Tuesday, August 26, 2014

BURMA PEACE PROCESS: As defining moment nears, concept of federalism looms larger

Shan Herald Agency For News

Monday, 25 August 2014
The latest round of peace talk held from 15 August to 17 August has not been able to thrash out all the differing views between the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and Union Peace-making Work Committee (UPWC), although it was said to have almost reached all agreement on most points, quite a number of issues still needs to be tackled.
According to both NCCT and UPWC sources, from 122 points, only 4-5 points remains to be resolved. They are transitional period of the Ethnic Armed Organizations' (EAOs) – from signing of Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) to the duration of political discussion phase - sustainment and livelihood; how many groups should be involved in the NCA discussion; recruitment; which ethnic armed groups will be eligible to sign NCA; and who should be invited to sign as witnesses to the signing ceremony.
It is becoming quite clear that the acceptance of federal system by the government side is not that all clear, according to Nai Hong Sar, also known as Nai Han Tha, top NCCT negotiator and leader of the New Mon State Party (NMSP).
In an interview with The Irrawaddy, Burmese section, on 21 August 2014, he said. " The ethnic nationalities are of the same opinion - regarding the peace process -, but the government side doesn't seem to be the same. The military, the parliament and government sometimes don't seem to have the same opinion. But this recent discussion has become a lot more better."
He further said:" At the earlier stage, the military has stood on its original ground of not accepting the ethnic nationalities' demand for equality and rights of self-determination, and didn't want to change their position. Now they are not mentioning or taking stand on the issue of federalism. They come to the discussion in the capacity of National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) and accepted the federal issue in principle, but don't elaborate much. Whether they definitely accept or reject would be known only when the political dialogue takes place. At this moment, they have not spoken their stance on federalism and could be generally taken as being accepted."

Transitional period EAOs' sustainment

The sticking point on how the transitional period sustainment for the EAOs is likely to be formidable. For it involves infringement on sovereignty clause, where the opinion of government or the military is concerned. But which the EAOs see it quite differently and take it as their rights to be entitled to the shared-sovereignty, leading to the principle of shared-rule. In other words, the government is of the opinion that the EAOs should not extort protection money - from the point of EAOs it is levying revolutionary tax -, involve in extraction of natural resources, and illegal trading and so on. The government takes it as forcible or coercively exercising power-sharing or infringement of its sovereignty monopoly, which is supposed to be solely its domain. But the crux of the problem is that the sustainment of EAOs' troops depend solely on such revenue, without which their armies would face extinction. This would be a major hurdle for the two parties to overcome.
A military-published Burmese language, Myawaddy newspaper wrote in an opinion piece, written by Ban Aung Hla, titled " Only if implemented according to the current existing laws", on 19 August 2014, as follows:-
“ Currently, some armed ethnic groups are engaged, as if they are government, miserably in extortion of protection money, selling teak woods and other natural resources, and illegal importation of goods. Because of their new recruitment - for their armies - young people in the villages could not even conduct their livelihood and have to flee."
Also elsewhere in the same opinion piece, it blames and accuses the ethnic armed groups that, although the government is conducting the peace process, according to the international norm, " Some armed groups are engaged in new recruitment, building new base camps, manoeuvring outside their designated areas, acting as if trying to protect their territories."

How many parties should participate?

On the issue of political framework, especially how many actors should be involved, the NCCT and UPWC have some discrepancy. While the NCCT insists that the government, army and parliament should be one party, the EAOs as one party, and other political parties combined as one party, to conduct a tripartite dialogue, the UPWC side is for, at least, 8 parties meet, which would include the government, the parliament, the military, EAOs, political parties, civet society organizations, intellectuals and people from business sector.
According to an opinion piece in Eleven Media Group of 19 August 2014, the 8 parties dialogue could lead to the similar situation like the Nyaungnabin constitutional drafting process, where the military bullied its way and stage-managed to promulgate the military-drawn 2008 Constitution.

Who should sign the NCA?

Another crucial issue is the criterion of who should participate in the signing of NCA. The government side seems to be only ready to include 14 EAOs that have signed the state-level and union-level ceasefire agreement, plus the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which have not inked the agreement. The NCCT is for all-inclusiveness, except the government-supported militias, which have been combating the EAOs, together with the Burma Army all along.
One of the he 10-point guidelines of the NCCT published by the SHAN, on 5 August 2014, indicates:
“ Ethnic Armed Group signatories must meet the requirements set out at the Law Khee Lar Conference: Signatories to the Laiza Conference, having concluded a ceasefire with the Government, possessing “required attributes” of an ethnic armed group, not being an armed group under control of the Government, and not being an armed group fighting a foreign government.”
Who should be invited as witnesses?
The last issue is who should be involved as witnesses to sign the NCA. According to NCCT, the government side is reluctant to accept Aung San Suu Kyi as a signatory, whereas the NCCT is keen to have her as a witness.
The Irrawaddy report of 19 August 2014 writes that ethnic leaders say they want her to participate more in the peace process, even perhaps as an eyewitness during the signing of the nationwide ceasefire accord, which could come as early as October.
“We proposed this to the government already, but there has been no response yet,” said Hkun Okker, secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), another alliance of ethnic groups.
According to SHAN report, on 5 August 2014, the NCCT week-long Laiza conference of the 18 armed organizations that concluded on 31 July had proposed Japan and Norway be invited as signatory witnesses to the planned nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) signing, according to sources returning from the Sino-Burmese border.
The Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), set up by the first Laiza conference in November, had already proposed 7 other dignitaries and nations as witnesses:
• Secretary General, United Nations 
• Secretary General, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) 
• United States 
• People’s Republic of China 
• India 
• Thailand 
• United Kingdom
Federalism deciding factor for durable political settlement

The bigger picture is, as always, the position or acceptance of the federal union, as a governing system, which is the heart of ethnic nationalities demand. According to the interview conducted by The Irrawaddy, on 21 August 2914, Nai Hong Sar responded to the question of how the ethnic nationalities see the government insistence of adhering to the sovereignty and integrity of the union as below:
"Our ethnic rebel forces haven’t asked for secession, but rather federalism and equality. If we can’t have them, we will need to remain as armed rebel forces. If needed, we will secede. None of the ethnic rebel forces are looking to secede if they can get what they ask for. That’s the truth."

As it is, the question of whether the peace process would be successful or not would solely depend on the military's political will to accept the concept of federalism in words and deeds. And employing decentralization or devolving some decision-making power, within the mould of the present unitary system, wouldn't be able to satisfy the non-Burman ethnic nationalities' aspiration and would only further delay the peace process, and might even push the situation back to an all-out military confrontation across the country. For now, the ball seems to be in the military court and the progress of peace process will solely depend on how it is going to handle it.