(This article by Union Minister U Aung Min was originally published in NIKKE ASIA REVIEW, Japan, on 14 October 2015 and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. Ed)
There has been much speculation in the media, online and behind closed doors, about the peace process in Myanmar. Over the past four years while we worked to bring an end to over 60 years of conflict and civil war in my country, many opinions have been formed, many conclusions drawn, and many predictions made.
Making peace is controversial and I was prepared for it, but I did not know that achieving peace would be viewed with such levels of suspicion and negativity. We were widely expected to fail from the very beginning, and even in the face of the achievements we have made so far, including significant de-escalation of conflict in most areas of Myanmar, every small setback has been magnified — often portrayed as a massive collapse, just as we have seen in the media recent weeks.
As someone involved in the process since its fragile first steps, I have often been baffled by the quick judgments and the dark prophesies of commentators, which have done a disservice not only to hopes of achieving peace in my country but also to the courage of those who dared to imagine a more peaceful Myanmar.
As we prepare to sign the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement between the government and ethnic armed groups, it is time for me to share my thoughts on what the agreement really is, what it means in the grand architecture of achieving peace and democracy in Myanmar, and the impact it will have on our future generations.
First step to three goals
The NCA is the first small step towards bringing our fractured society of many different ethnicities and religions into a dialogue to shape the future of our country on equal terms. It is designed to achieve three goals.
First, the NCA will establish concrete mechanisms to transform the existing preliminary cease-fires into comprehensive arrangements so that there is not just a reduction of hostilities, but a cessation of hostilities between armed groups. The provisions protecting the civilians, the initiation of a code of conduct for all armed elements and the establishment of a Joint Monitoring Committee are just some of the tools anchored in the NCA to achieve this goal.
Second, it will open the door for a substantive and inclusive political dialogue where longstanding grievances will be addressed, not only by those armed on both sides, but by a multitude of other stakeholders. The signing of the NCA will start a process that consolidates the voices of the people – regardless of their ethnicity or religion – and reshapes our society based on a shared vision of what we would like our country to be.
Last, the signing of the NCA and the beginning of the political dialogue will serve as a benchmark for future governments and leaders on all sides to build on the peace process. I have always believed that there can be no democracy without peace, and for democracy to take root in my country, we must leave the peace process on a firmer foundation regardless of who comes into power after the upcoming November elections.
The hard way
But now, I must address some rumors before they fester. Some have accused the government and me personally of trying to achieve political success for the current government by pushing for the NCA to be signed before the elections. To be blunt, I am sure there are many easier ways to garner popular support than by trying to achieve peace in Myanmar. From the very outset, I am convinced that no one involved in this process would harbor such illusions.
However, I have always felt the time pressure of ensuring that the agreements we have achieved and the problems we have worked so hard to overcome will not be re-opened or stalled in a potentially fraught political environment after the elections. It was always my hope that by nailing down some key agreements between the parties, we could even use this to enable a more stable transition and increase our chances for preventing new or renewed clashes.
Likewise, much has been made in the media of a certain view that the NCA is a failure because not all the ethnic armed organizations involved in the negotiations are ready or able to sign the agreement at this time. This type of pronouncement misses the essence of the peace process altogether. It fails to take into consideration the intricacies of the negotiations; the unique nature, interests and readiness of each group and their respective constituencies; and the external pressures exerted on all parties.
As far as I know, no country in the world has endeavored to address all internal armed conflicts at the same time under one umbrella. And the reasons are obvious. It is incredibly difficult because one size does not fit all. For me, after generations of conflict, even reaching a cease-fire deal with one group is an achievement that should be welcomed and celebrated.
That said, I am humbled and heartened by the fact that none of the ethnic armed organizations to participate in the peace talks have stated, publicly or privately, that they are unwilling to sign the NCA as it stands, or that they do not want peace. Moreover, every group — including the ones unable to sign this time — have stated publicly that it is in full agreement on the text and the provisions contained in the NCA.
In addition, just because some groups are not yet ready to sign at this time does not mean they cannot become signatories in the future. As in international treaties, the door will remain open for those groups until they are ready. I have faith they will join us in the future. But for now, it is time for all Myanmar people to set aside their political differences, dream bigger, and embrace this historic occasion by asking ourselves how each and every one of us can help to make our country more peaceful.
In the four years that we have persevered, there have been many successes, as well as setbacks. The bilateral cease-fire deals and on-the-ground arrangements have allowed us to significantly de-escalate conflict in many parts of the country. These successes, however, must be tempered by ongoing clashes in some of the conflict areas. Do I want more? Of course I do, and I have always asked myself whether I could have done more.
However, there is a danger in judging the past by the present and it is perilous to disregard reality to meet the expectations of what we want it to be. All sides in this conflict have far more difficulties and complexities within their own constituencies to take into account than what is apparent at a superficial glance. Peace can never be forced
or imposed and we must be patient and let the process run its course.
It is the implementation of the NCA that will determine whether the peace process is successful. The signing itself is a symbolic step towards this end. I would have wanted to see all of us crossing the bridge together, but this was challenged by the unexpected outbreak of conflict in the Kokang region where emotions need to subside and a lot of groundwork must be covered before we can find inclusive solutions.
I firmly believe that the best prospects for peaceful and sustainable solutions in the remaining areas of conflict lie within the framework of the NCA and political dialogue, but I am mindful that some groups see this differently. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we have continued to allow the grievances of our past to shape and fuel our distrust for each other.
The Myanmar peace process is home-grown and I am well aware that it may not be easy to understand from an international viewpoint. That said, I am thankful for the constructive help and support from our international friends. And as we move forward in this process, we will continue to need international assistance. However, while I do not question the good intentions, some in the international community do not realize the realities we face in this country.
Trying to influence the Myanmar peace process without respecting our geopolitical context or our national sovereignty can create more problems than solutions. What we really need is for the international community to respond to our requests and priorities when we ask for assistance and leave it to our national stakeholders to set the stage and take the lead. At the end of the day, Myanmar people must be the ones building the peace that they want — a peace that will endure.
Making peace is never easy. It involves becoming friends with your former enemies and sometimes having tough conversations with your own comrades. To fellow peace-makers from all sides who have worked tirelessly over the past four years, I say: we were enemies before, now we are partners in peace. We have lived through harsh times in our internal conflict and have brought with us to the peace table our own memories of loss and sacrifice. Many of us in the twilight of our careers, before we fade away as old soldiers often do, have come together to forge a new path, so that future generations do not have to go through what we went through. I hope all of us, no matter which side we represent, can continue to work together and hope for a better future.