The long awaited “nationwide ceasefire agreement” has finally been signed, on October 15th. Except that it was by no means nationwide, and barely an agreement. So, does this move Burma’s peace process along very much? The hope is that such a process might lead eventually to a resolution of over fifty years’ worth of fighting between the Burman-majority government and the country’s many ethnic-based rebel groups.
For a start, the deal was only signed between the government and 8 of the armed groups. Seven of groups that took part in the talks themselves did not sign, and that still leaves a couple of groups out in the cold anyway, those that did not take part in the nationwide talks. Among those that did sign were the Karen National Union, the oldest foe of the Burmese army. That’s the good news. But among those that did not sign were the Kachin Independent Organisation/Army (KIA), which returned to war with the Burmese army in 2011, and the 20,000 or so strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), by some way the biggest of the armed groups. The Kachin are the most closely watched of the ethnic minorities, as they are the most plugged-in to the West through the churches, namely the Baptists and the Catholics.
So it’s undoubtedly an imperfect deal, and to get to just this point has taken long enough, upto three years of hard negotiating. And it must be remembered that this can only be the aperitif before the main meal of actual political talks between the armed groups and the government. Only at those talks will both sides be expected to get down to the nitty-gritty of working out a new relationship between the regions and the centre – something that has eluded all parties and governments since the country won independence in 1948.
In other words, there is still a mountain to climb, if the eventual aim is still to overhaul the entire political structure of the country. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the ceasefires that have been signed will hold; the Burmese army has a habit of going off on its own sometimes, casting doubts on exactly how much the politicians exercise control over it.
The hope must be that despite these reservations, the process has now developed a momentum of its own. If the KIA sign up too, that will be real progress, and other might follow. The UWSA has a very different agenda, so we can’t expect too much of them.
It’s not a big deal in itself. But if it proves to be a catalyst for something bigger, than we might be looking back at it as a turning-point in a few years’ time.
Photo: Alexander Mueller