Myanmar’s military seeks to keep ethnic minority allies on its side with anniversary of cease-fire


Ethnic Shan artists perform during a ceremony to mark the 8th anniversary of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on October 15, 2023.

Ethnic Shan artists perform during a ceremony to mark the 8th anniversary of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on October 15, 2023.
| Photo Credit: AP

Myanmar's military government hosted representatives from ethnic rebel groups Sunday to mark the eighth anniversary of the signing of a multilateral cease-fire agreement. But the event was boycotted by three of the signatories that oppose the current army-installed regime.

The event in the capital Naypyitaw was the first such formal gathering of the military government and ethnic minority leaders since the army seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government on February 1, 2021.

Maintaining a cease-fire with as many groups as possible is crucial for the military government, which for more than two years has been faced with nationwide armed resistance from opponents of its 2021 takeover. Those pro-democracy forces have crucial alliances with, or support from, several ethnic rebel groups. The military has launched offensives in the territory long under the control of the ethnic minority groups.

In order to shake and divide the anti-military rule alliances, the military government has also conducted a series of in-person peace talks with the leaders of ethnic minorities since May last year, with little to show for its effort.

Myanmar has 21 established ethnic armed organizations and some of the largest and most powerful groups, including the Kachin Independence Army and United Wa State Army, did not endorse the cease-fire pact, which they viewed as lacking inclusiveness.

The agreement had been seen as a step toward ending the longstanding rebellions against the government but the government has always been reluctant to reach the comprehensive political settlement most of the groups have sought.

The army's seizure of power undermined chances for the peace process.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the ruling military council who spearheaded the 2021 takeover, said in his opening speech on Sunday that the cease-fire pact — officially called the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, or NCA, — would “remain in force eternally and (is) not … subject to nullification” as it was ratified by Parliament.

He said the military “attaches great importance to the implementation of the NCA agreement,” according to an official translation of his speech. He also urged groups that had not been signatories to sign the agreement.

Many ethnic armies have been fighting the ethnic Burman majority government for greater autonomy for their regions since the country, then named Burma, gained independence from the British in 1948.

In October 2015, eight ethnic armed groups signed the NCA. In February 2018, two more ethnic rebel groups joined the cease-fire under Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government, bringing the total number of signatories to 10.

The Karen National Union, Chin National Front and All Burma Students' Democratic Front, three NCA signatories, declared they were not attending Sunday's event. The three groups have allied with the pro-democracy People's Defense Force established in 2021 to oppose army rule.

The three groups announced on Thursday in a joint statement that the agreement is no longer valid as the military has destroyed the basic principles of the agreement and repeated vicious attacks that target civilians since its takeover.

The statement said dialogue would not be held unless their demands were met. The demands include the military's withdrawal from politics, implementation of federal democracy and acceptance of international involvement in solving the country's crisis.

Padoh Saw Taw Nee, a spokesperson for Karen National Union — one of the most established and influential of the ethnic minority organizations — said in a video message posted on the organization's Facebook page on Sunday that the ruling military council is trying to hold peace talks and anniversary events to ease the financial and diplomatic stress they are under and to find a way out from losing a lot of territory. Many Western nations maintain tough economic and political sanctions against the ruling military.

“Under current conditions, no meaningful peace talks can take place. With the coup, there is no legitimate government, no constitution and no parliament,” Padoh Saw Taw Nee said. “We don't see any potential positive outcomes from the eighth year anniversary of the NCA that they are organizing now.” Three members of All Burma Students' Democratic Front were listed by the military as being in attendance at Sunday's event but a spokesperson for the group, Ye Baw Sonny, told The Associated Press said they did not represent it and would face disciplinary measures.

The groups that were listed as having sent representatives were the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council, the Pa-O National Liberation Army, the Arakan Liberation Party, the Restoration Council of Shan State, the New Mon State Party, the Lahu Democratic Union, the All Burma Students' Democratic Front and some other ethnic groups that were not NCA signatories.

The military said attendees also included 35 members of political parties, 11 officials from non-governmental organizations and 32 diplomats, including Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Deng Xijun and, Indian Deputy National Security Adviser Vikram Misri.

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