Myanmar is one step away from a historic deal that could end seven decades of internal armed conflict. On Aug. 6-7 representatives of the Myanmar government, including from the armed forces, met with leaders of the country’s ethnic armed groups and finalized the text of the Nationwide Cease-Fire Agreement.
The N.C.A. took a year and a half of negotiations — I helped advise the government during that time — and required difficult compromises on all sides. It is no simple truce, but rather a complex set of military and political undertakings. It also provides early measures to begin comprehensive political talks about constitutional reform and the long-divisive issue of federalism, and about a formal peace agreement that would permanently end the war.
The only outstanding question is which groups exactly will become parties to the N.C.A. The government insists that the agreement should initially be signed only by the 15 armed groups with which it already has bilateral cease-fire agreements. It also wants to exclude three small ethnic armed groups the army has clashed with recently, as well as a few unarmed ethnic organizations.
Much now rests on the willingness of the 15 main groups to sign on to the plan. The Kachin Independence Army fought pitched battles with the government as recently as 2012 and feelings are still raw. The United Wa State Army, which enjoys full autonomy in the territory it controls, is worried about losing its privileges.
At this critical moment, the international community should throw its full weight behind the N.C.A. and stand ready to assist in its speedy implementation. Myanmar cannot move forward, with either democratization or economic development, without a formal and permanent halt to the fighting.
Myanmar (then Burma) achieved independence from Britain in 1948. The civil war broke out within months, pitting the government first against a communist insurgency, then against an array of other rebellions, mostly involving ethnic minorities. Today, there are hundreds of village militias and well over a dozen ethnic armed groups — the most powerful of which, the United Wa State Army, has at least 20,000 armed fighters. War has become a way of life along the borders with China and Thailand. Truces have been made and broken. Distrust still runs high on all sides.
With Myanmar just a few months away from a general election, the window of opportunity to make peace may close soon. Political energy is already turning toward the campaign and the selection of presidential candidates. A collapse in the N.C.A. process could trigger an upsurge in violence, which is the last thing Myanmar needs with its democratic transition still in the balance and the economy only just moving forward. Were there to be a retreat now, it would take many years to get back to this point.
On the other hand, if the N.C.A. is signed over the coming few weeks, the upcoming election could give the peace process more momentum. Certainly, a cease-fire and the beginning of comprehensive political talks would be a boon to Myanmar’s next government.
The N.C.A. will consolidate the 15 bilateral cease-fires already in place. Under the agreement, all sides undertake to adopt a military code of conduct and establish a Joint Monitoring Committee to investigate and adjudicate any future clashes. Some parts of the accord are designed to prevent fresh fighting by establishing liaison offices for the various armed groups and carefully demarcating their areas of control. Others are meant to improve living conditions for the hundreds of thousands of people in conflict-affected areas, through joint projects to promote health, education and even environmental conservation, and to manage the return of displaced people.
As soon as the agreement is signed, the ethnic armed groups will no longer be considered illegal, allowing them to associate with political parties. Discussions on the comprehensive political dialogue could then begin, not just among the belligerents, but also within the political establishment, including civil society associations and opposition parties like the National League for Democracy.
The N.C.A. states that the political talks will focus on the creation of a federal system of government. This, too, is a major accomplishment, considering that the army has long equated federalism with separatism and the word “federalism” itself was virtually taboo in official circles until a few years ago.
The one remaining hurdle is uncertainty about which groups may or will sign the N.C.A. Three small organizations that have no arms are not invited to join the N.C.A., although they will be able to participate in the political dialogue. The government fears that allowing them to sign the agreement would prompt similar demands from a slew of other political organizations.
The government also insists that the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army — with which the army has been fighting over the past several months in the northeastern part of the country — each come to some bilateral agreement with the government (as the 15 main groups have done) before they can sign the N.C.A.
Among the 15 groups that are invited to join the N.C.A., views vary. The Karen National Union, the oldest and one of the largest ethnic armed groups, has declared its intention to endorse the deal. So have the Restoration Council of the Shan State and two Karen groups. But the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army have seemed reluctant. The situation is changing daily, however, and a meeting of ethnic armed groups is expected to take place on Friday.
At this precarious juncture, the international community needs to state, far more clearly and loudly than it has, that it supports the N.C.A. and stands ready to provide the assistance necessary for its full implementation. An array of activities, from clearing land mines to setting up the Joint Monitoring Committee, will require technical assistance and funding from abroad, and fast. There should be a coordinated response, involving not only the United Nations and Western donors like the European Union, Switzerland and Norway, but also China, India and Japan.
The N.C.A. is a remarkable achievement. It is a major step toward ending one of the most intractable conflicts in Asia. And it comes at a sensitive time in Myanmar’s progress toward greater democratization. It deserves far more attention and support than it has received so far.
Thant Myint-U, a historian, has been an adviser to the Myanmar government on the peace process since 2011.