(Opinions expressed here are those of the author.)
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen
Myanmar has witnessed two historic agreements in the past 68 years – Panglong Agreement (PA) of 1947 and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) of 2015. Both agreements are important and significant, especially with regards to inter-ethnic relations and national reconciliation.
There are two important components – composition and objective. The PA was signed on 12 February 1947 in Panglong in southern Shan state between the Burmans under the leadership of Aung San and leaders of the Shan, Kachin, and Chin.
Like the PA, the NCA was also an exclusive accord, signed by only some ethnic groups. Out of more than 20 ethnic armed organizations in the country, only eight of them signed the peace deal in Naypyidaw on 15 October 2015. The two largest armed groups – the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army – are among the groups that did not sign the deal.
Though eight groups signed the NCA, only four ethnic groups were represented — the Burman/Bama or Myanma, the Karen, the Shan, and the Chin, similar to the PA representation.
Three different organizations represented the Karen people – Karen National Union, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karen Peace Council. At the PA signing ceremony, the Karen sent observers. At the NCA signing ceremony, the non-signatory groups did not send observers.
Another important component of the two agreements was the objective. One fundamental principle of the PA was the acceptance of full autonomy in internal administration for the frontier areas.
In the months preceding the PA, there was deep distrust between the Burman leaders and the frontier people. Even the British colonial government was concerned that the non-Burman ethnic groups may not be treated equally in the Union of Burma.
To allay the fears and suspicions, General Aung San said, “if Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat.” One important reason the frontier leaders (non-Burman leaders) signed the PA was the belief that they would achieve freedom speedily by cooperating with the interim Burmese government.
During the British rule, the people of Burma were administered separately under Burma proper and frontier areas. The objective of PA was to achieve independence from the British and to form the Union of Burma.
With the formation of the Union of Burma, the 1947 constitution was drafted. Among others, the constitution guaranteed the frontier people the right to secession after 10 years of the formation of the union. However, the assassination of Aung San on 19 July 1947 shattered the hopes of the frontier people, which were exacerbated by the military coup in 1962.
The primary objective of signing the NCA was to end armed conflicts across the country and to prepare for political dialogue with the ultimate goal of achieving peace and national reconciliation under a federal system of governance.
With only eight groups signing the NCA and the continued armed clashes between the Myanmar army and ethnic armed groups in Shan and Kachin states, calling the peace deal as nationwide ceasefire is a misnomer, at least for now.
Leaders of the signatory groups argue that political dialogue process cannot begin unless the nationwide ceasefire is signed. On the other hand, the non-signatory groups believe in an all-inclusive approach of ‘all or none’.
The non-signatory groups are suspicious that the exclusive policy of the government is a divide and rule strategy that would allow the Myanmar army to launch offensive attacks against groups that are excluded from the NCA.
As of now, it is most likely that the political dialogue will proceed as planned. However, with the upcoming election in November, it is uncertain under whose leadership the actual dialogue will be held.
Also, with the non-signatory groups unlikely to attend as observers, the political dialogue process would be inconclusive. However, things could change for the better if the government takes the necessary steps to bring the other armed groups on board. This will also depend largely on how the Myanmar army support and cooperate with the next government.
One major achievement of the NCA was the overwhelming support and participation of the international community. Diplomats from 45 countries as well as representatives of the United Nations and World Bank were in attendance at the signing ceremony. The question, however, is has the international community done enough for the peace process to be an inclusive one?
The signing of peace deal in Naypyidaw was essential but insufficient. While the failure to implement the PA led to the longest armed conflicts in the world, the mismanagement of NCA could lead Myanmar into another political calamity.
To prevent this from happening, the government, which should always include the military, and ethnic armed organizations should explore all possible means for the emergence of a stable and peaceful democratic Myanmar. The international community should do its part to help achieve this goal.
About the author
Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a U.S.-based political scientist and author of three books on Myanmar. His writings have been published in five continents