The Karen National Union (KNU) and seven other ethnic armed groups decided to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) on September 29.
The government sent invitation letters to the 15 recognised ethnic armed groups to ink the NCA in October.
The seven out of these 15 groups have agreed to sign; and if the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) accepted, it would be eight groups in total.
There are 21 ethnic armed groups in Myanmar and the government only recognises 15.
The talks over the draft of NCA have started since March 18, 2014.
The draft was drawn on March 15 this year and finalised on August 7. But there are still unfinished businesses: the reconciliation concerns with the security and the right for all the 21 armed groups to sign.
The security reconciliation was agreed to discuss later and the decision whether or not to sign the NCA falls on the shoulders of the ethnic armed groups.
Then the seven groups have accepted to sign.
It was agreed at the Laiza Conference in November 2013 to let all the ethnic armed groups sign the deal.
Back in the day, the ethnic armed groups signed peace treaties separately and those who did not had been annihilated.
That is why it was agreed to let all the groups sign the deal at the same time.
The NCA draft is actually a fruition of this agreement. But that agreement has been broken before long the draft was drawn.
The existing situation is similar to how the National Democratic Front (NDF) broke up.
The NDF was organised in 1976 under the KNU and consisted of Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), KNU, Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Palaung State Liberation Organization (PSLO), Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Wa National Organisation (WNO), and Pa-O National Organisation (PNO).
The unity of the NDF was strong through the coordination of Mann Ba Zan, Saw Bo Mya, Bran Seng, General Zaw Mai, Pado Soe Aung, Pado Mann Shar, Sai Lek and Sao Sei Htin.
Their signature moment was the journey to Panseng in 1985.
The NDF and the Burma Communist Party (BCP) jointly released a statement on March 24, 1986, stressing that they would launch armed revolution against the Burmese Socialist Programme Party regime.
But not for long, their unity broke down when the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) ascended to power in 1988.
The KIO, SSPP, PSLO and PNO left the NDF. The BCP was later dominated by the indigenous Wa armed forces (which afterwards grew into United Wa State Army).
Similarly, the KIO and some of the NDF forces except the KNU and its allies promised the government to stop shooting. But the ceasefire deal annulled in 2009. The 17-year-long peace came to an end because of the efforts to form frontier forces.
The NDF’s fourth conference held in February 1997 came to a consensus that the SLORC’s ceasefire policy was just to disband the NDF and unable to bring forth a genuine peace.
It did not also approve the national convention and consistently demanded a tripartite political dialogue with the democracy forces led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The NDF survived till 2009 but was not vigorous. Meanwhile, the conflicts mounted in the northern Myanmar after the ceasefire’s annulment.
The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) emerged in February 2011, replacing the NDF. It is notable that the UNFC is led by the KIO.
The UNFC – a coalition of 11 ethnic armed groups – is as strong as its predecessor. But the KNU has later suspended its membership and has not changed its decision as of yet.
When the KNU-led NDF was thriving, the KIO and its allies left it to sign ceasefire deals with the government.
The tables have now turned when the KNU and its allies decided to sign NCA with the government.
The armed groups that agreed to sign the NCA, the KNU and its allies, are the ex-NDF members who once refused the peace policy and national convention offered by the SLORC.
There are two approaches to the NCA: the open book approach in which the eager armed groups are to sign it first and the all-inclusive approach in which all ethnic groups sign together at the same time.
The first option is chosen by the KNU and its allies and is also preferred by the government. The KIO and its allies supported the second one.
Before, there was an argument whether the political dialogue should be held before or after the ceasefire deal is signed. The KIO and KNU had different ideas to it but later agreed to hold political talks after ceasefire.
The UWSA and the Mongla group stand in the middle and said that they would join political dialogues since they have already had peace agreement.
The armed conflict with the Kokang forces broke out and made them focus on an all-inclusive approach.
But the armed groups have gone different directions now. There are also whispers should the KNU itself separate into two.
KNU is an ethnic armed group that has existed with a high standing since 1947. This armed organisation was established under the leadership of Saw San Pho Thin and Saw Ba Oo Gyi. In 1947, there was disagreement within the group as to whether it should run for parliamentary election or not. Saw San Po Thin, Mann Ba Khine and Mann Win Maung chose to stand for election. Saw Ba Oo Gyi, however, boycotted and continued to lead the KNU.
Saw Ba Oo Gyi died in action in 1950 and Saw Han Tatha Hmwe became the successor. After 1963, KNU split into two groups between Saw Han Tatha Hmwe and Mann Ba Zan. After internal peace talks held in 1963, Mann Ba Zan became chairman. Again in 1965, the group split into two—one led by Mann Ba Zan and the other led by Saw Bo Mya. Later, a united KNU emerged under the leadership of Saw Bo Mya.
The SLORC government came to power after 1988. Some members seceded from the KNU in 1995 and formed a group called Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA).
Saw Bo Mya retired as chairman in 2000 and died in 2006. Then, Pado Saw Ba Thin became chairman and Pado Mann Shar, general secretary. Pado Mann Shar was regarded as a good leader after Saw Bo Mya. He also won the trust of other ethnic armed groups and democratic organisations. But he was assassinated on February 14, 2008. Before his death, KNU's Brigade-7 led by Major General Htein Maung made peace with the government and established Karen Peace Council (KPC) in January 2007.
Maj-Gen Htein Maung's secession and Pado Mann Shar's assassination were a major blow to KNU.
Some political analysts assumed that there would be someone behind these two incidents.
Saw Ba Thin passed away in May 2008. Tar Malar Baw became chairman and his daughter Naw Si Po Ra Sein, general secretary. Like Pado Mann Shar, Naw Si Po Ra Sein has a high standing.
Tar Malar Baw died in June 2014. Later on, the power struggle escalates among vice chairperson Naw Si Po Ra Sein, incumbent chairman Saw Mutu Say Po, general secretary Saw Kwe Htoo Win and Man Nyein Maung, who was released from jail under a presidential pardon.
Particularly, Naw Si Po Ra Sein and Baw Kyaw He, vice chief of staff of Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have the same standing. Behind them are KNU Brigade Nos. 2, 3 and 5, whose views are different from those of Saw Mutu Say Po.
Those led by Saw Mutu Say Po decided to sign the NCA. But those who support Naw Si Po Ra Sein wanted to sign it only if it is all-inclusive.
Such situations could reflect possible discord and splits after the NCA signing.
Another important point is the decision of the armed groups to sign the NCA. Among them, KNU is a key player. They decided to sign the agreement only because of KNU.
DKBA and KPC own businesses after they have made peace with the government. DKBA has around 1,500 members while KPC has just about 200. Both groups can easily enter ceasefire with the government.
Since 2013, KNU has been trying to be reunited with its breakaway factions under a single flag. But success could not have been achieved due to seeking self interests. But now, most of the Karen armed groups have decided to sign the NCA and this is the first in history.
The reason why other armed groups decided to sign the accord along with KNU, DKBA and KPC is nothing special. All of them are connected with KNU. Arakan Liberation Party with 60 to 100 hard-core members is based in the KNU-controlled area. It has some members in northern Rakhine State but they are not strong enough.
Under the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), there are two groups—ABSDF (South) based in Kayin State and ABSDF (North) based in Kachin State. The Kayin State-based group, which has decided to sign the NCA, has more than 400 members. The stance of 200-strong ABSDF (North) is not known yet. This group is likely to join up with KNU.
The 400-strong Pa-O National Liberation Organisation (PNLO) and the 200-strong Chin National Front (CNF) have not won support of the local ethnic people.
KNU plays a major role in all the seven armed groups. All other groups are connected to it. Some political analysts say that those seven groups are assumed to be financed by the Euro-Burma Office (EBO) headed by Han Nyaung Wai. The European Union (EU) is a main sponsor of EBO.
Over the past four years, EBO has had close ties with Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), which is mainly financed by EU. Similarly, EBO's Han Nyaung Wai, KNU's adviser Saw Tu Tu Lay and RCSS/SSA's adviser Khun Hsai have close ties with each other. They tried to coordinate in bringing about the NCA. RCSS/SSA therefore is set to become a signatory of the NCA. All the eight armed groups have the same conditions to sign the NCA. They tend to continue to survive only if they sign the agreement. For them, self-interest seems to be a deciding factor to sign the accord.
Anyhow, if the ceasefire agreement is signed by only those eight groups, we cannot call it NCA. It can only be called regional ceasefire agreement (RCA). If not, we can call it Kayin (Karen) ceasefire agreement (KCA) because ceasefire mainly happens in Kayin State. We can say that the peace we achieve will come from car import permit or being removed from the list of unlawful associations.
There are things that need to be done within 90 days after the signing of the NCA. An instruction manual for the monitoring committee for military affairs must come out with 30 days and a political dialogue framework must be drawn within 60 days. Then, political dialogue must begin.
If the NCA is signed in October, political dialogue must begin in January. The parliament tenure will be over on January 31, 2016. Before that, the NCA must go to the Union parliament for approval. For those who want to be part of decision-making in the process, they must sign the NCA. Otherwise, they will just become observers at most.
MPC members expect to begin political dialogue in January. Only then, will they be able to continue doing their work when the next government comes. They plan to do so with the groups available even if all are not included. If so, conflicts will ensue.
Political problems must be solved through political talks. There will be signs of peace only if the ceasefire agreement is inked. This is why the ethnic armed groups have accepted the fact that they have to sign the NCA.
However, it is vital to ensure all-inclusiveness in singing the agreement as it is called the NCA. History has already proved that signing such ceasefire agreement without all-inclusiveness led to a peace after the surrender, allowing the government to remain in power. Suppose that all the ethnic armed groups do not sign the agreement, that the signatories do not represent the local ethnic people, and that political dialogue begins, the trust and reliance of the people will not be won. It will be like the previous National Convention. Moreover, the Union agreement that will emerge from the political dialogue will become like the 2008 constitution.
We need to wait for the participation of all the ethnic armed groups. If they try to make it happen with only the eight groups, the agreement will become RCA or KCA, not NCA. And there will not be a significant change for our country.