By Ramar Kyaw Saw
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2020 general election with an overwhelming majority, breaking its 2015 record with 83% of seats up for a vote, which reasonably indicates public opinion of the party.
On November 9, one day after the poll, the Office of the Commander-in-Chief formed a new peace negotiating committee consisting of generals, to hold talks with ethnic armed groups.
The Tatmadaw’s statement said the committee is prepared to hold talks not only with ethnic signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) but also with non-signatories, in order to make sure the peace process ends in success and a permanent peace is achieved. This signalled that the Tatmadaw would negotiate with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) of various statuses — a departure from 2015.
After the NLD won the 2015 poll, there was talk that the Tatmadaw had asked for three chief minister positions in exchange for the amendment of Article 59(f) of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which prevents Myanmar citizens with immediate family members holding foreign citizenship from contesting the presidency.
The article currently bars NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the country’s top job as her two sons are British citizens. Meanwhile, any amendment to the Constitution requires more than 75% of votes, giving the Tatmadaw — which holds 25% of seats in the Union Parliament — an effective veto over charter reform.
The Tatmadaw in 2015 reportedly asked for Yangon, Shan and Arakan chief minister positions in exchange for amending Article 59(f), but the NLD appointed its members to those posts.
Within days of the Tatmadaw’s formation of the peace negotiation committee, the Arakan Army (AA) released a statement asking the Tatmadaw to stop fighting in Arakan State and cooperate with the NLD government to hold elections by December 31, 2020, in the Arakan State townships where elections could not be held on November 8.
Within hours of that, the Tatmadaw welcomed the AA statement, indicating that some progress had been achieved in behind-the-scenes talks between the two sides. Then the two sides began online talks, followed by a Wa State meeting between Tatmadaw leaders and their counterparts in the Northern Alliance military coalition.
On the same day that the Tatmadaw welcomed the AA’s statement, the NLD issued statements calling on 48 ethnic political parties to join in talks on achieving the two factions’ shared priorities over the next NLD term.
If the NLD's position is to take into account the wishes of the ethnic nationalities, why should the ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw not be involved in the ceasefire? Why should there be no strong call for ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw to be involved in the ceasefire? We need to take these points into consideration.
On the Arakan side, the local government has been reluctant to focus on the peace process for the past five years. Even if not at the union level, there has been no intervention at the state level. In light of this, I believe that the glimmer of hope for ensuring peace in Arakan State can only be realised by bringing together those who will be able to carry out the peace process in the formation of the next state government.
There has been no fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army in Arakan State for more than two months. Meanwhile, the Arakan Army released three NLD candidates from Taungup Township as a result of negotiations between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed group. No more fighting in Arakan State, but there are still landmine explosions. Another problem is that some IDPs are reluctant to return home because Tatmadaw troops are still stationed near their villages.
Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun, chairman of the Tatmadaw True News Information Team, told a press conference on December 30 that the Tatmadaw was not reinforcing its armed forces on the Arakan battlefield. On the ground, however, locals say as many as five naval vessels from the Tatmadaw are seen delivering food and ammunition along the upper reaches of the Kaladan River each day.
There is a saying of war here: “Negotiate while fighting, and fight while negotiating.” At this point, I fully support the point “negotiate while fighting,” but I do not really like the follow-up “fight while negotiating”. Since the armed conflict between the two groups, there have been differences of opinion on the issues, but in the case of the armed conflict, fundamentally, there will be more harm if it persists, and less harm in unarmed conflict.
It is a good sign if the parties to the conflict are negotiating with each other. This is to slow down the conflict, as the saying goes. At the same time, once you have negotiated, you need to be able to get a result. Failure to reach an agreement will result in a series of discussions. So, if we cannot trust each other, it is natural for us to think of ourselves as superior. In order to win the war, one side needs to increase its armed forces and manpower. As one side strengthens and the other side becomes skeptical, the conflict will only escalate if it is diverted from the lines of discussion and back into confrontation. Injuries on both sides will be even greater.
Similar dynamics have been at play in Myanmar’s peace process in the past. In the time of General Ne Win, when the rebels were summoned to the city for talks, the Tatmadaw launched an offensive at the same time as they chased the jungle leaders and sentenced them to long prison terms. As a result, trust has never been established with ethnic armed groups, and the civil war continues to this day.
Such incidents have led to the involvement of intermediaries in maintaining bilateral commitments in bilateral peace talks. It also means that local and international organisations are participating in Myanmar’s peace process.
However, China, which has been involved in talks under U Thein Sein’s government since the beginning of the peace process in Myanmar, has seen little intervention in the subsequent peace process. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand that the incumbent government, which was enthusiastic at the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, has not been as actively involved in the Tatmadaw’s current negotiations with the Northern Alliance (especially between the military and the Arakan Army).
Only if the government participates in every dialogue between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups can the fruits of peace be seen and enjoyed quickly.