Ceasefire deal welcome but major challenges remain
The people of Myanmar and the international community should congratulate the unflinching efforts taken by negotiators of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
On Tuesday, representatives from 16 Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), army and government reached a tentative deal in Yangon, the formal capital of the country, which sets out a framework for a countrywide cessation of armed conflicts.
The agreement was welcomed by the United Nations, which has been acting as an observer to the peace talks.
"For the government of Myanmar and 16 ethnic armed groups to reach a ceasefire agreement after more than sixty years of conflict is a historic and significant achievement," said a statement released on behalf of UN Special Adviser Vijay Nambiar.
Welcoming the development, Myanmar President Thein Sein said at the draft signing ceremony that "the people need peace, they desire peace and they expect peace" and hopes to see a full agreement signed within the next few months.
The draft agreement, which came after several bilateral ceasefires negotiated with individual ethnic armed groups, was reached over several rounds of formal negotiations between the negotiating teams beginning in November 2013.
While the latest political development needs to be welcomed and appreciated heartily, every conscious political observer should understand the challenges that still remain.
First, the deal is reached between negotiators from members of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and the Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC), and representatives of the army who have been assigned to draft the document.
Now the text of the agreement will be forwarded and reviewed internally by leaders of each ethnic armed group in their respective camps. Though the text is likely to be endorsed and supported by individual armed groups, there still is a possibility of opposition from some quarters.
Even if leaders of all participating ethnic armed groups accept the deal, the process can drag on for months before a consensus can be reached by the elites. During the course of ceasefire negotiation, there have been instances of differences/disagreements on critical issues such as the role of military in politics.
The goal of NCA is to pave the way for political dialogue, like the one similar to the 1947 conference held in Panglong, to find solutions for decades-old ethno-political problems in the country, including ethnic minorities' demand for autonomy under a federal structure.
Second is the non-participation of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) armed group in the peace process. Some analysts may call the absence of MNDAA as a deliberate or intentional exclusive strategy by the government.
The armed conflict between the MNDAA and the Myanmar army started on Feb 9 in Laukkai township when MNDAA fighters who were trying to retake the Kokang self-administered zone attacked the Myanmar army outposts near the towns of Mawhtike and Tashwehtan.
The Myanmar army resorted to airstrikes in retaliatory attacks. In the ensuing armed clashes, many have been killed on both sides — government troops and Kokang fighters. Thousands of civilians have either fled the conflict zone or have become internally displaced persons.
In an attempt to control the upsurge of violence and to subdue the MNDAA fighters, President Thein Sein declared a three-month state of emergency in the Kokang self-administered zone in the northern part of Shan state on Feb 17.
The MNDAA, under the leadership of Phon Kya Shin, enjoyed a ceasefire with the government from 1989 to 2009. Two decades of ceasefire ended when the MNDAA rejected the Myanmar government's proposal to become border guard forces under the command of the Myanmar army.
Out of the 16 EAOs represented in the NCCT, ethnic armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) are also yet to sign bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government.
While the deal on the NCA draft is a positive development, the Myanmar government and all other political stakeholders, including the international community should understand that a true nationwide ceasefire cannot be possible as long as armed conflicts continue in Shan and Kachin states.
Instead of sidelining them, the government should invite MNDAA leaders to the negotiating table for a viable political solution.
Even if the government is unable to meet the demand of every armed group, all possible options should be explored through peaceful means.
Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a political scientist and general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. He is the author of a book 'Democracy Movement in Myanmar: Problems and Challenges'.