New ceasefire agreement is Myanmar's road to peace
Over the past 20 months, the government of Myanmar has signed peace agreements with 14 non-state armed groups. Talks are continuing with the few groups who have not yet reached agreement. This is a monumental achievement, given Myanmar's 64-year history of civil war. Yet many daunting challenges remain on the road to peace.
One of these is the urgent need to secure and stabilise these ceasefires in order to enable the peace process to move forward. To this end, the Myanmar government is attempting something that has never been tried before: a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with groups fighting for greater autonomy in Myanmar.
All armed ethnic groups should sign the NCA _ a joint effort to bring peace to Myanmar at long last. To discuss a potential nationwide truce therefore, they are meeting this week in Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independent Organisation on the Chinese border.
Immediately after the signing, the NCA will resolve the illegal association act that empowers security forces to detain individuals deemed to have come into contact with illegal armed groups. In the long-run, the NCA will contribute to many of the fundamental building blocks of peace such as joint-confidence building measures and joint monitoring mechanisms.
The NCA will allow ethnic armed groups to travel freely without weapons across demarcation lines and establish liaison offices where necessary. They will all be issued ID cards, a process that is already under way for several of the ethnic ceasefire groups. They will have access to the media and freedom of consultation with all relevant stakeholders inside the country. It will consolidate previous truce agreements. Most crucially, the NCA will affirm the commitment of all armed groups, including the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army), to peace and to the peaceful settlement of problems that confront Myanmar.
Nothing is simple and straightforward in a peace process. For decades, ethnic armed groups have called for a nationwide truce. Ideally, the NCA should fulfill this desire. However, some ethnic groups worry that by signing the NCA they would be providing legitimacy and political kudos to the government without getting anything in return. However, the NCA is a mutually-beneficial process that provides both legitimacy and a political way forward for all stakeholders.
There will be no repercussions for those who decide not to sign the NCA. Those who participate in it will not be required to give up their weapons or territory. Nor will the process of political settlement end with the NCA. If it does not work out, it does not close off other ways forward _ it will be possible to go back to the drawing board, or even go back to fighting.
It is likely that top leaders from the government, the Hluttaw (the parliament) and the Tatmadaw will be signatories. All armed groups will have the opportunity to sign the document. There may be others such as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who will also ink or witness the deal. If this becomes a reality, Nay Pyi Taw intends to invite several international eminent persons such as the Asean Secretary-General and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon as witnesses to the ceremony. This is to demonstrate the commitment of all key stakeholders in Myanmar's armed conflict to end all active military engagement once and for all in the presence of esteemed members of the international community.
Importantly, the NCA will not be an ultimatum: the possibility will remain open for groups that opt not to sign up now, to do so at a later date. Even if they decide not to sign immediately, they will be invited to the NCA signing ceremony.
To maintain momentum for peace, the government intends to schedule the NCA signing ceremony before 2013's end. Its signing will usher in the long-awaited National Peace Dialogue aimed at negotiating an enduring political settlement.
The 64-year-old civil war has seriously damaged relationships that existed in the spirit of the Pang Long Agreement. NCA is the beginning of national reconciliation that should repair these relationships.
Despite all that has been achieved in the past two years, there is still significant distrust on the part of the armed ethnic groups towards the peace process. Given Myanmar's history of violence, abuses and broken promises, this is completely understandable. Blame cannot be placed on anyone for having doubts or concerns.
With or without the NCA, there is no doubt that the peace process will go on. All parties, from the president, the chief negotiator minister U Aung Min, the Tatmadaw and the leaders of the parliament and all of the non-state armed groups have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to peace. But without cementing ceasefires at this time through NCA, ceasefire violations, of which there have been many over the past two years, can have the effect of turning the clock backwards.
Beyond the leaders on all sides, the NCA should be a clarion call for the nation of Myanmar and its entire peace-deserving people, especially ethnic nationalities, to end violence, and find a path to peace. Ultimately, the NCA can represent a turning point for the country, a chance for political leaders on all sides to leave a legacy of peace _ a legacy sorely lacking in Myanmar _ for generations to come.
Aung Naing Oo is Associate Director of Peace Dialogue Program, Myanmar Peace Centre.