited a complex, two-track process: political dialogue with NCA signatories, and ceasefire negotiations with non-signatories aimed at getting them into the political dialogue process. It also inherited a valuable, albeit fragile, trust with ethnic armed groups, some of which had been fighting the Myanmar military for many decades. There were clear opportunities for progress, but as Crisis Group warned in a June 2017 report, “the path toward a negotiated end to Myanmar’s conflicts remain[ed] fraught with difficulties”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Since then, these difficulties have come to the fore, to the extent that the peace process has now stalled for the past two years. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government has been unable to steer the political dialogue process forward or convince non-signatories to sign the NCA, and the ceasefire monitoring mechanism designed to resolve disputes between the military and ethnic armed group signatories has proven largely ineffective. The trust that once existed has long since dissipated and the peace process now faces an uncertain future. The next twelve months, during which Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections and swear in its next government, offer an opportunity to reset and recalibrate.

This report examines some of the reasons why the peace process has stumbled and proposes concrete initiatives that all parties can undertake to kickstart negotiations in 2021, when the new government will come to power. A reboot will require not only technical fixes to the peace process architecture but more importantly reestablishment of trust through a fresh approach and shift in attitude, particularly from the government and the military. The report focuses primarily on the political dialogue process and implementation of the NCA with current signatories, rather than negotiations with non-signatories, as unless progress is made on both these aspects first, there will be little incentive for most of these groups to sign the national ceasefire.

This report is based on Crisis Group research since January 2020, including interviews with members of the government’s peacemaking team, officials from peace process bodies, ethnic armed group representatives, diplomats, donors, civil society organisation staff, and local researchers and analysts. Due to the emergence of COVID-19, planned travel for the report was not possible. Interviews took place in Yangon, some in person and others by phone or videoconference.

II. The Peace Process in Disarray

When Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD came to power in March 2016, hopes were high that it could lead the peace process forward. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political authority, her stated commitment to the peace process and the prospect of more friendly relations with China, which has leverage over some of the armed groups near its border, provided a strong base to build on her predecessor’s work.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°305, Commerce and Conflict: Navigating Myanmar’s China Relationship, 30 March 2020, for a full discussion of the Myanmar-China relationship under Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as its impact on the peace process.Hide Footnote  The NLD moved quickly to install a new peace team, convene a Union Peace Conference – rebranded as Panglong-21 – in July 2016 and encourage the remaining armed groups to sign the NCA so that they could join the political negotiations.[fn]The name “Panglong-21” (also referred to as 21st Century Panglong) is a reference to the pre-independence Panglong Conference, convened in 1947 by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, Myanmar’s independence hero.Hide Footnote

Progress was much slower and more difficult than the NLD had anticipated.

After the initial optimism that followed the election, however, progress was much slower and more difficult than the NLD had anticipated. Aside from underestimating the scale of the challenge, the NLD made some significant miscalculations, including its choice of negotiators and its prioritisation of formal talks over informal discussions. It also viewed itself as a neutral actor in the process, seeing its role as mediating between the military and ethnic armed groups – a fundamental misreading of how many ethnic minorities perceive the party and government more broadly, dominated as they are by ethnic Burmans.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, peace process analysts, February and May 2020, Yangon.Hide Footnote

Efforts to convince non-signatory groups to sign the NCA quickly stalled, and most of them soon joined forces under the leadership of the country’s largest armed group, the United Wa State Army, to reject the ceasefire outright and call for fresh negotiations. They still have not signed the NCA and as a result have yet to formally join the political dialogue, except occasionally as observers.[fn]For full discussion of this new grouping, see Crisis Group Report, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Two other armed groups that were not part of the United Wa State Army-led bloc, the New Mon State Party and Lahu Democratic Union, signed the NCA in April 2018, but they have few combatants and little political heft.

Signatories, who were already concerned at pursuing political dialogue in the absence of the country’s most powerful armed groups, also grew increasingly frustrated at the NLD’s bureaucratic approach to negotiations, its inflexibility and its unwillingness to challenge the military’s positions.[fn]See, for example, “We are deadlocked: KNU general-secretary talks war and peace-making”, Frontier Myanmar, 12 March 2020.Hide Footnote  The majority of them have come to see the NLD’s position on power sharing as being broadly aligned with that of Myanmar’s military, in that they both represent the interests of the Burman Buddhist majority and are unwilling to make significant concessions to ethnic minorities (see Section IV for details).

The NLD’s initial eagerness to pursue peace negotiations was based largely on its belief that such talks would be the easiest way to achieve its desired changes to Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The military – which holds an effective veto over changes to the charter through its presence in parliament – has said resolving Myanmar’s conflicts is a precondition for any substantial constitutional reform.[fn]The constitution can be amended only through a vote in parliament. To be approved, each proposed change requires the support of more than 75 per cent of lawmakers (and sometimes approval at a national referendum). The constitution also gives the military 25 per cent of seats in parliament, ensuring that it can block any proposed changes. “Senior General Min Aung Hlaing receives Asahi Shimbun of Japan, answers the questions”, official website of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, 17 February 2019.Hide Footnote  Since the peace process was supposed to lead to a political settlement with armed groups and the introduction of some form of federalism, requiring significant changes to the constitution, the NLD hoped to use the opportunity to simultaneously introduce additional amendments that reflected its other ambitions, in particular the dilution of the military’s political role.[fn]The NLD’s goals include removing the clause that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, transferring ultimate command of the armed forces from the commander-in-chief to the president, drawing down the military’s quota of seats in parliament and increasing civilian participation in the National Defence and Security Council.Hide Footnote  But as the scale of the peace challenge became increasingly clear, the government shifted focus, pursuing constitutional change through parliamentary channels and prioritising grassroots economic development, another of its core electoral promises. In the process, it ended up neglecting the peace negotiations.[fn]The NLD announced in January 2019 that it planned to submit constitutional amendments to parliament. In March 2020, the military used its veto to block virtually all the 114 proposals that the NLD put forward. None of the NLD’s proposed changes would have significantly advanced the process of decentralisation or establishing a federal structure. For a summary of the process, see “Looking Back at the Myanmar Constitution Amendment Process”, International IDEA, 8 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Sensing that disarmament of ethnic armed groups is increasingly unlikely, Myanmar’s generals have also become less enthusiastic about the peace process and hardened their position.

This perceived lack of commitment from the NLD has created resentment and mistrust among ethnic armed groups, while other factors further undermine progress. Deteriorating personal relations and political competition between Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing have weakened coordination between the government and military. Sensing that disarmament of ethnic armed groups is increasingly unlikely, Myanmar’s generals have also become less enthusiastic about the peace process and hardened their position that signing the NCA is a prerequisite for participating in political dialogue. Some of the military’s actions, particularly the building of strategic roads through Karen National Union territory in Kayin State, have significantly undermined trust and confidence in the NCA. Expanding conflict in Rakhine and northern Shan States, discussed in more detail below, has also created new challenges for political dialogue with NCA signatories and ceasefire negotiations with non-signatories.[fn]For more on increased conflict, see Crisis Group Report, An Avoidable War: Politics and Armed Conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, op. cit., and Crisis Group Briefings, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, op. cit., and Myanmar: A Violent Push to Shake Up Ceasefire Negotiations, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The inability of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC) to resolve such disagreements between the military and NCA signatory groups has further eroded trust.[fn]The JMC’s role, according to the NCA, is “implementing provisions of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement; monitoring adherence to the Code of Conduct; investigating alleged violations; and undertaking problem solving functions”.Hide Footnote  Although the JMC showed some initial promise, its structural shortcomings gradually came to the fore. Particularly problematic is the fact that all JMC bodies, from the national to local levels, are chaired by military officers, with ethnic armed groups only able to appoint vice chairs. Further, the civilian appointees, who are supposed to be neutral, have struggled to mediate between the different sides. The military has rejected proposals from ethnic armed groups to revise the JMC’s structure or include international representatives in the ceasefire monitoring process as observers or advisers – a prospect that was envisaged in the NCA text.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts and ethnic armed group leaders, Yangon, February and May 2020. Section 12(c) of the NCA says: “We shall jointly decide, on the basis of mutual agreement, the role of representatives from foreign governments and international organizations that are involved in the ongoing peace process, either as observers, advisers or to provide necessary technical assistance at different levels of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee”.Hide Footnote

Another factor that has undermined the peace process is the failure to implement the “interim arrangements” section of the NCA, which had been anticipated as one of the agreement’s major peace dividends. The ceasefire proposes “coordination” on “programs and projects” in ethnic armed group-held territory in a range of areas, including health, education, socio-economic development, environmental conservation and drug eradication. This section of the NCA could have facilitated on-the-ground cooperation and trust building between the government and ethnic armed groups, but disputes over interpretation have stymied progress: the government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Centre has demanded ethnic armed groups seek permission for all such activities, while ethnic armed groups argue that it should be a partnership where projects and initiatives are agreed jointly. At the same time, the government has been accused of introducing laws, policies and programs – such as new laws on land acquisition – that affect people in ethnic armed group areas, without any consultation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ethnic armed group leader and peace process analyst, May 2020. See, for example, “Implementation of Burma’s Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law: At Odds with the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and Peace Negotiations”, Transnational Institute, 10 December 2018. For the full text of the NCA, see the UN Peacemaker website.Hide Footnote

As a result, the peace process has been at a standstill since 2018. The government has been able to hold only three Panglong-21 peace conferences since taking office – despite the political dialogue framework specifying that one take place every six months – and the most recent, in July 2018, was largely symbolic. To make matters worse, two key NCA signatories, the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State, suspended their participation following a disastrous “high-level” meeting with the government and military in October 2018.[fn]“Analysis: Why did the KNU temporarily leave peace talks”, The Irrawaddy, 29 October 2018.Hide Footnote

Clashes between the Arakan Army and the military in Rakhine State escalated dramatically.

Shortly afterward, in January 2019, clashes between the Arakan Army and the military in Rakhine State escalated dramatically.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The fighting has since spread and intensified into the bloodiest conflict that Myanmar has experienced in recent decades. It shows no sign of abating.[fn]Crisis Group Report, An Avoidable War: Politics and Armed Conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote  With political dialogue negotiations on hold, the government and military have tried to reach bilateral ceasefires with the Arakan Army and three related groups – the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – as a precursor to signing the NCA. But the proposal required these groups to accept major restrictions on their areas of operations, including an Arakan Army withdrawal from Rakhine State. This unrealistic demand ensured that the talks failed and even helped stoke conflict in northern Shan State: in an effort to shake up negotiations, the newly formed Brotherhood Alliance – comprising the Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – launched deadly attacks along the region’s main highway in August 2019.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar: A Violent Push to Shake Up Ceasefire Negotiations, op. cit.Hide Footnote

When the NLD came to office, there was optimism that support from China could be an important asset for driving the peace process forward. Although China has gradually become more involved, it has limited its role mainly to facilitating talks with non-signatory groups operating along its border. Its only significant intervention in the political dialogue process has been to enable the attendance of non-signatories at Panglong-21 conferences.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, op. cit.Hide Footnote  China’s interest seems to be primarily in ensuring stability in border areas, in part to support its economic ambitions, not in facilitating the peace process as a whole. Increasingly, it appears sceptical of the prospects for a political settlement to Myanmar’s conflicts. Instead, it is promoting economic development and integration as a way to end the fighting.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Commerce and Conflict: Navigating Myanmar’s China Relationship, op. cit.Hide Footnote

III. Preserving the Peace Process in an Election Year

As Myanmar entered an election year in 2020, prospects for substantive progress appeared dim. The two most important signatories to the NCA, the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State, had suspended their participation in the peace process more than a year earlier. Negotiations with non-signatories to the NCA had stalled amid heavy fighting in Rakhine and northern Shan States. Negotiators from the government and ethnic armed groups agreed that formal discussions would be unlikely after June 2020, as the government would be consumed by preparations for the vote and armed groups would be unwilling to do anything that could give the NLD an electoral advantage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Despite these hurdles, the election has also created some renewed impetus for the peace process with NCA signatories.

Despite these hurdles, the election has also created some renewed impetus for the peace process with NCA signatories. In 2015, the NLD told voters that ending the country’s long-running conflict would be one of its three priorities while in office. Embarking five years later on a re-election campaign with the peace process in disarray could make it easy prey for critics and political rivals, particularly in ethnic minority areas. For all the complaints about the status of negotiations, there is also genuine concern among ethnic armed groups that the process could collapse due to either armed conflict, a change in government or a lack of momentum, threatening nearly a decade of effort. “Nobody wants the peace process to die. But this is a treacherous stretch because of the election”, said one peace process observer.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote

In an effort to salvage the process and show results before the electoral campaign, in late 2019 the government took the initiative of arranging a semi-informal dialogue with NCA signatories. Its apparent willingness to negotiate and address some of the perceived roadblocks, for example by clarifying some key terms in the NCA, encouraged the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State to return to the process. Since January, a series of formal meetings have taken place with all ten signatories, with the objective of holding another Panglong-21 peace conference before the election. Negotiators on both sides worked hard to stick to the tight deadlines so that the conference could take place in late April or May, although the COVID-19 pandemic has now forced negotiators to postpone it to July or August at the earliest.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analyst and government peace negotiator, Yangon, February and April 2020.Hide Footnote

In preparation for these discussions, the NCA signatories resolved some of their own internal differences. Within the signatories’ coordinating body, the Peace Process Steering Team, the more powerful members had long chafed at being treated on par with groups that have few armed forces and little political influence. In early December, the group agreed to new terms of reference for the steering team that gave the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State more authority. The leader of the Restoration Council of Shan State, Lieutenant General Yawd Serk, is now heading negotiations with the government, but it is the Karen National Union that is essentially driving policy for the NCA signatories.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analyst and ethnic armed group leader, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Sensing their renewed political leverage with the government, the NCA signatories have pushed for an ambitious suite of agreements in exchange for participating in a Panglong-21 conference. These include an addendum to the NCA that defines some of its key terms and a broader framework for the establishment of a “federal democratic union”, with timelines for implementation.[fn]Two key terms that remain undefined in the NCA are “ceasefire areas” and “interim period”. The ambiguity has, for example, complicated the demarcation of territory between signatories and the military.Hide Footnote  The signatories argue that these agreements, which would be approved at the Panglong-21 conference and then by the national legislature, are necessary guarantees for them to feel confident about how the process will move forward post-election.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analyst and ethnic armed group leader, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote

The outcome of negotiations is likely to be more modest than the armed groups initially hoped. The government has pushed back against some of their proposals, including the idea of timelines, and the short window available before the conference takes place, the lack of capacity on all sides and the impact of COVID-19 are likely to constrain what can be achieved.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government peace negotiator and diplomat briefed on peace process, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Still, the talks probably will result in at least some progress toward agreements to address some of the issues that have been stumbling blocks over the past four years. At a minimum, a Panglong-21 conference will take place – COVID-19 permitting – and the peace process will be preserved for resumption at some point after the election. As an analyst close to ethnic armed groups said:

There’s a will and intention to hold a Panglong-21 conference. The question is less whether it will happen than what the purpose and outcome will be, as there’s a huge range of potential outcomes … but it’s also positive if at a minimum the parties recommit themselves to continue the process. That’s significantly different from what some of them were saying a year ago.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst close to ethnic armed groups, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Although positive, the return of the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State to the peace process and the prospect of a Panglong-21 conference should not be interpreted as any kind of major breakthrough. The recent negotiations that facilitated these developments aim to address mostly technical problems within the peace process. Others, such as the government’s lack of vision and commitment, or its highly centralised decision-making process, and the unwillingness of the government or military to cede any control, will continue to undermine progress toward a peace settlement until they are addressed.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former peace negotiator, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote  These are discussed in more detail in Section IV.

There are a number of issues that could stymie even the modest goals of the government and NCA signatories.

There are also a number of issues that could stymie even the modest goals of the government and NCA signatories. The first is the lack of clarity over the position of the Myanmar military, and in particular its commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, on the recent talks. The NCA signatories’ key demand – clarification of some terms in the ceasefire accord – could encounter pushback from the military, particularly if its leadership wants to deprive the NLD of political mileage ahead of the election.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst close to ethnic armed groups, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Even while talks were taking place, the Myanmar army has clashed with both the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State, both NCA signatories. Military obstruction was also partly to blame for the Restoration Council of Shan State’s leader, Lieutenant General Yawd Serk, being unable to travel to a meeting in Naypyitaw in late October, which delayed the resumption of formal talks with NCA signatories.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government peace negotiator, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote

The election is also likely to amplify the ethnic grievances that underpin Myanmar’s armed conflicts.[fn]For a more detailed assessment of the election and conflict risks, see Crisis Group Briefing, Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD is expected to win enough seats to choose the president and form the next government, thanks to her popularity with the Burman majority, but ethnic minorities are increasingly aggrieved by her government’s Burman nationalist tone and Burman dominance in political institutions. Rather than curb its ambitions in ethnic minority areas to defuse tension, the NLD has redoubled its efforts to win seats there, forming an Ethnic Affairs Committee to spearhead its campaign.[fn]“No deal: NLD prepares to go it alone in 2020”, Frontier Myanmar, 28 October 2019.Hide Footnote  The government has also relaxed residency requirements for voting, which has angered ethnic parties because it means that more Burman migrants living in ethnic minority areas ­– who are likely to support the NLD – will be able to cast ballots. Although an important step for ensuring universal suffrage in practice, it is perceived as an attempt to shore up NLD support in minority regions.[fn]“Myanmar’s ethnic parties fear loss of vote share as lower house approves eased residency rules”, The Irrawaddy, 26 February 2020.Hide Footnote  The Union Election Commission is also expected to cancel voting in parts or whole constituencies in minority areas due to armed conflict.

This dynamic is most evident in Rakhine State, where marginalisation under the NLD has caused many ethnic Rakhine to lose faith in the political process. Although the main local political formation, the Arakan National Party, performed strongly in the 2015 election, winning the majority of elected seats in Rakhine State at both the local and national level, the NLD refused to let it form the state government, instead appointing one of its own members of parliament as chief minister.[fn]Under Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution, the president nominates the chief ministers of the state and regional governments regardless of the composition of the local legislature. In March 2020, the NLD voted against a proposal from ethnic parties to amend the constitution to give state and regional legislatures the right to choose their chief minister. See “Myanmar’s ruling NLD votes down bill on ethnic chief ministers”, Radio Free Asia, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote  In January 2018, police opened fire on a crowd that had gathered in the ancient city of Mrauk-U to mark the anniversary of an independent Rakhine kingdom’s fall to the Burmans. They killed at least seven people. Days later, the government arrested the state’s leading political figure, Dr Aye Maung, and sentenced him to twenty years’ imprisonment for high treason.[fn]“Rakhine political leader Dr Aye Maung arrested in Sittwe after Mrauk U violence”, Frontier Myanmar, 18 January 2018.Hide Footnote  These events badly dented Rakhine faith in electoral democracy and fuelled support for the Arakan Army insurgency that has raged across the state since January 2019, leaving hundreds dead and at least 78,000 displaced in Rakhine and southern Chin States.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, An Avoidable War: Politics and Armed Conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, op. cit.; and Crisis Group Briefing, Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar, op. cit. The government’s official figures put the number of displaced at 78,000 but only count those in recognised camps. Rakhine civil society groups estimate the true number of displaced to be far higher. See “164,211 people displaced due to conflict in Rakhine, according to REC”, Narinjara, 5 May 2020.Hide Footnote

The other factor creating uncertainty is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The other factor creating uncertainty is the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Myanmar has had only a limited number of confirmed cases at the time of writing, the government has introduced a range of social distancing measures, such as bans on large gatherings, in order to mitigate the contagion’s potential spread. The Restoration Council of Shan State has already been forced to cancel a planned “national-level political dialogue” between the group and other Shan stakeholders to gather input for the Panglong-21 conference. Negotiators in the peace process have also since agreed to push back the national peace conference to July or August.[fn]See “RCSS dialogue with Shan residents postponed over Myanmar’s coronavirus concerns”, The Irrawaddy, 17 March 2020; and “Govt negotiators, armed groups agree to postpone Panglong to July”, The Myanmar Times, 6 April 2019.Hide Footnote  Given how little is known about the pandemic’s possible evolution in Myanmar, these dates should be treated with caution. But those involved in the peace process say all sides are committed to convening the highly symbolic conference at some point this year.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government peace negotiator, Yangon, April 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. The Need for a Decisive Shake-up

The Panglong-21 peace conference would mark the conclusion of the formal peace negotiations under the current government’s term, after which attention will turn to the elections. The hiatus could last anywhere from six to twelve months, and there would likely be a similar break even if COVID-19 concerns delay Panglong-21. The elections themselves could also be postponed on account of the pandemic, but whenever they take place the NLD is likely to win enough seats to again select the president and form the new government. The NLD could thus resume talks almost immediately after the polls, though it is more likely to wait until it swears in a new cabinet, expected (under the current schedule) in late March 2021. All sides should use this period of downtime constructively, both to re-examine their positions and to address weaknesses in their strategy and approach.

The government has a particular responsibility to set the tone and direction of future peace talks.

The government has a particular responsibility to set the tone and direction of future peace talks, and to use its political authority to drive the process forward. If the peace process is to make progress from 2021, the NLD will need to show newfound levels of leadership, commitment, empathy and flexibility. The party has a major asset in the person of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who still enjoys immense political capital, but this advantage alone will not be sufficient: the NLD government will need a decisive change in approach to rebuild damaged trust with ethnic armed groups, particularly the NCA signatories involved in formal negotiations toward a political settlement.

Key steps the government could take to relaunch the process include:

Key to this vision is what a future federal democratic union might look like in practice.

Articulate a new vision for the peace process. The NLD approached the peace process in 2016 as a means to an end – achieving its desired constitutional reforms – and the hollowness of its commitment soon became apparent. Both in public and in private, government officials and peace negotiators also show a lack of empathy for the legitimate grievances of ethnic communities, and a misunderstanding of how Burmans – particularly Burman elites – are perceived by many minority groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, analysts and ethnic armed groups leaders, Yangon, February and May 2020.Hide Footnote  In order to gain the trust of ethnic armed group negotiators, the NLD should articulate a vision that goes beyond the platitudes that presently dominate its statements and more clearly distinguishes its own position from that of the military.[fn]The government refers regularly to political dialogue leading to a democratic federal union with equality. But it gives little detail. It also regularly repeats junta-era slogans, talking of the importance of “unity”, “Union spirit” and all ethnic groups living in “harmony and solidarity”. See, for example, “Message sent by President U Win Myint on the occasion of the 73rd Union Day 2020”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 12 February 2020; and “State Counsellor opens Ethnics Cultural Festival-2020”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 2 February 2020.Hide Footnote  Key to this vision is what a future federal democratic union might look like in practice, in particular how it would address the grievances of minorities and reduce the longstanding Burman Buddhist dominance over levers of power.

Back up this vision with short-term actions. The 2008 constitution is a barrier to decentralisation of power in the short term, because it establishes a centralised governance structure and can only be amended with the military’s backing.[fn]The constitution created sub-national governments and legislatures in the seven ethnic minority-dominated states. These institutions have little decision-making power or autonomy.Hide Footnote  Nevertheless, the NLD could do much more under the current framework to signal its commitment to granting more autonomy to ethnic minorities. It could start immediately after the next elections: rather than repeat its actions in 2016, when it selected its own parliamentarians as chief ministers of Rakhine and Shan States despite not holding pluralities in those state legislatures, it should appoint chief ministers based on these assemblies’ composition following the polls scheduled for November 2020. The NLD could also use its control of government and the national parliament to undertake decentralisation measures that do not require constitutional change, such as providing more autonomy to the current state and region administrations and boosting their capacity. Such short-term actions will build confidence in its long-term vision for a political solution to Myanmar’s conflicts.

The NLD should look to overhaul and expand its current team.

Overhaul and expand the peacemaking team. Many of the government’s current negotiators lack the commitment and desire to lead the peace process, and appear to have little understanding of the conflicts or the ethnic grievances that underpin them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Below the leadership, most of the staff at the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre are former bureaucrats or government staff on secondment. Many of them see working on the peace process as a career detour, and their instinct is to place a high priority on protocol and formalities rather than the actual negotiations. Although some civil servants are capable and committed, the most effective members are often those who come from outside the government and party. The NLD should look both within its own ranks and its broader network to overhaul and expand its current team by bringing in full-time members and advisers from diverse backgrounds, including business leaders, political representatives, civil society leaders and academics, who have the commitment and vision to help the government drive the process forward.

Empower peace representatives. The government’s decision-making process is highly centralised in the office of Aung San Suu Kyi. The representatives it sends to negotiate are not empowered to make decisions and instead have to relay proposals back to headquarters. “We are like messengers”, said one negotiator. “We note down what the ethnic armed groups say and give it to [the State Counsellor’s Office]”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government peace negotiator, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Although this issue is primarily one of delegating responsibility, it may help to remove the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre from the state counsellor’s office and create a new, more independent, ministerial-level peace body. This step would not only improve coordination between the government’s top peace negotiator and other ministries, but also send a strong signal that the government is committed to the peace process. It is essential, however, that this body be genuinely empowered to streamline decision-making and implementation, not created simply as a public relations stunt.

Prioritise genuinely informal dialogue. The Thein Sein administration’s peace team developed trust with ethnic armed group leaders in part through regular informal meetings at which issues could be discussed openly. When the NLD took over, it dispensed with this approach, focusing on formal talks and performative set-piece ceremonies. More recently, the government has recognised the importance of more open dialogue, but it has yet to pursue genuinely informal talks. “The government’s definition of informal isn’t really that different from previous formal meetings. It’s still structured, rigid, with all the trappings of a formal meeting”, said one source close to ethnic armed groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst close to ethnic armed groups, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote  The looming downtime around the elections offers a good opportunity to resume such gatherings away from the pressure of deadlines and formal negotiating positions. When it becomes possible, donors could help arrange retreats or study trips with less strict schedules to allow for mingling and discussions.

In parallel, the military should:

Halt infrastructure projects in ethnic armed group territory. The military’s construction of a strategic road through Karen National Union-held territory in Kayin State – and the inability of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee to resolve the dispute – was one of the key reasons that the Karen National Union withdrew from the peace process in 2018. More recently, the Karen National Union has accused the military of using drones to undertake reconnaissance of its bases. Both are contrary to the spirit (if not the letter) of the NCA and have severely undermined confidence in the agreement.[fn]Crisis Group interview, peace process analyst, May 2020. See “Karen ceasefire frays under Tatmadaw road-building push”, Frontier Myanmar, 28 February 2020; and “KNU accuses military of using drones to spy on its bases”, Myanmar Now, 24 January 2020.Hide Footnote  Fighting sparked by the road construction has resulted in civilian casualties, which also represents a likely violation of the NCA. The military should immediately stop building infrastructure in areas under the control of ethnic armed groups.

Immediately demarcating territory would rebuild some trust and create more confidence among ethnic armed groups.

Demarcate territory with NCA signatories. The military has argued that building the road in Kayin State is not a violation of the NCA in part because territory has not yet been demarcated. But the absence of demarcation is largely the result of military obstruction: when ethnic armed groups have raised the issue during negotiations, the military has refused to discuss it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, peace process analyst and analyst close to ethnic armed groups, Yangon, February and May 2020.Hide Footnote  Immediately demarcating territory would rebuild some trust and create more confidence among ethnic armed groups that the military is genuinely interested in a negotiated solution, rather than using the NCA to weaken the ethnic armed groups’ hold over their territory, as has often been the case in the past.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Yangon, February and May 2020.Hide Footnote

Together, the government and military should:

Strengthen the joint nature of the peace process. The peace process is supposed to be co-managed by all parties, but the government and military have been reluctant to genuinely share control with ethnic armed groups. In key peace process institutions such as the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee and the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee, which oversees the political dialogue process, the government and military have appointed the chair and ethnic armed groups are left to appoint the deputies.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, peace process analyst and analyst close to ethnic armed groups, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Introducing a rotating leadership, particularly for the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee, would send an important message that these bodies are “joint” in practice and not merely in name, and could help to make them more effective.

Strengthen the ceasefire and adhere to its terms. The failure to implement some ceasefire terms – for example, the stipulation that the military and ethnic armed groups meet within fourteen days of signing to set timelines for implementation – or to jointly define terms in the text such as “ceasefire areas” and “interim period”, have sapped confidence among signatories and discouraged other ethnic armed groups from signing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ethnic armed group official and analyst close to ethnic armed groups, Yangon, February 2020.Hide Footnote  The government’s perceived failure to stick to the “interim arrangements” section – for example, in not consulting signatories on changes to Myanmar’s land laws – has also undermined the agreement. The government and military should work with NCA signatories to clarify key sections of the ceasefire accord and begin implementation of the interim arrangements, such as those that specify coordination on health, education and social development. Most pressingly, they ought to coordinate on measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Conflict, Health Cooperation and COVID-19 in Myanmar, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Adopt a more flexible policy toward NCA non-signatories. Presently, ethnic armed groups that have not signed the NCA are unable to formally participate in political dialogue negotiations toward a Union Peace Accord. Given that some of these groups are among the country’s largest and most active, this requirement is a major barrier to progress in achieving peace. Without their participation, the process lacks legitimacy and inclusivity. The government and military should adopt a more flexible policy ­– for example, allowing them to participate in political dialogue once they have reached a bilateral ceasefire, but prior to signing the nationwide ceasefire, which will inevitably require time since most groups will not sign until some of the terms are amended.

For their part, ethnic armed groups should:

Ethnic armed groups have yet to clearly articulate what they want from the peace process.

Clarify policy positions on key issues. Ethnic armed groups have yet to clearly articulate what they want from the peace process beyond statements covering broad ideals. The lack of clarity is understandable: the signatories are diverse and struggle to develop consensus positions. But it hinders both progress in negotiations and leaders’ efforts to delegate authority to negotiating teams. Most urgently, ethnic groups should detail the powers they would want ethnic minority-dominated areas to have under a federal system.

Sequence demands to build trust. Ethnic armed groups that have signed the NCA should give careful consideration to how they approach negotiations after the election. Immediately pushing for significant political concessions, such as the withdrawal of the Myanmar military from politics, even in the expectation that they will ultimately scale back their demands, could further harm relations with senior government and military leaders. A better approach may be to focus on less controversial topics – for example, land law reform or cooperation between government and ethnic-run systems in the health and education sectors – in order to build trust and avoid a backlash, and then make progress over time on the bigger issues of federalism, power sharing and integration of armed forces.

Meanwhile, all parties to the peace process should:

All parties should review the political dialogue structure.

Simplify the peace process structure. The present architecture is overly complex, particularly the aspects dealing with the political dialogue process (see Appendix B). In their attempt to generate a genuinely “bottom-up” dialogue, the drafters of the framework for political dialogue created an extensive consultation process that included a wide range of stakeholders. Although the objective was laudable, the end result has proven largely ineffective and an unmanageable staffing burden for all sides. All parties should review the political dialogue structure, particularly the usefulness and practicality of the numerous thematic working committees, supervisory committees and national-level dialogues. The aim should be to streamline the process while maintaining a reasonable level of consultation and participation. Donors should assist this review, if requested, without being wedded to the current architecture just because they supported its development.

Enhance women’s role. Despite commitments in the NCA and framework for political dialogue that women would be given a significant role, the peace process remains dominated by older men. Although the proportion of women representatives at Union Peace Conferences has increased steadily, from just 7 per cent of attendees at the first meeting in January 2016 to 22 per cent at the July 2018 talks, they remain underrepresented and their capacity to influence decisions extremely limited.[fn]“Women’s Participation in Myanmar’s Peace Process”, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 8 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Away from these large conferences, women hold even fewer positions on key peace process institutions, such as the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee or Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee. This lack of participation belies the fact that women play an influential but often informal role in politics and civil society, including peacebuilding initiatives and dispute resolution at the community level.

Many women in Myanmar have valuable political experience as mediators, facilitators, negotiators and peacebuilders but are excluded from formal processes. Drawing on this practical experience would not only ensure that women’s perspectives are heard – and women’s rights reflected in potential peace agreements – but also bring fresh thinking to help reinvigorate the stalled negotiations. All parties should create opportunities for women to meaningfully participate in every aspect of the peace process and future governance, not just peace conferences.

Finally, donors and non-governmental organisations should help all parties to:

Begin examining the economics of conflict. To date, the peace process has focused on reaching political solutions to Myanmar’s conflicts. On their own, however, these are unlikely to suffice. Armed groups, including Myanmar military-aligned Border Guard Forces and militias, rely on various sources of mostly illicit income and almost certainly will not give up their arms without a viable plan for replacing at least some of what they are earning now with revenues from licit businesses. The explosion of crystal methamphetamine (or “ice”) production in northern Shan State over the past few years highlights the risks of ignoring the issue.[fn]The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated in 2018 that the regional methamphetamine economy was worth $60 billion, with production centred in Myanmar. If even a small slice of the value chain is within the country, it makes meth the most lucrative economic activity in Shan State and entrenches a political economy in which armed groups hold significant power. For full details, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°299, Fire and Ice: Conflict and Drugs in Myanmar’s Shan State, 8 January 2019. For drug revenue figures, see “Transnational Organised Crime in Southeast Asia: Evolution, Growth and Impact”, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Armed groups may not be as resistant to giving up these revenue streams as they might initially appear. Illicit income entails a range of significant risks, among them the possibility of upsetting the political balance among different non-state armed groups.[fn]See, for example, “Myanmar army seizes drugs, detains leaders in raid on KIA offshoot group”, Radio Free Asia, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Finding sustainable alternatives to this illicit economy will inevitably be a long process.

Finding sustainable alternatives to this illicit economy will inevitably be a long process. Given the limited available capacity within the government, military and ethnic armed groups, they are likely to focus instead on more pressing issues that are being discussed at the negotiating table. In parallel, however, donors could begin supporting non-governmental organisations, think-tanks and independent researchers to undertake detailed studies on the economic dynamics underlying the conflict. These studies could then be used by decision-makers in consultation with armed groups to come up with income substitution solutions. One example is informal trade, from which many armed groups profit by running their own unofficial border crossings. Most of the goods that pass through these gates – everything from cattle to liquor and detergent – are not outright illegal, but regulations encourage traders to use non-official crossings. A roadmap to revise these regulations and give ethnic armed groups time to make the transition to licit businesses could substantially reduce illicit trade.

Similarly, the next six to twelve months offer an opportunity for the same groups to devote time and resources to studying other important but overlooked political economy issues that are affecting or will affect the peace process. One example is the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative), which could entrench the role of armed groups in the political economy, particularly in Shan State, and aggravate underlying ethnic grievances toward the government.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Commerce and Conflict: Navigating Myanmar’s China Relationship, op. cit., for further discussion on the impact of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor on conflict in Myanmar.Hide Footnote  Another is the rarely discussed role of the thousands of pro-military militias across Myanmar that are not included in the peace process. Although some of these are small village defence units with little clout, others have developed into fighting forces with more political and military influence than many of the ethnic armed groups involved in the peace process. They have built themselves up primarily by engaging in illicit economic activities, including running casinos, as well as smuggling narcotics and other goods.[fn]On militias, see “Militias in Myanmar”, The Asia Foundation, July 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

Discussions over the past six months among the NLD government, the military and signatories of the National Ceasefire Agreement have confirmed that all stakeholders want the peace process to continue after the general election tentatively slated for November this year. Given the alternatives, even a mostly symbolic Panglong-21 conference would be welcome, and all sides should work toward this short-term goal. But the peace conference should not be seen for more than what it is: an attempt to keep the peace process alive into 2021. Over the last two years, progress has largely stalled, and tensions have increased among the three key stakeholders. It was only the government’s electoral imperatives and the prospect of the ceasefire collapsing that brought key ethnic armed groups back to the negotiating table.

 Nevertheless, the elections offer an important chance for a reset after the missed opportunities and disappointments of the NLD’s first term. The peace process will be put on hold for at least six months after the Panglong-21 conference due to the elections, and the parties should use this time to lay the groundwork for greater progress in negotiations when they start again in 2021. Even if the spread of COVID-19 necessitates further delays for convening the next Panglong-21 (and potentially also the elections), there will still be an equivalent period of downtime during which formal negotiations will not take place. All sides should use this period to review their positions, address their internal weaknesses, and build trust and confidence with each other away from the pressure of meetings and deadlines. All should make the most of this opportunity, but the primary responsibility rests with the NLD, which is likely to remain in power for another five-year term. The onus will then be on the NLD government to articulate a new, more inclusive vision for the peace process and to exhibit the political will to make it a reality.

Yangon/Brussels, 19 June 2020

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

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Appendix B: Organogram: Peace Process

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Appendix C: List of Main Ethnic Armed Groups and 
Their Ceasefire Status

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