Today there is a real possibility that the 60 year long history of ethno-national insurgencies might actually be resolved peacefully. Following decades of stagnation under one of the world’s longest ruling military juntas, the Burmese Army (which I will refer to hereafter as the Tatmadaw, since it is commonly referred to in the Burmese) oversaw a constitutional referendum in 2008 and an election in 2010. Shortly after taking office, the new President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, ordered that all peace dialogues with the “Ethnic Armed Organizations” (as Myanmar’s insurgency groups are known) should resume immediately.
Since President Thein Sein’s presidency, however, decades of stagnation has shifted in an active process of negotiation. In addition to the country-wide reforms on censorship, lifting of many restrictions on political associations, and the release of hundreds of political prisions, the government has also been able to sign many bilateral ceasefires with most, but not all, ethnic armed organizations. Surprisingly, unlike previous ceasefires, these ones have, to a large extent, actually held a tenuous peace!
Still these bilateral ceasefires are not enough. As we all know, insurgencies have inherently political goals, and in this case Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations are making what amounts to a demand for a fully federal Union of Myanmar, where the Burmese/Bama areas are just another ethnically-delineated state with no more rights that the other ethnic states. Importantly, they are also pushing for reforming the Tatmadaw into a federal army that proportionally represents the entire country’s demographics.
While a political solution will, clearly, take some time given that demands for federalism and a federal army continue to be rejected by the military, the ethnic armed organizations, the Tatmadaw, and the government in Naypyidaw began negotiations in late 2013 for a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which would not only end hostilities, but also establish a code of conduct, monitoring mechanisms, consultations, and a framework for an eventual political solution. This agreement would go beyond the bilateral ceasefire agreements, but come short of a full political solution. Still, if it is signed (we’ll talk about that a little latter) it stands to set the stage for a permanent end of hostilities in a country plagued by insurgencies since its independence.
The actors in this negotiation process are the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (the NCCT), representing many of the ethnic armed organizations and their respective political wings, and the Union-level Peace Work Committee (the UPWC) representing the government and the Tatmadaw. The NCCT, itself, is…overseen, we might say, by the United Nationalities Federal Council (the UNFC), which is an alliance of 11 (maybe 10, as we’ll see shortly) ethnic armed organizations.
Since Nov. 2013, the NCCT and the UPWC have met 6 times to negotiation the terms of the nationwide ceasefire agreement. And, this past Aug. it really looked like the process would have concluded and the document have been signed by now. The gov. representatives had said that they agreed “in principle” to a federal solution, and the seemingly easier issues of a code of conduct, monitoring, and who would be allowed to witness to the signing of the document were the only things left on the agenda. However, shortly after this meeting, the gov./Tatmadaw withdrew its statement and set hardline positions on the remaining items of discussion.
I have paid particular attention to how the political alliances between the ethnic armed organizations have developed. After a thorough review of the materials available, including over 120 news articles from the Myanmar press from Aug-Dec. of this year, I have noted a total of four puzzling features to how the ethnic armed organizations are and are not cooperating with regards to the NCA drafting process.
The first puzzle has to do with membership discrepancies between the NCCT and the UNFC ethnic alliance. Now, there is really no immediately apparent reason that all ethnic armed organizations would not cooperate in this process. There is no history of substantial conflict between these organizations, there interests are more or less compatible, and certainly working together would give them a stronger position from which to push the gov and Tatmadaw for political concessions. Yet, they don’t.
In fact, the second largest organization in the UNFC, the Karen National Union, temporarily suspended its membership in the ethnic alliance. Furthermore, the most powerful ethnic org., the United Wa State Army, remains outside of the UNFC and the NCCT completely.
The second puzzling development that I have seen is the decision by 3 different Karen ethnic armed organizations to form a united Kawthoolei Armed Force. (The Karen as a large and diverse group of peoples that live in SE Myanmar. One of the founding members of this military alliance, was the Karen National Union (the KNU), the same one I mentioned had suspended its membership in the UNFC. The other two Karen groups had originally split from the KNU, one composed of Buddhist Karen claiming discrimination by the Christian-dominated KNU leadership. The other, an originally pro-government splinter group from the KNU. If this new alliance decided to pursue a common position in the nationwide ceasefire agreement, it could substantially change the position of the other members of the NCCT.
Thirdly, at least 2 ethnic organizations have not signed bilateral ceasefires with the Tatmadaw. As I pointed out earlier, these bilateral ceasefires are useful in that they provide a temporary pause in hostilities that allows the parties to focus on the nationwide agreement. However, the Kachin Independence Organization (in far northern Myanmar) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army have not signed ceasefire agreements and continue to defend themselves from Tatmadaw offensives. This is even more puzzling when we consider that the Kachin Independence Organization is the largest armed organization in the United Nationalities Federal Council.
Last, but not least is the question of why no one is talking about the Rohingya. For those of you who don’t know, the Rohingya are a Muslim group that speak a language related to Bengali living near the border with Bangladesh in center-west Burma. They have a certain level of international visibility as a result of riots against them led by Buddhist-extremists in Rakhine state and Mandalay. The Rohingya are not in large part not considered Myanmar citizens, and are listed as illegal migrants from India/Bangladesh. In recent years, there has been concern that the some Rohingya have cultivated ties with Islamic radical groups. Despite this visibility and the controversy, they are nowhere to be seen in the nationwide ceasefire agreement, and no mention is made of their situation by other non-Bamar ethnic armed or political organizations.
In order to analyze these four puzzles, I decided to combine two theoretical positions that are usually presented as at odds with each other: relative power and ethnic grievance. In the paper, I argue that we can understand the puzzling patterns of cooperation in ethnic political alliances only by combining these two ideas.
In regards to the Karen National Union’s decision to suspend its membership in the UNFC, it is important to note that the org. had cited the Kachin Independence Organization’s overwhelming influence in the organization as its primary reason for leaving. Indeed, in terms of relative power, the Kachin certainly have more troops (20,000 to the Karen 5,000) and resources. The Karen, however, are still much larger than the remaining UNFC members, meaning that it is not in a position where it would have to follow the Kachin lead. Rather, its decision to leave the UNFC would actually give it a larger voice in the NCA process, since it would be an independent actor and the forth largest EAO. The KNUs decision to work with the other Karen org. to form the Kawthoolei Armed Forces further increases its position, and if the KAF choosed to operate a united political group in the NCA it will be the 3rd largest EAO at the table.
The UWSA remains an observer of the NCA process, but is not part of the NCCT, and is, therefore, not able to affect decisions during the draft process. It will, however, have the option to sign the document should it ever be agreed upon. The UWSA is by far the largest EAO at 40,000 troops. That is over twice as much as the KIO’s 20,000, which is the second largest. As the largest EAO, and one with a relatively good relationship with the Union gov. there is little reason for the Wa to work with the other EAOs.
I already covered the KAF before, so lets jump to the 3rd puzzle about bilateral ceasefires. I argue that the KIO, as a leader of the UNFC and the second largest EAO, has decided that it is in its interests are better served by ensuring it maximum leverage to affect the NCA. A bilateral ceasefire might weaken its position; but, the KIO is not strong enough to push its agenda single handedly. Therefore, the UNFC can play the role of a KIO minimum winning coalition.
For the sake of time, I’m going to gloss over the case of Rohingya exclusion. But I will say that at least part of the problem is related to the fact that the Rohingya are too small to be worth the costs that any EAO would incur by bringing them into the picture. It would also entail alienating the Arakan/Rakine EAOs, which represent groups that are largely responsible for the riots agains the Rohingya in the first place.
So, where are we today?
The future of the NCA remains unclear. While reporting in August was largely positive, with many actors expressing confidence that it would be signed by the end of 2014, recent months have seen an almost complete reversal of that position. Not only has the Tatmadaw reversed it conciliatory position, but its most recent offensive against a KIO training facility near Laiza has seriously undermined EAO confidence. Indeed, during a meeting between the NCCT and the Myanmar Peace Commission in Chaing Mai, Thailand, NCCT leaders announced that the 7th NCA negotiation meeting would be postponed following attacks on the KIO; and that it was now impossible for the NCA to be completed in 2014. That said, the NCCT also made clear its continuing commitment negotiations at the same meeting. A Shan State EAO, however, disagreed and began to question the logic of a single-document ceasefire agreement when bilateral agreements seem to working well enough to move directly to a political solution. My feeling, based on extensive news reports, is that the NCA process will continue to proceed in fits and stalls, but will ultimately be signed. However, the resulting text will only be able to set very vague guidelines regarding future political concessions. When political talks do take place, the sticking points of federalism and military structure will remain sticking points, and will likely to be tied to other political developments, such as revising the 2008 constitution.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.