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Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive
Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Myanmar at the International Court of Justice
Myanmar at the International Court of Justice
Rebel soldiers of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) gather at a military base in Kokang, Myanmar, on 11 March 2015. REUTERS
Briefing 146 / Asia

Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive

A ceasefire between Myanmar’s government and armed groups is tantalising close. It would end 60 years of armed conflict and ease the path of democratic transition. But time is short before historic elections on 8 November, and any failure to seal an accord could trigger renewed clashes that would be hard to bring back under control.

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I. Overview

After more than six decades of internal armed conflict, the next four weeks could be decisive for Myanmar’s peace process. The process, which was launched in August 2011, enjoyed significant initial success, as bilateral ceasefires were agreed with more than a dozen ethnic armed groups. But signing a nationwide ceasefire and proceeding to the political dialogue phase has been much more difficult. Four years on, with campaigning for the November elections already underway, a deal remains elusive. It is unclear whether a breakthrough can be achieved before the elections. Outside pressure will not be productive, but the progress to date needs to be locked in, and public international commitments to support the integrity of the process and stand with the groups that sign can now be of critical importance.

A delegation of ethnic armed group leaders met with President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw on 9 September, in what was widely seen as a last-ditch effort to sign a ceasefire agreement before the elections. While both sides showed flexibility and avoided deadlock, no conclusive agreement was reached. Further discussions among armed group leaders and with government negotiators will be needed to determine which groups will sign and to fix a date for the ceremony, foreshadowed for early October.

Hopes had risen on 31 March 2015, when negotiators finalised and initialled a proposed agreement that had been approved at the highest levels of government. However, a summit of armed group leaders rejected it on 9 June, proposing several further amendments and establishing a new negotiating team. They also decided that no group would sign unless all did, including three currently fighting the military in the Kokang region, who, the government insists, must lay down their weapons or agree bilateral ceasefires first.

Despite this, both sides subsequently worked hard to revive the process, and two further rounds of talks were held in July and August. A slightly revised ceasefire agreement was finalised, leaving the issue of which armed groups could sign the text as the last significant point of contention. Some armed groups signalled their willingness to sign, while others stuck to their position that any signing must be inclusive. The meeting with the president was intended to forge a compromise to overcome this last hurdle. But despite long and detailed discussions, doubts persist about which groups will sign, and when. Key will be the Kachin Independence Organization, which is in a particularly difficult position; a bold decision and strong leadership will be required if it is to overcome its concerns.

What transpires in the peace process has important implications for the elections in ethnic areas. A nationwide ceasefire would boost trust between the armed groups and the government. The lack of a deal would make it significantly more challenging to arrange voting in conflict-affected areas and mean polling is likely to be cancelled in more places, increasing the risk of clashes or electoral security problems. In addition, persistent legal restrictions regarding the election commission and political parties’ engagement with armed groups make it much harder to create the conditions of trust and security needed for credible, peaceful elections in areas they control or influence.

Medium- and long-term consequences are potentially extensive. If no deal is reached in the coming weeks, it will be many months before the peace process can be reactivated, and it is unlikely the text can simply be dusted off and signed. Many of the obstacles will remain: a mutual trust deficit and ongoing fighting raising further doubts. There will be an inevitable change in interlocutors, since the new administration will likely appoint a new lead negotiator, a military reshuffle has seen senior officers involved in the process retiring, and there will undoubtedly be new legislative representatives. Progress at that point is unlikely to be quick or easy.

This is not a perfect or even strong ceasefire agreement: military issues such as force separation, demarcation and verification are vague, not included, or require further agreement to come into force. It nevertheless represents a major success given the complex situation. If signed, it could pave the way for a more comprehensive political settlement. If not, the risk is that an inevitable loss of momentum in the peace process could precipitate an upsurge in armed clashes and less effective means to de-escalate them. Fighting in Shan and Kachin states and pockets of Kayin state could intensify and spread, possibly setting the process back further. Rising Burman Buddhist nationalism and the demands of a majority Burman electorate could also make it difficult for the next government to offer as many concessions.

The peace process is home-grown, without any international mediators, and it should remain so – this has been one of its great strengths. But the international community has been providing advice, and now is a critical moment for it to take a public stand – not in terms of pressure on the armed groups to sign the agreement, but rather public assurances of continued political support, close scrutiny of the process and appropriate assistance to affected communities. As one of two formal observers to the process (together with China), the UN has a particularly important opportunity, and obligation, to act.

Otherwise, there is a real risk that the best chance in over 60 years for a negotiated political settlement could be lost. This would not mean a return to the widespread insurgency of decades past, which is politically, economically and militarily unsustainable for many groups. But it would mean deep grievances remain unaddressed, borderland insecurity and militarisation persist, and the state-building project remains incomplete. All sides must work to avoid such an outcome, which would be to the great detriment of the whole country and all its peoples.

Yangon/Brussels, 16 September 2015 

A billboard depicting Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Su Kyi with the three military ministers in front of a background showing the building of the International Court of Justice in The Hague is displayed along a main road in Hpa-an, Karen State. AFP
Q&A / Asia

Myanmar at the International Court of Justice

On 10 December, the International Court of Justice convened to hear an opening request in a genocide case filed against Myanmar for its atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Richard Horsey looks at the legal and diplomatic stakes of these proceedings.

Why is Myanmar before the International Court of Justice?

The Gambia has lodged a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal UN judicial body based in The Hague, alleging violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (usually known as the Genocide Convention) in Myanmar’s treatment of ethnic Rohingya Muslims. The charges stem from atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces in northern Rakhine State, which have forced over 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh since August 2017. The Gambia, relying on the Convention’s provision that the ICJ can adjudicate disputes over such charges, brought this case on behalf of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The allegations against Myanmar include responsibility for genocidal acts against the Rohingya and failure to prevent and punish genocide, among others.

The Gambia has also asked the ICJ to order “provisional measures”, the equivalent of an injunction in domestic law, authorising steps to protect the parties’ rights pending the case’s final adjudication. Hearings at the court from 10-12 December – at which Aung San Suu Kyi will represent Myanmar – are dealing with this request for provisional measures. Both The Gambia and Myanmar have retained top international lawyers as counsel.

The allegations against Myanmar include responsibility for genocidal acts against the Rohingya and failure to prevent and punish genocide, among others.

Two other countries – the Netherlands and Canada – have indicated that they will support The Gambia’s case. They have called on all state parties to the Genocide Convention to do the same. One possibility is that the Netherlands and Canada will become “intervening states”, a status that would give them access to court documents and the right to participate in oral proceedings, without being formal parties to the dispute.

A decision on provisional measures is expected within weeks. But the case itself will probably be long and convoluted, with the court taking years to render its final decision. The diplomatic and reputational impact is thus likely to be most immediate and consequential.

Why is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s top civilian leader, speaking at the ICJ hearing this week and what does she hope to achieve?

In addition to a legal team, states involved in ICJ cases must nominate an “agent” empowered to represent the state and make commitments on its behalf. Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s agent, in her capacity as foreign minister (she also holds the title of state counsellor). A justice minister or an attorney general normally plays this role; it is extremely rare for a political figure of her prominence to do so. Aung San Suu Kyi likely feels that as the country’s de facto leader she has the primary responsibility to respond to The Gambia’s claims, and also that she is the person best qualified to do so – given her fluent English and experience on the world stage.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s public statements over the last two years, and what she is known to have said in private, suggest that she believes no genocide has occurred in the Rohingya case. She thinks that, on the contrary, the outside world has deeply misunderstood and exaggerated the Rohingya crisis. She no doubt intends to use the legal setting in The Hague to try to set the record straight. She also no doubt understands that the eyes of the world will be on her at this pivotal moment for Myanmar. The global audience – particularly in the West – will expect her to go much farther than she has in previous speeches in acknowledging the security forces’ wrongdoing and committing to address it. It remains to be seen how far she will go in this direction.

What impact will Aung San Suu Kyi’s appearance in The Hague have within Myanmar?

Views on the Rohingya crisis inside Myanmar are almost diametrically opposed to those outside the country. The near ubiquitous narrative in the country – coming from its leaders and promulgated by the local media – is that the outside world misunderstands what has happened with the Rohingya. Myanmar thinks that its primary problem is therefore one of communication: how to explain the “real situation” more clearly and effectively.

Since The Gambia filed the ICJ case on 11 November, and Aung San Suu Kyi decided to represent Myanmar personally in The Hague, a wave of nationalist fervour has swept the country. Billboards and mass rallies endorse her mission at the ICJ; even the military – her nemesis during fifteen years of house arrest – is giving her its unequivocal backing. The civilian government is likewise soliciting vocal support from the people for the state counsellor’s defence of the nation. President Win Myint’s wife even conducted a ritual at Aung San Suu Kyi’s “eternal peace pagoda” in Naypyitaw, invoking the spirits to confer success on her efforts.

Since [...] Aung San Suu Kyi decided to represent Myanmar personally in The Hague, a wave of nationalist fervour has swept the country.

This outpouring of support will play well for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the November 2020 elections, though electoral advantage is unlikely to be her primary motivation. Her stance for Myanmar in The Hague could also lead to a slight thaw in the chilly relations between the civilian government and the military. But the risk is that unleashing the forces of narrow nationalism will not only silence voices calling for human rights protections and greater tolerance for diversity in the country but also postpone any honest national reckoning with what happened to the Rohingya. Such an accounting is the only way that Myanmar can get out of its international legal and diplomatic predicament.

What impact will the ICJ case have on international perceptions of Myanmar?

A moment of truth is fast approaching. Part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international audience at The Hague will consist of some Asian governments that are determined to maintain close bilateral ties with Naypyitaw. She might say enough to satisfy them, but she will have more difficulty meeting the expectations of Western governments. It is hard to imagine, moreover, given the documentation of the Rohingya’s plight, that she will convince the many sceptical observers in the global media and civil society that Myanmar’s state is misunderstood and unfairly maligned. In defending Myanmar as part of proceedings live-streamed worldwide, she will necessarily be defending the military against genocide charges. Anyone can easily compare the substance of this defence with the numerous third-party reports about why so many Rohingya fled northern Myanmar and how they are living stuck in Bangladesh. Anyone can also read about the Rohingya who continue to live in precarious circumstances at home. Myanmar could lose in the court of international public opinion well before the ICJ makes any legal ruling.