With the general election coming up in 2020, the chance of securing important agreement on key basic federal principles that are currently discussed in the ongoing Union Peace Conference (21st century Panglong) is not promising, as hoped for by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling party – National League for Democracy (NLD). So long as the government is not proactively providing effective leadership for peace process, and is not aggressive enough in its effort to find ways to negotiate key substantive issues – federal principles – in 2019, it is increasingly unlikely that there will be any meaningful breakthrough before 2020 election.
One thing for sure is that there will not be substantive and different outcome by doing the same thing again and again only with the same team members without a clear understanding of what peace process is all about. Important adjustment in terms of its priority for the next one year, and, if necessary, reshuffling of some of its peace process team members with a clear division of labor as well as coherent chain of command will be inevitable.
Besides the need to provide a proactive and effective leadership for the overall peace process, the government also has to squarely concentrate on two main agendas: (a) focus on the substance of peace process by negotiating key substantive federal principles already proposed by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in their proposed Union Accord (UA) with any means possible, and (b) stepping up its serious effort to negotiate with ethnic armed groups that have not yet signed nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA).
Among the challenges facing Myanmar peace process, it is profoundly clear that the non-participation of powerful ethnic armed organizations in the current formal peace process, by far, is the main one. Retrospectively, if the government would have allowed at least all 16 Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) that were members of Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) to sign NCA on October 15, 2015, peace process would not have the same difficulties that it has today. At least, the ongoing political dialogues would have been more meaningful, and more important, there could have been much less armed clashes between Myanmar military and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), as well as less military tension among armed groups themselves.
Factually speaking, the main armed conflicts that resulted in high number of casualties are between Myanmar military and NCCT members who end up not signing NCA. If all 16 NCCT members signed, there might not even be an open inter-ethnic armed conflicts that we see today between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). If they all signed NCA, open military confrontations among themselves could have been averted, or could have been resolved easier.
The message now is loud and clear: inclusion of EAOs in the peace process is not a problem at all, but an exclusion is, and will continuously be a problem as long as some major groups are not joining the peace process. Lately, there seems to be a positive development on the negotiation particularly between the government and the three-member alliance of the non-signatory armed groups - Arakan Army (AA), Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army –Kokang (MNDAA)- for a possible bilateral ceasefire agreement, which would pave the way for the three groups signing NCA. It is good that the government is working hard on this tract of negotiation with the help of China.
Even though this positive development is encouraging, the final deal of signing bilateral ceasefire agreement might not be possible unless the government recognizes the three groups just like other NCA signatories. For instance, if the government insists on its pre-condition of demanding the three groups to denounce their armed struggles like before, the final deal of signing bilateral ceasefire agreement might not, indeed, be happening.
Primarily, the three groups want a political recognition of their existences and equal treatment of their armed struggles. They want the government to treat them with the same respect that it gives, and set of criteria it applies to those who signed NCA. The reality is that the three groups would not relent their military campaign as long as they feel denied their chance of equal participations in peace process.
So long as key EAOs are not joining the formal process of political dialogue, all-out emphasis on negotiating federal principles also will face challenges. As a result, the objective of securing agreement on federal principles will also be delayed, if not impossible before the upcoming general election in 2020.