While trying to find a way forward for Myanmar’s peace process, it is crucial to have a common and similar understanding of the nature of the process and its key challenges. Without a clear understanding of the nature of the challenges, it is simply not possible to find a solution to the challenges. Of those parties trying to find a solution to break the current deadlock, the leaders of the ten ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) – known as the NCA-S EAOs – are at the forefront. In order to find a way forward, the leaders of the NCA-S EAOs have convened a five-day long summit, which they called the first part of their ethnic summit, from 14 to 18 May 2019 in Chiangmai, Thailand. However, there was no conclusive outcome from the summit for a way forward, apart from the plan to meet again for the second part of their summit.
One of the main issues of contention at the NCA-S EAOs’ recent summit is whether the NCA-based process is still viable and whether the mechanisms based on the NCA are functioning. Although they all accept that the NCA-based process is still viable, there are divergent views on the usefulness of the committees and various bodies created on the basis of the NCA. Some insist that strengthening the existing NCA-based mechanisms should be a priority, while others propose a new approach with a Peace Process Consultative Meeting (PPCM). The PPCM itself is a draft proposal that is still being worked on and is discussed in one of the two working group meetings ongoing for June 20 and 21. While it is difficult to predict the exact outcome of this internal discussion on the PPCM between the ten NCA signatories, any reform that is not based on the NCA and its subsequent agreements will simply not work. The NCA-based mechanisms for the NCA-based process are the only workable path as long as everyone follows the NCA-based process.
Technical vs. Political Will
While technical competence to support political dialogue is always essential, the challenge currently facing Myanmar’s peace process is not technical; it is political. The problem has been the lack of strong political will and the continuing failure to focus on negotiating the federal and democratic principles, which are the core issues and the main agenda of the political dialogue. The existing architecture of Myanmar’s peace process, including the framework and structure of the political dialogue, is a home-grown mechanism created after studying comparative cases of political dialogues in other countries. Legitimate leaders from three main stakeholders in the peace process – the government, ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and political parties – have developed, debated and adopted it together. No one but themselves should be blamed if they think their existing mechanisms are not working.
The troubling fact about the peace process of the last two years is that those who lead the peace process are obsessed with aspects of the process and technical debates, rather than negotiating the content of the political dialogue. The notion that the NCA-based mechanisms do not function has nothing to do with the mechanisms themselves, but rather with the lack of political will and the politicization of the peace process by the leaders of the peace process. The fact that the problem is not technical means that creating and introducing a new mechanism will not solve the problems and challenges currently facing Myanmar’s peace process. Introducing a new approach without trying to reform the existing mechanisms will only prolong the process without substantive outcomes, which will fuel a sense of growing skepticism about the overall peace process. They urgently need to strengthen the existing mechanisms with the right resources – the right people with effective skills and mandates – and start negotiating federal principles to produce important outcomes in terms of political substance.
Since the second Union Peace Conference (UPC) – 21st century Panglong – in May, there have been no substantial negotiations on federal and democratic principles, which is the main purpose of the political dialogue. All meetings held between the government and the EAOs were only about conducting dialogue for the sake of dialogue. During these meetings, they exchanged their respective perspectives, but they did not negotiate their differences to find negotiated agreement. As long as they do not start substantial negotiations, their current dialogue will not produce substantive outcomes.
The Peace Process Based on the NCA vs. the 2008 Constitution
There has been some misunderstanding and confusion about the nature, concept and central purpose of the peace process among some of the experts who advise a number of stakeholders, including EAOs. In order to consolidate the common understanding of the peace process and its intention, the following clarification needs to be made: “The ongoing political dialogue through the peace process is conducted outside the bounds and framework of the 2008 Constitution. This means that one of the key parties to peace process like EAOs can negotiate all the federal and democratic principles that they want for the Union of Myanmar (Burma). The political dialogue through the peace process is not the same as the democratic reform process within the Parliament, which is constrained by the 2008 Constitution and existing laws.”
Although both processes have a common objective to amend the 2008 Constitution, they differ in terms of concept, scope, content, methodology, design and status. The current peace process in Myanmar is based on the NCA, while the democratic reform process within the Parliament is based on the 2008 Constitution. Everyone who follows the country’s reform processes must understand how these two processes are different from each other. The misunderstanding and confusion about these two processes dilute the true essence of the peace process and are dangerous in a sense that it could mislead people who do not have a thorough understanding of the entire peace process. Anyone who proposes a federal reform process based on the 2008 Constitution in the peace process, therefore, absolutely misses the core value and essence of the peace process. If a genuine federal system can be achieved on the basis of the 2008 Constitution, Myanmar does not need this ongoing peace process outside Parliament.
On a related note, there are many people for whom the link between the outcome of the peace process and the procedure for amending the 2008 Constitution is unclear. As a result of the peace process, there will be an agreed list of federal and democratic principles negotiated in the current political dialogue, which will be signed as the Union Accord (UA). According to the NCA that was signed on 15 October 2015, the parties already agreed that “all decisions adopted by the Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong - shall be the basis for amending, repealing and adding provisions to the Constitution and laws, in line with established procedures” (NCA, article 22, d). In essence, the anticipated Union Accord has a higher legal and political standing than the 2008 Constitution. This is why there is so much hope and expectation in the current peace process when it comes to a genuine system change in a multi-ethnic Myanmar.
It is true that the EAOs have not yet negotiated a detailed procedure for amending the constitution. However, they definitely plan to negotiate this planned procedure for translating the Union Accord into the amendments of the 2008 Constitution. This will only be a matter of time. It is therefore wrong to interpret that the EAO leaders accept the existing 2008 constitutional amendment procedure, which goes against the spirit and intention of the peace process conducted outside the framework of the 2008 Constitution. Moreover, plainly put it, all agreements made so far in the peace process, including the NCA, are signed by the top leaders of the key stakeholders, such as the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the Myanmar Armed Forces. This means that whatever federal principles the C-in-C agrees on behalf of the military institution through the political dialogue in the peace process will not encounter any scenario of objection within the Parliament from the military MPs. The central point here is that the military Members of Parliament (MPs) will approve any agreement that the C-in-C has made in the peace process.
In addition to the negotiations on the constitutional amendment procedure, the EAO leaders also plan to negotiate the roles and responsibilities of the EAOs at all stages of the implementation of the Union Accord and its subsequent agreements. If the peace process progresses and secures the expected Union Accord, one thing can be said with certainty; the EAO leaders will play significant and prominent roles in leading as well as overseeing the entire implementation process to realize constitutional amendments.