When discussing the formal peace process and political dialogue in Myanmar, understanding what goes on among 10 members of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that signed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), known as NCA-S EAOs, is essential as they are one of the main parties that lead peace process. So far, when they do not move or preoccupied with sorting out their internal differences, formal peace process and political dialogue with the government also pause. Therefore, what they do or what goes on among them is very important to have clue about what would happen to a formal peace process, including a joint event such as the Union Peace Conference (21st century Panglong), a conference where over 700 delegates - representing various stakeholders and political forces - meet to discuss federal and democratic principles for Myanmar.
Those who closely follow Myanmar peace process know that there are challenges and obstacles that delay the process of negotiating federal principles in political dialogue. The government is trying to overcome difficulties, but to no avail so far. When it comes to organize a joint formal event in peace process, there is nothing much the government can do alone without close cooperation from leaders of the NCA-S EAOs. On the other hand, members of the NCA-S EAOs have also internal challenges within themselves that they have not been able to convene meeting among them to prepare for dialogue with the government for sometimes.
After some months of trying to convene a meeting for 10 members of the NCA-S EAOs, Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) finally convened its first proper meeting on 5-7 March 2019 in Chiangmai. In their meeting, Karen National Union (KNU) and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) have submitted their joint proposal to reform the existing organizational structure of PPST, which would affect the nature of their grouping. They also replaced their respective representatives to PPST. For KNU, its Chairman General Mutu Say Poe is replaced with its General Secretary Pado Thar Daw Moe, and for RCSS, Brigadier-General Bong Khur replaced Chairman General Yawd Serk. Replacing two top leaders of their respective organizations, who are also leading PPST as Chairman and Deputy Chairman, by their mother organizations is a sign of downgrading PPST. As everyone knows, PPST is formed with top leaders of its members with the hope of taking executive decisions collectively for important matters in a timely manner.
Though the recent meeting officially accepted the change of representatives by KNU and RCSS, the proposal of reforming PPST is deferred to the next ethnic summit, scheduled to be held in the second week of May 2019, for decision. The fact that PPST was founded at an ethnic summit, the highest-level of decision-making assembly for EAOs, a majority of meeting participants on 5-7 March in Chiangmai, proposed that the question of reforming PPST should only be discussed and decided at their next ethnic summit in May, where all top leaders of ethnic armed organizations would attend.
The replacement of KNU’s representative to PPST means General Mutu Say Poe also has resigned from its Chairmanship post at PPST. Now, PPST only has an acting Chairman, General Yawd Serk, who will lead until a new Chairman is elected at their ethnic summit. Process-wise, between now and the next ethnic summit, the priority for members of the NCA-S EAOs would be about preparing for their upcoming summit in May. Even though informal bilateral meetings between the government and KNU, the government and RCSS, the government and PPST might continue, there would not be a joint formal undertaking with the government including the long-overdue Union peace conference (21st century panglong).
Should PPST be reformed?
Now that KNU and RCSS formally submitted their proposal to reform PPST, members of NCA-S EAOs have to formally discuss the future status of PPST and their collective move. Strictly speaking, as PPST was set up by 8 original members of EAOs that signed NCA on October 15, 2015, PPST only represent 8 members, and not all 10 members of NCA signatories. New Mon State Party (NMSP) and Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) signed NCA two years later on February 13, 2018, and both armed groups have chosen not to join PPST as members so far. They have their own concerns and reservations about their decisions behind not joining PPST membership. This is the reason why all 10 members of the NCA signatories of EAOs are referred to as PPST + 2, meaning 8 members of PPST + NMSP and LDU.
Now that the question of reforming PPST have to be discussed at the next EAO summit, leaders of the NCA-S EAOs should use the opportunity to address how they all can be full member of PPST, instead of designating PPST+2. The use of PPST+2 only complicates as well as undermines the nature of their grouping when they actually are working together for the same purpose based on their common positions by signing the same document of NCA. It is time they change the designation of PPST+2.
Though some changes might be made to PPST, any change they make should not undermine their collective bargaining power as a united block. There is no better alternative in terms of how the 10 NCA signatories of EAOs work together as one block in negotiating with the government to achieve their common goal of federal and democratic systems in Myanmar. Under the collective leadership of PPST+2 so far, they cooperate each other well: they develop and adopt their common principles and policies together; share their diverse views of the process and take collective decision together; and negotiate together as one block with the government. On the other hand, it is also much easier for the government to negotiate with them as one block, which makes the process of negotiation in peace process much faster as opposed to the government negotiating with each and every individual armed group. As such, their reform agenda should only focus on strengthening the existing mechanisms and arrangements they already have in place in order to maintain their internal cohesion, cooperation, and coordination as they continue leading the historic peace process to achieve their shared goal of federal and democratic systems.
PPST is not perfect, but was created out of necessity to form such collective and powerful body that can provide effective leadership for all of its members based on their common positions in negotiating with the government of Myanmar. Now, they have already gained popular recognition and acceptance nationally and internationally. The fact that they work together for some years as one block also give them un-paralleled opportunity to understand each other better and deepen mutual trust among them. Most importantly, they are much stronger together with their collective bargaining power that they command in negotiation with the government as one block.
As they discuss the agenda of reforming PPST in May, all leaders of the NCA-S EAOs should consider all the strengths and positive attributes of working together as one block. Any proposal to downgrade the nature of their current grouping under PPST mean risking all the strengths and pros of working together for their common vision to establish a Union based on federal and democratic systems. After all, without having a common institution like PPST, they would have much more difficulties to organize among themselves, and there will be much less cooperation that would gradually erode unity among them, which can cost them their hard-earned collective bargaining power.