Sunday, October 12, 2014

BURMA PEACE PROCESS: Hardened military stance puts peace talks in jeopardy

Shan Herald Agency for News
Monday, 06 October 2014

Quite a lot has happened just within a few days, after the end of peace talks that had ended on 26 September.

The Burma Army launched a massive offensive against the Shan State Progress Party/ Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) in central Shan State, numerous armed clashes erupted with the various Karen resistance groups in Karen and Mon States, heightened armed confrontation were reported with the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Shan State, the Shan unity meeting involving, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), SSPP/SSA and Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) was held in Bangkok for 3 days, and last but not least, the President Thein Sein radio speech emphasizing that failing to seal the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) could derail the 2015 nationwide election. Let us have a close look on these recent happenings and do some speculation, on which way the peace process is heading or what political future, we have in store.

Burma Army offensive
Although the armed clashes between the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) have never stopped, despite ceasefire agreements, some state and the other union levels, have been signed, the recent heavy clashes stand out as a real stumbling block and barrier to the ongoing peace process.

According to Altsean September report, in September, tensions escalated between the Burma Army and Karen ethnic armed groups, with each side ordering the other to disarm in Myawaddy Township, Karen State, when several fire-fights occurred between the government troops and Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

The Irrawaddy report on 2 October said heavy clashes between the Burma Army and a combined force of Palaung, Kachin and Kokang ethnic rebels in northern Shan State’s Kutkhai Township killed 17 government soldiers last few days, according to a Palaung rebel source. The report said that the Burma Army’s Infantry Division 11 made an incursion into TNLA area, prompting a response by fighters of the TNLA, the KIA and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a small Kokang militia.

The SHAN report on 3 October said that Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Burma Army ordered to attack SSPP/SSA base of Ta Pha Sawng and another outpost in Kehsi Township, on 2 October. It is said the offensive, with some 1,000 Burma Army troops, was due to the SSA refusal to withdraw from the said base, which the Burma Army has been demanding to evacuate.

According to DVB report of 3 October, the government forces involved in the attack belong to the North-eastern Region Command, and included troops from the 247th and 248th Light Infantry Battalions, as well as the 248th and 523rd Infantry Battalions. Altogether, a combined force of eight battalions were involved in the offensive against the SSA.

According to SSA sources, the Burma Army suffered 5 deaths and about 20 wounded, while SSA causality was 3 deaths. The fighting was said to have spread to other several locations. But the SSA has withdrawn from the contested area to ease the tension, according to the RFA report, on 3 October.

RFA recent report on 3 October writes, that according to Khun Hseng, the SSPP/SSA had held an emergency meeting to discuss the retreat because it wants a political—not military—solution to tensions between ethnic rebels and the government.

“We haven’t had any good results from solving the problems through military means for about 60 years,” he said. “That’s why we decided our troops should retreat, so that the clashes didn’t continue to spread.”

The Shan State Army had not yet received a response from Thein Zaw, deputy chairman of the government’s Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC), after informing him that its troops had retreated, he said.

Shan unity meeting
The Shan unity meeting, held in Bangkok from 2 to 4 October, was attended by SNLD, SNDP, SSPP/SSA, RCSS/SSA and People's Militia, Hseng Kaew (SSA) has produced three points agreement. The unofficial translation from Burmese language, dated 4 October, is as follows:

  1. Issues concerning the future of Shan State and Union of Burma will be tackled together hand-in-hand.
  2. In order to progress and solidify, for a longer term, issues of peace process in Shan State and Union of Burma will be tackled together hand-in-hand.
  3. Will solve political problems through political means, through negotiations.

At the same time, RCSS/SSA released a statement, on 3 October, which condemned the Burma Army for waging an offensive against the SSPP/SSA. In its three points statement it strongly protests the Burma Army offensive against SSPP/SSA, using thousands of troops; criticizes activities of the Burma Army as being against the President led peace process and its own six guiding principles; and reminds all ethnic resistance armies that have made peace with the government should reassess the activities of the Burma Army.

The RCSS/SSA spokesman, Sai Hseng Merng said: “ The government should help solve the problem of Burma Army offensive against the SSPP/SSA. Not only the Shan armed groups but other ethnic armed groups also should be aware of the situation that Burma Army is not sincere, saying one thing and doing another thing. Instead of scaling down the deployment, it is reinforcing militarily and conducting offensives. We should reassess it and if peace breaks down, it is because of the Burma Army.”

The parties attending the meeting has also sent a letter to President Thein Sein through U Aung Min, requesting him to help halt the Burma Army offensive on the SSA.

President linking NCA to forth-coming nationwide election
Meanwhile, President Thein Sein, in his monthly radio message to the public on 1 October, said that the signing of a nationwide ceasefire accord is necessary for the success of the 2015 general elections and a smooth political transition in Burma, according to The Irrawaddy report of 2 October.

The DVB report, on 2 October, on the same issue writes: “Only if we can sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement can we begin the political dialogue which will lead the political future of our country,” Thein Sein said in his address to the nation, which was broadcast across Burma by radio. “I want you to note that we can only ensure political stability, the holding of the 2015 elections, and a subsequent smooth political transition only if this [political dialogue] process commences.”

Speculation on the stalled peace process
Quite a few opinions have been making the rounds on why the peace process has stalled, after three years of ongoing deliberation.

One speculation is that the Kachin Independence Organization/ Army (KIO/KIA) headed faction within the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT) is unwilling to sign the NCA for it doesn't like to give due credit to the Thein Sein regime, for it could capitalize on the success of the accord to boost its standing in the forth-coming 2015 nationwide election.

Another supposition, which is quite widespread, is that the government and the military are pushing for a watered-down NCA, without really addressing the aspirations of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities, to be signed as soon as possible. In other words, the government and the military are pushing for a “negotiated surrender” or face total warfare. Understandably, the NCCT is reluctant to sign the agreement without solid political guarantee.

According to the Mizzima report of 5 October, Nai Hong Sar, NCCT top negotiator and Chairman of the NMSP, who is reviewing the outcome of the recent meeting with the UPWC in Rangoon, together with the other ethnic leaders in Chiangmai said: “ The recent battles occurring in the north and south have changed the nature of the peace talks. We are analysing, whether this is leading against achieving peace.”

NCCT has been reassessing the armed clashes recurring between the government forces and the SSPP/SSA, KNU, Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC), DKBA, and KIA, during these few days.

Nai Hong Sar said that during the latest round of peace talks, the government side didn't appear to be committed to the peace process. He said: “The recent armed clashes happened again and they didn't happen on their own. They are all linked together.”

The NCCT proposal on the formation of a federal army was previously agreed to be discussed during the political dialogue phase. But during the latest round of talks, the military made an about-turn and rejected it and changed it to the “issue of Union Army”, which derailed the peace process.

He said:” The situation is not good if one looks at the heightened military clashes occurring. The peace process could be destroyed. Otherwise, they are pushing us to accept their pattern. If not successful, they will place themselves in the advantaged position. It is like if you can't make it, destroy it.”

Summing up
If we look at the development within the last few weeks into, we would come to the conclusion that “sincere political will and trust” have been seriously depleted between the NCCT and UPWC.

Sincerity on the part of the government and military or UPWC is lacking, if back-tracking on agreed federal union and federal formation discussion is to be taken at the future political dialogue phase is an indication. The government side knows pretty well that these are core aspirations, based on Panglong promises and agreement, which is non-negotiable for the EAO and as well, for all the non-Burman ethnic nationalities.
Again, the ironed out political accord, which could eventually be reached at the political dialogue phase after signing of the NCA, in the near future, is said to pass through the parliament screening and agreement first, before ratifying it, according to the UPWC. But the NCCT just wants the agreed political accord to be endorsed by the parliament.

This would mean that the ethnic nationalities and EAO must bow to the authority of USDP-military dominated regime and as well, the full acceptance of the 2008, military-drawn constitution. The ethnic nationalities have been striving to correct the “constitutional crisis” or “political imbalance” for more than 60 years, so that justice would be done to them in terms of equality, rights of self-determination and democracy.

From the point of the USDP-military regime, it is a “catch-22” like situation. Without yielding to the ethnic aspiration of federalism, there will be no solution or peaceful settlement; and if the genuine form of federal union is agreed, it will lose its racial supremacy or colonial master position, which it considers to be its rightful legacy.

Other than that, the benefit of doubt given, that Thein Sein government might be an agent of change, belonging to the reform faction and military faction belonging to the hard-line faction, reluctant to accept change, is eroding fast. For the repeated Burma Army large scale offensives could not be stopped, despite already signed union-level, ceasefire agreements signed by the Shan and Karen resistance forces with the government. And this development has led many to ponder, if the government and military factions are just playing good-cop, bad-cop scenario, when in fact, they belong to the same interest group.

Recently, Mizzima, on 5 October, reported the bombing of three places in Taunggyi, capital of the Shan State, on 4 October, at 10:45 in the evening. It was said to have exploded at Burma Army Eastern Command, 212nd Burma Army Signal Battalion and traffic control Police station, where two policemen were badly wounded. One could only pray that this would only be an isolated case. But if this is an indication of the escalation of internal armed conflict on a wider scale, prompting to jump-start an urban guerilla warfare type of movement to counter the Burma Army offensives, we all will be in for a long nightmare. Some might say, this is pure fear-mongering. But the possibility is there and this has to be nibbed in the bud. No one knows for sure that the religious terrorist groups threatening to escalate their fight to include Burma on its global agenda is not going to take advantage of the heightened ethnic conflict.

And the only way to avoid this is only through sincere accommodation of ethnic aspirations, change of racial supremacy mind-set, rebuilding of trust and discarding the “might is right” posture. It is evident that hardened military stance is not doing any good to the country and could even derail the peace process altogether.