Struggle to earn ethnic rebels' trust

Nay Htun Naing
Map depicting activities of Border Guard Forces and People's Militia Forces (Source: Deciphering Myanmar Peace Process 2015 by BNI)


President Thein Sein invited 15 ethnic armed groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) on August 11.

Although the government said it is ready to sign the agreement, the invitation met different views from the other side.

The Karen National Union (KNU) declared on August 15 to sign the agreement.

The Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the Karen Peace Council (KPC) also agreed to ink the deal.

But the other 11 armed groups remained silent.

The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) publicised their outlook indirectly through the letter sent to civil society organisations on August 21.

It said it still wanted all the ethnic armed groups to sign the deal together.

It continues to hold that policy as it is according to the Kachin people’s opinion shown in the KIO’s public survey over the NCA conducted in its headquarters, Liza.

The KIO originally wanted all the groups to sign the deal at the same time and it remained firmly on this ground by the popular support from the Kachin people.

Its view is perceived contradictory to the four ethnic groups that are ready to sign the deal.


The five out of 15 armed groups have shown their views on the NCA but there is still no collective idea. Thus the summit of the armed ethnic groups was held in Chiang Mai from August 21-23.

But it is not that easy to make all the ethnic armed groups sign the deal because the government welcomed only 15 groups and left the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA), Phone Kyar Shin’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Wa National Organisation (WNO), the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), and the Arakan National Council (ANC) out of the picture. The ethnic nationals want these six groups to be included in the peace agreement together with them.

The three out of the six groups are still battling with the government’s troops and the other three do not have the operation base and are not conflicting with the government. So the government puts off the latter three until the political dialogue.

The state-level agreement is required before dealing with the TNLA, and the MNDAA and the AA are put under to-be-continued list.

Comparison of battles that occurred in 2013 (left) against 2014 (right).

Comparison between battles that occured in 2013 (left) against 2014 (right).


In fact, it was agreed at the last year’s ceasefire talks – including the Laiza Conference and the Lawkila Conference – to invite all the ethnic armed groups to the signing of the deal.

It is a proof of the unity among the nationalities and the NCA draft itself is the result from it.

It becomes confusing when the government does not allow some groups to sign the deal.

A concern rose if the government tries to annihilate the remaining groups while holding political dialogues with the ones that signed the deal.

Such instances happened 20 years ago while the peace agreement was intact.

That is why the ethnic groups continue calling for the all-inclusiveness in signing the deal when the government asked for the willing ones to sign first.

However, when the President rushes to finalise the NCA during his administration, the ethnic armed groups themselves have shown different views.

There are the believers of the government’s words and the doubters among the ethnic groups whereas the former decided to sign and the latter chose to sign only when everyone is invited at the table.

But the unity that produced the NCA draft remains intact.


The government used to employ two approaches to the ethnic groups: It organises the ones that seem to be on the same page with it and pressures the ones that are not through military means.

The method is observed throughout the three-year long peace efforts and yielded two forces: The KIO-led northern alliance and the KNU-led southern alliance.

The northern force comprising KIO, TNLA, AA, and MNDAA had fought hundreds of battles with the government.

The KIO mainly backs TNLA and AA while the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) support MNDAA but decline doing so.

There are also links between the KIO and the UWSA since they are allied.

The UWSA is by far the strongest among the armed ethnic groups. It is notable that both the UWSA and Mongla ethnicity’s NDAA do not wish to sign the NCA.

They said they did not need to sign the accord as they had made ceasefire with the government for many years. They said they only would participate in political dialogue.

The government however has invited both armed groups to sign the NCA.

Meanwhile, the KNU, leader of southern allied group, has closest relations with the government. The RCSS in southern Shan State and KNU hold similar stances. But it is likely that RCSS/SSA is in opposition with SSPP/SSA, the northern army in Shan State. Moreover, it is at odds with UWSA, which is giving support for SSPP.

The stances of the two alliances with different backgrounds will be a decisive factor as to the signing of the NCA.

All the ethic armed groups are willing to sign the NCA. But they will have to seek coordination whether they will sign the agreement separately or simultaneously. Learning lessons from the past, the signing of the NCA by all the groups as a whole will produce a sustainable ceasefire.


Political analysts say that the KNU's decision to sign the NCA has some controversies. It has been keen to sign the agreement for over two years. For this, the KNU almost split into two factions—one willing to sign the accord without firm guarantees and the other willing to sign it after being given firm guarantees.

The group led by KNU chairman General Saw Mu Tu Say Po wants to sign the NCA after seeking coordination with the government. The group headed by KNU vice chairman Naw Si Po Ra Sein, wants to ink the agreement after seeking coordination with other armed groups and being given firm guarantees.

Even at the moment, the KNU has two different stances. The KNU has decided to sign the NCA, according to the declaration of its central standing committee signed by Saw Mu Tu Say Po. It said it would try to sign the accord together with other ethnic armed groups. There is no sign of stances on signing the agreement only if it is all-inclusive.

However, Naw Si Po Ra Sein gave a different view when answering media questions. He said the KNU would not sign the NCA if there were only four armed groups, which had already agreed to do so.

Actually, three out of those four armed groups are all Karen (Kayin) ethnic groups. Political analysts say that there might be some give and take or mutual interests behind their decision to sign the NCA.

One good example is Asian Highway Project. The Asian Highway also covers KNU-controlled areas. Similarly, the three other groups could benefit from the project. Recent fighting in Kayin State was related to taxes levied on the Asian Highway.

The government on its part is trying to officially open the highway as quickly as possible. The Karen armed groups were likely to assume that no sooner had they decided to sign the NCA than they would benefit from the Asian Highway and get other business interests. But no one can guarantee whether they will get any benefit they really deserve.

The ethnic armed groups are hesitant to sign the NCA because they have little trust in the government. They have raised doubts over non-inclusiveness as well as further issues after ceasefire.

Suspicions over pending issues after ceasefire include one key factor related to reconciliation efforts in the security sector.

According to Chapter 5 of the draft NCA about Myanmar's political roadmap, political framework is to be adopted. Then political talks will be held in accord with the framework to discuss those security affairs.

But the ethnic armed groups cast doubts over their continued survival before reaching that stage. They think that if a disarmament plan overpowers security reconciliation, the signing of the NCA will mean surrendering to the government. There have been reports about such an opinion.

The government hopes that the NCA will have been signed before the November election. In the last week of June, Presidential Office Minister Aung Min, who leads the Myanmar Peace Centre, wrote an article for Foreign Policy as an attempt to pressure the ethnic armed groups through international support. On August 18 also, government peace adviser Dr. Thant Myint-U wrote an article in the New York Times to seek international support.

These points prove that the NCA signing is the ultimate goal of the government facing criticism both locally and internationally.

The government is still struggling to win trust of the ethnic armed groups.