Myanmar’s government on Thursday inked a long-awaited “nationwide cease-fire agreement” (NCA) with eight armed ethnic groups as part of a bid to end decades of civil war in the transitioning Southeast Asian nation.
President Thein Sein, ethnic leaders and international observers lauded the deal, which was more than two years in the making, although seven of the 15 groups invited to sign it refused, citing differences over which stakeholders should be included in the process and mistrust of the government.
The president, who has been pushing to conclude the NCA ahead of general elections scheduled for Nov. 8, stressed the importance of first cementing peace with groups that are ready to accept a pact before continuing negotiations with others.
“It is more important to have a real peace deal in place that everybody accepts, rather than simply signing an agreement,” he said, addressing foreign diplomats, Myanmar officials and representatives of armed ethnic groups at Thursday’s signing ceremony in the capital Naypyidaw.
“The government has been trying to sign the NCA because we think it is important for the country’s future to create a peace process that everybody accepts. That’s why we decided to proceed with some of the groups that are ready, even though not every group can sign the NCA at this time.”
The All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), Arakan Liberation Party, Chin National Front, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, Karen National Union, Pa-O National Liberation Organization and Shan State Army-South all accepted invitations to sign the pact.
But some of the nation’s largest ethnic armies—including the United Wa State Army, Kachin Independence Army and Shan State Army-North (SSA-N)—were among the groups which refused to enter the agreement.
Three other groups—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Arakan Army—are still engaged in fighting with government troops and have been excluded from the NCA.
According to the agreement, the military and armed ethnic group signatories must meet within two weeks of the ceremony to “define the exact timeframes governing cease-fire related matters and their implementation.”
A “political dialogue,” which may include non-signatory armed groups as observers, will begin within 90 days.
Additionally, the government has pledged to remove signatories from a list of “terrorist groups” in the country, and observers say the cease-fire agreement will open the door to development in their regions.
ABSDF chairman Than Gae welcomed the pact, but urged parties that had not signed to “collaborate with us, as every group is working towards an NCA.”
He expressed hope that Thursday’s agreement would decrease military tension throughout the country and foster political dialogue between all ethnic armies and the government.
Karen National Union chairman Mutu Say Poe hailed the signing as a “new page in history,” and called on the government to proceed with negotiations, rather than use force to convince other groups to join the pact.
“We want to urge the military to choose the path of negotiation with armed ethnic groups that did not sign the agreement today, instead of obliging them in the future,” he said.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department called the signing of the NCA “a critical first step in a long process of building a sustainable and just peace” in Myanmar and urged the government to “to engage constructively in a dialogue” with groups that did not sign.
But it expressed concerns over reports of continued military offensives in Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states and stressed that all groups should be allowed to pursue peace through dialogue “without exception or threat of penalty.”
Those worries were echoed Thursday by ethnic groups and members of the public in Myanmar, who questioned the government’s commitment to peace amid ongoing clashes between the military and rebels in Myanmar’s remote border regions.
Sai Khay Saing, a spokesman for a group of ethnic Shan civil society groups, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that government troops had used “heavy weapons” in an attack Wednesday near the headquarters of the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), which oversees the SSA-N, causing villagers to flee.
“We don’t want to solve our differences the military way,” he said.
“We have been discussing peace with the government for four years and calling on the military to stop attacking us, as the people are continually forced to leave their homes to avoid the fighting.”
Mine Phone Kyaw, general secretary of the TNLA, expressed doubt about whether the government would honor Thursday’s cease-fire “as we have seen fighting almost every day” and questioned why the NCA was not all-inclusive.
“We are concerned about whether we will see real peace from the NCA,” he told RFA.
“We can’t expect much from the current government with the election coming—we’ll have to wait and see whether the next government will open the door for peace.”
Poet Maung Linn Yeik said he did not consider Thursday’s ceremony to be a real indicator of progress because “the NCA was only signed by a few groups, while we continue to hear gunshots from fighting,” but conceded that “whatever we have is better than nothing.”
Ayine, an actor, said people perceived the signing to be a “wasted effort” without all armed ethnic groups on board.
“The military has said it will not attack armed groups that don’t sign the NCA, but we have been hearing about fighting every day—we don’t understand it,” he added.
One source suggested the signing was “an emergency measure” designed to bolster the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) ahead of elections it is expected to lose to Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, while another said the pact was unlikely to be honored at a local level.
The NLD declined to sign the cease-fire agreement as a witness, despite representative Win Htein joining Thursday’s ceremony, saying the pact could not justifiably be called “nationwide” in scope.
Several ethnic armies have been fighting with the government since Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948, and the ongoing unrest is seen as hindering economic development in the impoverished country.
Ethnic groups represent around 40 percent of Myanmar’s 52 million people, but say they suffer military abuses and discrimination.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Lat, Win Naung Toe, Nay Rein Kyaw and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.