Emerging from a nine hour-long closed door negotiation with the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South) leader Yawd Serk on 19 May in the Shan state capital Kengtung, Aung Min, Myanmar's railway minister and the chief negotiator of ceasefire agreements with the ethnic rebel groups, had some good news to share. He announced that an agreement to halt fighting between the Tatmadaw (the Myanmarese military) and the rebels had been reached. Amidst deep suspicions about the ability of the reformist government in Myanmar, transitional peace is gradually appearing to be making a headway in the country.
The military-backed President, Thein Sein, since taking office in mid-2011, has rolled back many of the repressive actions of the military regimes that preceded him. These include reconciliation with the pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and also the long-running problem of ethnic insurgencies, clustered mostly in border areas. Although grant of autonomy to these groups is still a distant project, the government has done well to seek ceasefire agreement-induced peace with a host of them. Such agreements have been inked with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the National Democratic Alliance Army, United Wa State Army, Karen National Union and the New Mon State Party.
The agreement with the SSA-South could provide Myanmar's eastern part some much needed respite from violence. More importantly, the deal can have a substantial impact on drug production in the Shan State, a welcome development for Myanmar, which is the world's second-largest opium poppy grower after Afghanistan. The SSA-South's political wing, Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), has submitted a ‘drug-eradication plan’ to government negotiators.
However, although the government and a majority of the ethnic groups have taken a few steps forward in an attempt to leave behind an acrimonious past, deep distrust between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic militias remains, and it impedes the actualization of the peace deals. Negotiation with the SSA-South started in December 2011 and culminated in a ceasefire agreement. However, since then, both groups have fought at least 17 times. Few days before the 19 May deal, fighting broke out between the two sides, which Aung Min described as a result of ‘misunderstanding over the firing of warning shots’.
Myanmar's North poses the most formidable challenge to bringing peace to the restive border regions. Since June 2011, fierce fighting continues with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a fight which has displaced 60,000 people from the area. Three rounds of talks have been held with the outfit in the township of Ruili, along the Myanmar-China border, since December 2011. All have failed. KIA is the strongest of all the ethnic insurgents in Myanmar and has managed to hold on well against the Army onslaught.
Since April, the KIA has launched several attacks on non-military targets such as passenger trains, railway tracks and bridges on the Myitkyina-Mandalay railroad. On 19 May, KIA reportedly blew up two civilian trucks after extorting about 80,000 kyat (US$100) from the drivers. On 18 May, the KIA rebels reportedly blew up four electricity towers of a power grid in Namkham in Shan State, thus affecting power supply across the nation.
Of late, the government, under its perception management strategy, has attempted to highlight these incidents, locally as well as internationally. It hopes that international pressure, if not the 'generous' ceasefire offers, would by able to nudge the KIA rebels to negotiate a peace agreement.
However, the government's failure in arriving at a ceasefire with the KIA is as much to do with rebel intransigence as also with the obduracy of the Tatmadaw and hardliners within the government. Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo, a known hardliner, is the leading negotiator with the KIA. In December 2011, President Thein Sein asked the army to cease its offensive against the KIA and fire only in self-defence. For the initial months, the army maintained that presidential orders did not reach the soldiers fighting in the advanced frontier. Afterwards, the 'firing in self-defence' clause was used to continue the offensive. In an event, according to the constitution, the president is not the country’s commander-in-chief and his orders are, thus, not inviolable. Human rights groups allege that the troops are ransacking, looting and burning homes, torturing civilians during interrogations and also raping women in villages.
Ceasefires, fragile for the moment, do denote progress towards peace and must be analyzed against the long history of distrust and acrimony between the capital and the periphery. One of the recent welcome developments is the May 2012 constitution of two new peace committees ensuring the military's involvement in the peace processes. Unlike the past, Tatmadaw representatives were present during the SSA-South ceasefire negotiations, thereby providing some assurances that these agreements would be complied with by the military's rank and file. Hopefully, the move would also start addressing the cases of human rights violations, especially in the Kachin areas. In its absence, attempts to ensure durable peace would always remain an unachievable project.