Barking up the wrong tree (2): Ceasefire as an end

On the 31st of March, the government negotiators, military commanders, ruling party lawmakers and ethnic armed group representatives approved and finalized a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement. If endorsed and signed by the ethnic arm groups, this accord can potentially bring respite to prolonged conflict between the government army and majority of ethnic resistance groups.

The endorsement prompted many commendations and approvals from key international interest groups such as UN, US, and China. It is hailed as “a potentially historic step,” a “significant achievement” and a “crucial first stage” toward achieving peace and national reconciliation. Such positive responses and approvals from international community explain urgency from the part of Burmese government to bring such progress.  President Thein Sein attended the ceremony to witness such much anticipated and welcome progress, urging the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) must “definitely” be signed in April.

As reported, difficult political issues—such as disarmament of rebels, creation of a federal army and issues relating to federal autonomy— were omitted in a draft to be signed. (Irrawaddy news) Thus, in a way the nationwide ceasefire accord, if signed, would not address any pivotal issue desired by the ethnic arm groups. More importantly, it betrays the core concern of the coalition of ethnic arm groups (UNFC) as the government rejects the Kokang resistance group to be one of the signatory groups of the ceasefire agreement.  In the past, UNFC has repeatedly voiced its concern over the government practice of divide and rule, pressuring a particular ethnic arm group while making a ceasefire deal with the others.

In Burma politics, such ceasefire arrangement between the government and ethnic arm groups is a business as usual. Ceasefire pacts have been always used to divert, divide, and ultimately, to delay the ethnic demand for their rights and self-determination.  The unusual thing about this time is the attention received from international community made possible by the current savvy so-called reform government.

The out-flowing positive responses to recent achievement toward potential ceasefire agreement remind us of Joseph Conrad’s observation that “the power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense” in politics.  In light of Burmese government’s use of ceasefire to manage and postpone the conflict, it is way too soon to celebrate.  Unless the NCA is immediately followed by a political dialogue with substantive measures and goals, the ceasefire will short-live transpiring to be the same old story.

Ceasefire deals can bring many political advantages without giving up any crucial interest of the military government. The 17 years of ceasefire period in Kachin State shows that it is an effective and beneficial conflict management tool for the government. First, it portrays the military government as peace-loving rulers. Second, it serves as a consent to expand and exploit their grasp on ethnic territories and resources previously unreached by the military and its venture capitalist cronies. Third, it promotes the myth of military as a safeguard of an endangered nation, and thus,  provides legitimation for continued military built-ups.

Thus, nationwide ceasefire agreement means Burmese military won and its aggression is rewarded, again. President indicated that achieving nationwide ceasefire agreement would be a “priceless success”( Myanmar Times) since it can showcase as a tangible progress of reform to international community, reduce overwhelming stresses from multiple frontlines against ethnic arm groups ,and more importantly, continue the business as usual as the military at the helm of Burma politics.

Thus, as successive governments in Burma, achieving ceasefire deal with ethnic resistance groups is the end goal for current reform government. The ceasefire deals forged in the past have resulted to be an official consent from the part of ethnic minorities in order to allow military government and its cronies to exploit and denigrate their own people and land. In his insightful observation of history, Hegel said that “we learn from history that we do not learn from history.” It is hoped that the repeated failures of the past ceasefire deals would serve as cautionary markers in order to avoid from being bogged down in the same old pitfall.

As if now, the Burmese military is in a better position in many ethnic areas.  For instance, the government military’s effort to occupy KIA’s posts intensified and succeeded as ceasefire talk was going on in Yangon. Moreover, the joint declaration of the draft also subtly indicates ethnic groups’ acceptance of the government’s refusal to include the Kokang arm group (MDAA), which is also a member of the NCCT. Thus, one of the intentions of ceasefire deal which is to isolate and crush a particular group is momentarily accomplishing in Northern Shan State.

The very definition of ceasefire also underscores that it is “an agreement to stop fighting a war for a period of time so that a permanent agreement can be made.” (Merriam-Webster). Ceasefire, in fact is a means to an end. Thus, it must not be, again, mistaken as an end that will merely provide deeper distrust and grievances in the relationship between the Burmese government and ethnic minorities.