By Larry Jagan
YANGON - Peace talks between the Myanmar government and leaders of an array of ethnic rebel groups have stalled after a period of progress, raising doubts that President Thein Sein will be able to achieve the national ceasefire his quasi-civilian government has prioritized as part of an internationally lauded democratic reform program.
After a protracted week of talks ended on September 26, negotiations are now at an impasse, according to sources familiar with the situation. As new fighting erupts in many ethnic areas, including deadly battles in Kachin, Karen, and Shan States, the risk is rising that the foreign-backed peace process could unravel altogether as the rainy season yields to the cool season when military offensives are traditionally launched.
During a national address on October 1, Thein Sein said the conclusion of a national ceasefire was necessary for holding "successful" elections in 2015. It represented the first time Thein Sein had linked the peace process directly to his government's commitment to holding the highly anticipated polls. Many observers believe the elections will be won by the opposition National League for Democracy, a result that would break the military's consecutive five-decade hold on power.
"Only when we can successfully implement a nationwide ceasefire accord, which is a very important step, can we start a political dialogue that can shape our country's political future," Thein Sein said in his monthly address to the nation last Wednesday.
The recently concluded talks were the sixth formal round held between government leaders and an alliance of 16 armed ethnic group leaders. There have been more than 400 meetings between government negotiators and ethnic group leaders, both collectively and individually, since the broad peace drive began after Thein Sein's appointment as president in 2011.
The fact that both sides are talking and have agreed in principle to continue to meet is an accomplishment in itself. Mistrust runs deep on both sides after decades of debilitating conflict that has stunted the country's progress and development, particularly in ethnic minority areas. Government troops stand accused of widespread and severe human rights abuses against civilian populations in conflict-ridden areas.
"It's bound to take time," said Hla Maung Shwe, the spokesman for the government-backed, foreign-financed Myanmar Peace Center that hosted the recent round of talks. "The fact that they are still meeting and talking is a healthy sign," he said.
"After years of fighting, which had only resulted in more misery, peace is the only way forward," Kwe Htoo, the Karen leader at the talks, told Asia Times Online. "Only a peace settlement can guarantee our people's security and rights," he said, emphasizing that any peace deal must be just and equitable.
Commitment to the internationally backed process is one thing; hammering out the actual details of a nationwide ceasefire is quite another. "We are at a crucial point where details need to be clearly defined and agreed," said Gun Maw, leader of the ethnic Kachin delegation. "This has become a major sticking point. They [the government side] remain vague, often saying we do not have the power and need to be refer it to a higher authority."
Both sides have accepted during talks that a national ceasefire agreement will signal the beginning of a political dialogue. A "road map" for these discussions was agreed upon during the fifth round of talks earlier this year but remains contentious among army leaders who are reluctant to devolve power to the periphery, according to people familiar with the situation.
How to oversee and coordinate the transition from a ceasefire to future tripartite political discussions, including the government, ethnic groups and political parties, is still unresolved. There are also potential sticking points related to the future demilitarization of ethnic areas, including how to phase the withdrawal of government troops and when and how to disarm rebel forces.
Government negotiators have pressured ethnic groups to quickly sign the ceasefire agreement through a series of imposed negotiation deadlines. The government had pushed for the ceasefire talks to be wrapped up by August and has maintained for months that the deal is nearly done. Thein Sein has made clear that he wants the ceasefire signed before US president Barack Obama visits Myanmar in November for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting.
As the military hardens its position, the prospects for a deal are fading. The army's chief negotiator, Lieutenant General Myint Soe, suggested to ethnic leaders that October 31 was the most auspicious date to sign a national ceasefire agreement. At the same time, the army delegation made a series of veiled threats, insinuating that the latest round of talks could be the last if an agreement was not reached, according to ethnic leaders who spoke to Asia Times Online.
This included the military's hard-line view that ethnic groups must accept the primacy of the 2008 constitution, which was passed in a fixed referendum and legally guaranteed the military's political role through a 25% allotment of parliament's seats. The military's insistence on the primacy of the 2008 charter is viewed by some ethnic leaders as backtracking on the government's earlier acceptance of federalism as the basis for future political dialogue.
"The military's threats and constant pressure to sign is counterproductive," said Nai Hong Sar, the chief ethnic group negotiator for the collective Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team. Other ethnic leaders who spoke with Asia Times Online shared his assessment of the military's carrot-and-stick negotiation tactics.
Military pressure may have helped to unify ethnic representatives at a time the 16-member coalition was at risk of splintering. The powerful Karen National Union, for one, had signaled it might break away and sign an individual symbolic agreement with the government. Other groups have been reluctant to take what some refer to as a "leap in the dark" by signing a ceasefire before concrete details for political talks are agreed.
"We are back to square one," Lian Sakhong, the ethnic Chin's chief negotiator, said after the recently concluded talks.
Other ethnic leaders fear the army's renewed hard-line and its recent military offensives signal that army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is no longer committed to near-term peace. "I suspect the army leaders want to maintain the status quo until after the elections," said Gun Maw. "They have no intention of reducing their power and control any time soon."
There were earlier signs of the military's hardening position. At talks held in August, the two sides agreed broadly to political reform based on national equality, federation and self-determination. A few days after that agreement, government chief negotiator Aung Min asked ethnic leaders to drop the idea of self-determination because the army did not accept it. Until now the military's backtracking on self-determination has not been a deal breaker.
Insistence on disarming rebel armies before holding political talks, however, could be. According to sources familiar with the situation, the army negotiation team insisted on discussing the future of ethnic armies before political dialogue at the recently concluded round of talks. The disarmament issue was originally agreed to be the final step in the agreed to roadmap.
"It's tantamount to asking us to surrender," said the Karen leader Kwe Htoo. "That's something we cannot do." Added Kachin leader Gun Maw: "Of course we will disarm one day - but only after the political dialogue and constitutional change."
There are other points of contention. At the talks held in August, the ethnic team suggested the immediate creation of a coordinating committee to oversee the political dialogue comprised of government representatives, including from the military, and ethnic rebel representatives. The government rejected the proposal out-of-hand, even though Gun Maw insisted it was a "non-negotiable" condition for the ceasefire talks to continue.
"The ball is firmly in the government's court," said Gun Maw. "We have done as much as we can, we have given us much as we can," he told Asia Times Online at the end of the latest round of talks. "It's now up to the government and army to discuss all the issues raised and agree to them," he said, hinting that without such an agreement the talks would not resume any time soon.
"We are so close, yet so far," said Chin lead negotiator Lian Sakhong. "But my greatest fear is that fighting will resume while the stalemate persists."
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.