On 15 April, 2017, seven Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) - all non-signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA) - met in Pangkham, the de facto capital of the autonomous ‘Wa State’ within Shan State (northeast Myanmar). Convened by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) – the most powerful of all ethnic militias in Myanmar – the meeting lasted for five days, at the end of which the EAOs decided to create a new channel for political dialogue: the ‘Union Political Negotiation Dialogue Committee (UPNDC)’.
That this came nine days before the government announced the date for the second 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC) – 24 May – is a significant development in Myanmar’s complex ethnic peace process. It represents a potentially new approach towards reconciliation and brings to question the credibility of Nay Pyi Taw’s agenda for peace, spearheaded by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
The February Summit
The foundations for a new dialogue structure were laid in February 2017 when the UWSA hosted a summit in Pangkham with members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) - an influential group of nine EAOs that have not signed the NCA. During this meeting, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) endorsed a new agreement.
This had two consequences. One, it spurred Nay Pyi Taw into a conciliatory position with respect to the demands of the non-signatory EAOs. On 3 March, the Delegation for Political Negotiations (DPN) – the official political dialogue committee of the UNFC – announced, after a meeting with the union government’s Peace Commission, that Nay Pyi Taw had agreed to their long-pending 9-points demand charter ‘in principle’, which had been on standby for long.
Two, it triggered a split within the camp of non-signatory EAOs: one cluster favoured signing the NCA while the other continued to reject it. Intriguingly, on 30 March, the government announced that five UNFC members are ready to sign the NCA. But, almost a month has passed, and this has not taken place. In fact, as of now, only two members - the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) - appear postured to sign the NCA.
Why a New Dialogue Committee?
One could argue that the creation of a new approach to political dialogue by the non-signatory EAOs, away from the government-sponsored NCA process, was inevitable. There is more than one factor behind this.
First, despite much talk about a full transition to democracy, the current administration in Nay Pyi Taw is steered by two distinct centres of power: the civilian and the military (Tatmadaw). While the agenda for political dialogue with the EAOs is set and run by the former, the latter has been dealing with non-signatory EAOs on its own accord: case-in-point the multiple unilateral offensives against northern groups over the past six months and the continued militarisation of the northern frontiers in Kachin and Shan states.
The net outcome of this dual decision-making structure has been two-fold: a critical communication gap between Nay Pyi Taw and the non-signatory EAOs; and a sharp uptick in violence along the Myanmar-China border. The violence has only distanced the non-signatories from the dialogue process, and the lack of communication has suppressed effective opportunities for peace.
Some non-signatories have stated on record that they constantly receive ‘mixed signals’ from the union government, leading to confusion and inconsistency in action. This is further compounded by their belief that Suu Kyi, unlike former Myanmarese President Thein Sein, has little control over the military. The double communication within the complex civilian-Tatmadaw-EAO triad has eventually eroded trust between the key stakeholders for peace.
Second, the government has failed to provide effective negotiators to facilitate dialogue with non-signatory EAOs. This has deepened the communication gap, resulting in the entry of third-party mediators like China and the UWSA. The non-signatories now see both the latter parties as trustworthy alternatives to Nay Pyi Taw. Moreover, non-signatories such as the KIA, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA), who have come under repeated attacks by the Tatmadaw, view the UWSA as a credible security provider in the current situation of insecurity.
Third, the government has fallen short of providing sufficient incentives to non-signatory EAOs to join the NCA-led process. This is largely due to the way the process is structured: signing the NCA is a prerequisite for political dialogue. Unlike the NCA signatories, the non-signatories are barred from holding local-level political dialogues with their respective ethnic constituencies, leading to obfuscation of local aspirations along the dialogue chain. Certain influential EAOs like the KIA clearly do not wish to sign the NCA without consulting their own people, lest they lose their core support bases.
While the Tatmadaw has asserted its non-acceptance of any alternative peace agenda, the Suu Kyi-led civilian cluster struggles to fulfill all its obligations mandated by the NCA.
The dialogue process has been visibly rift with delays and complaints from both signatories and non-signatories. On the upside, the DPN – including those who chose to form a new committee – continues to talk to the government’s Peace Commission in its entirety. Thus, the NCA still retains considerable support from the EAOs. Yet, without prudent management, Myanmar’s peace bureaucracy risks damaging available connectors (like UNFC/DPN), and instead empowering third-party entities with vested interests (like China/UWSA).