Editor’s note: This week, in two posts, we continue our forum on Panglong with the following article, originally featured in The Irrawaddy this past April. The author, Bertil Lintner, is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma, including Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy; Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy; and Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
Burma’s new government has declared that finding a solution to the country’s decades-long civil war is one of its top priorities. That is clearly in line with the policies of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), which stated when the party was formed in September 1988, “[t]he forty-year history of [ethnic] relations has been a chapter of misfortune verging on the tragic … the development of the country has suffered greatly since 40 percent of the national budget has to be devoted to defence requirements … for these reasons we must seek a lasting solution to the problems of the ethnic minorities … it is the aim of the League to secure the highest degree of autonomy consonant with the inherent rights of the minorities and the well-being of the Union as a whole.”
But in order to achieve peace, it is also obvious that the new government must find a new approach to this issue.
In late 2012, Thein Sein, the previous president, set up an organization called the Myanmar Peace Center and, with massive financial support from the international community, embarked on an ambitious program of talks with Burma’s many ethnic armed organizations (EAO). But the problem was that the Myanmar Peace Center put the cart before the horse by asking the EAOs to sign a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” first and hold political talks later. In practice, that meant that groups which agreed to a ceasefire with the government army would be rewarded with lucrative business opportunities. And then, perhaps, some political talks would be held.
Not surprisingly, that policy turned out to be a complete failure.
There were few takers, and, as a face-saving gesture in the 11th hour before the end of its term, the Thein Sein government invited some EAOs to Naypyidaw where a “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” was signed on Oct. 15 last year—hardly by coincidence less than a month before the election. It was said that eight EAOs had signed the agreement, but five of the signatories had no armed forces, and one—the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army—had been a government-allied militia since it broke away from the Karen National Union (KNU) in December 1994. That means only two of the signatories were actually engaged in armed struggle against the government: the KNU and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).
None of the other main EAOs in the country signed the October agreement: the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the National Democratic Alliance Army (eastern Shan State), and the Shan State Army (whose name the RCSS has taken, causing confusion among the Shans as well as outsiders). Those groups together account for more than four-fifths of all ethnic combatants in the country.
Since then, the agreement has caused divisions between the groups that signed it and those that didn’t. The RCSS, evidently with the approval of the Tatmadaw, Burma’s military, moved at least 2,000 soldiers from its bases along the Thai border to northern Shan State, where they are engaged in battles with the ethnic Palaung TNLA. The TNLA’s allies, the UWSA, the KIA, the Shan State Army and the MNDAA, have vowed to fight the RCSS unless it ceases attacks on the Palaungs.
The KNU has not split officially, but divisions run deep within the organization over the controversial accord with the government. On Nov. 5, less than three weeks after the conference in Naypyidaw, two prominent Karen leaders made a surprise appearance at a meeting of EAOs at Panghsang, the UWSA headquarters. However, they came as representatives of the Karen National Defense Organization, the KNU’s village militia forces, so as not to prompt an open rift within the Karen movement.
This divide-and-rule policy, coupled with bribes to leaders of the EAOs to sign a “ceasefire agreement,” can hardly be the way forward. The best that could be done with the Oct. 15 agreement would be to file it away and let it die the death it deserves.
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