The Myanmar Peace Center, the office which coordinates the country's negotiations with domestic armed groups, celebrated progress last week as it gained the preliminary support of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Committee (NCCT), which represents an alliance of 16 armed ethnic groups, for a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement. The agreement on the seven-chapter draft nationwide ceasefire is a milestone in a process fraught with setbacks and repeated missed deadlines.
Yet that progress, while widely praised, is but the first step in a process marred by renewed and significant fighting.
Skirmishes between the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF) and some armed ethnic groups has embittered the nationwide ceasefire talks in recent months. A return to heavy fighting against four armed ethnic groups — the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta'ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — will likely again overshadow the progress made last week. With the escalation of fighting in the north, northeast and southwest of the country, the Government needed to reaffirm its commitment to the nationwide ceasefire process.
The bombing by the MAF of a KIA training camp, which killed 22 in November last year, severely damaged trust in the process and saw a return to heavy fighting in the northeast. Together, the four armed ethnic groups now engaged in fighting have a strength of over 15,000 combatants, according to Myanmar Peace Center data.
The widely reported offensive against the MNDAA, formed from ethnically Chinese Kokang people, has also frustrated the process. The MAF was forced to apologise in March after one of its bombs landed on the Chinese side of the border, killing civilians. Beijing has also been concerned about fighting near key infrastructure such as oil and gas pipelines, as well as flows of Kokang refugees across the border fleeing the fighting.
While the preliminary agreement is a milestone, the draft document has left out the most intractable issues, including the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, and federalism. The draft will now be scrutinised by leaders of ethnic groups before there are further negotiations or (however unlikely) a signing can occur.
As was evident in a press conference between the NCCT and the government negotiating bloc, the Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UWPC), the DDR process is a sticking point that will require significant dialogue and concession. The Government's Six-Point Road Map, devised by Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing, is opposed by the NCCT, and it has been left off the draft document.
The MNDAA is part of the NCCT, yet the fighting is raising questions over its place in the negotiations. Aung Naing Oo, a government observer in the negotiations, noted that 'It’s possible to have a nationwide ceasefire and still be fighting the Kokang — they are considered a renegade group'. Those views muddy the waters of what a nationwide ceasefire in Myanmar will actually look like.
This progress is a victory for President Thein Sein and Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Both are are tipped to run in the November elections. As such, many see this tentative agreement on the draft document as a boost for their electoral tickets. But that of course brings sceptics to question just how genuine this progress is. And in turn, this raises the persistent problem with the process: a deep-rooted lack of trust.