The clock is ticking away for President Thein Sein’s self-imposed timeline of mid-October (if not end-September), to have the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) signed. The dates are significant for the obvious reason that they precede the November elections. It is no secret that the President, in his yet to be declared bid for a second term, is anxious to make the NCA the centerpiece of his ‘reformer’ credentials.
As to the timeframe’s international implications, it dovetails perfectly with President Obama’s soon to expire term from the Oval Office. A timely signing would allow the President to make it part of his presidential legacy, taking credit for nudging the Thein Sein government on the reform path. It will likely feature prominently on the campaign trail of former Secretary of State and current presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton, when the conversation turns to foreign policy. Big Brother China will undoubtedly be pleased also, as it ensures an unhindered flow of exploited natural resources from ethnic lands to its borders.
While the President and all his men might be overly anxious to make the NCA a done deal before November, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which in the opinion of some political observers holds the key to the NCA, is in the grips of a Hamlet-like dilemma of whether to sign or not to sign.
On the one hand, who wouldn’t welcome the prospect of putting an end to 60 plus years of war and devastation, spurred on by the very persuasive argument of seizing a rare moment in history. Also, the KIO is under intense pressure from the government side as well as certain fellow EAOs to sign the agreement. Then there are the grave alternatives of not signing to consider also.
Kachin community representatives, on the other hand, offered compelling counter arguments at their first NCA meeting with the KIO leadership in August. They were unanimous in voicing that the timing was not right for a ceasefire agreement. They felt the KIO should hold off, at least until after the elections, when the political landscape becomes clearer.
Foremost among Kachin concerns continues to be the level of commitment to peace on the government/army’s part. This concern is raised in light of increased army deployments and the battles that continue to rage at a time when the push for a nationwide ceasefire is being made. The battles have added hundreds more to the existing IDP population, the burden of looking after them falling squarely on Kachin shoulders.
The fact that army chief Min Aung Hlaing made it a point to leave Naypyidaw on his Israel trip (visiting military facilities and possibly making arrangements to acquire sophisticated military hardware), the very day KIO negotiation leaders flew in to meet with Thein Sein speaks volumes, at least to Kachin minds. It was as if to confirm Gen Gun Maw’s observation in an interview with the Irrawaddy, that it seems only the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) – not the government’s committees, nor the military – that is seriously engaged in the ceasefire negotiations.
Moreover, U Aung Min and most from the UPCC or UPWC are gearing up to contest in the November elections. This raises the question whether the crucial aspects of transitioning from the ceasefire stage to the political negotiation stage are being given proper attention. The UPWC focus seems to be on the signing, not its more significant aftermath.
In any case, a majority of Kachins feel that achieving a ceasefire is not the issue. It had been done before, and can be done again. From the Kachin perspective, the guns will go silent the minute the army puts a halt to its attacks and withdraws from Kachin areas. The push for the NCA is viewed merely as an excuse to disarm the KIO, making the agreement tantamount to a surrender.
What the Kachin public wants is a ceasefire that will pave the way for political negotiations. To paraphrase the observation made by veteran journalist and Burma expert Bertil Litner in relation to the NCA: the Kachins don’t just want a ceasefire. They want to talk about their future.
Furthermore, Kachins are averse to the exclusion of smaller ethnic armed group like the Ta’ang and Rahkine, seeing it as a sinister move to put a wedge between allies. Also, it would make a mockery of the term ‘Nationwide’ in the NCA.
The September 7 joint statement on the NCA by 34 civil society, democracy and peace organizations can be seen as validation of the Kachin stand. It called for the inclusion of all EAOs, while asserting that a ceasefire is just a means, not an end to the peace process, and that armed conflict should be settled politically as it often is an offshoot of political disenchantment.
The chilling lesson of how the Thein Sein/Min Aung Hlaing clique dispensed with House Speaker Shwe Man when perceived to be a threat to their grip on power should not be lost on the EAOs. Given that the 2008 Constitution ensures the status quo, the likelihood of the forthcoming elections, and by extension the NCA, changing this power structure is very slim.
With regard to the legal implications of the NCA, human rights activist and legal expert U Aung Htoo points out that no provision exists in the 2008 constitution whereby a current administration is legally obligated to honor the agreements and laws enacted by a preceding government.
This should give cause for EAOs rushing to sign on the NCA dotted line, to pause and ponder. Without a change in the constitution, there is no guarantee that a a ceasefire agreement entered into with the current government would be honored by a newly elected government.
When all is said and done, the KIO cannot afford to go against the wishes of the Kachin public, having learned the bitter lesson of the 1990 ceasefire treaty, entered into without consulting the Kachin public. A second meeting with the Kachin public will take place before the KIO takes any definitive stand on the NCA issue.
The bottom line for EAOs is to remain united and vigilant, and not fall prey to the siren song of a hasty ceasefire that threatens to divert them from the path of self-determination or federalism.