‘Tracking the Transition,’ a book by writer Sai Wansai published by Mizzima Media Group, has just been released. It is examines a crucial juncture in the ongoing peace process in Myanmar. In the following commentary, Sai Wansai examines Myanmar’s troubled drive for peace.
Recently, I was asked to give a short account on the end of the Union State and Development Party-Military (USDP-Military) era headed by Thein Sein and the start of the National League for Democracy-Military (NLD-Military) regime led by Aung San Suu Kyi for the period from March 2015 to April 2016. As my commentaries in Mizzima Weekly covered the said time-span, I thought it would be appropriate to go back a little further on how the Thein Sein government came to power and the ensuing peace process that still has an impact on Myanmar’s political landscape.
Following the approval of the Military-drafted 2008 constitution, which was said to be endorsed by more than 90% according to the Military but rejected by many as being manipulated, multi-party nationwide elections took place at the end of 2010. The main Bamar opposition party the NLD and main ethnic nationality party Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) refused to take part. They argued that the military-drafted constitution would not usher in a democratic transition and the establishment of a federal union.
But after some months in power, the Thein Sein-led USDP-Military government made a deal that allowed the NLD into parliament through by-elections and participate in the multi-party parliamentary system. Accordingly, Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD in the by-elections of 2012, got elected in 43 of 44 seats it contested and entered parliament.
Thein Sein also started the peace negotiation process to end ethnic armed conflicts in 2011. His government reached out to all armed groups, offering first more flexible terms, including dropping the demand for the groups to become border guard forces, and then an unprecedented national conference to seek political solutions to ethnic divisions.
Against this backdrop, the period of 2015-2016 that led to the NLD taking power from the USDP administration has been documented by me weekly and the book “Tracking the Transition – The Path From Quasi-Civilian Rule To Fully Fledged Democracy” is all about what happened during this period.
A number of major issues occurred during this time. There was the Kokang conflict that pitted the Tatmadaw or Military against the Northern Alliance–Burma (NA-B) comprising of Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) or Kokang, Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Arakan Army (AA). There was also the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) meetings in Law Khee Lah and Panghsang. The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed by 8 EAOs. The period also saw inter-ethnic conflict between the TNLA and the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) and Aung San Suu Kyi's national reconciliation process that has failed to satisfy the ethnic nationalities' aspirations.
Although during this time-span Suu Kyi has not revealed her plan on how she would go about circumventing paragraph 59(f) that barred her from becoming the president of the country, this formative year's challenging issues still encompass the woes of today. That is why no one should neglect this historical period if he or she would like to grasp the details of today's politics and the issues that need to be resolved.
Let us look into the issues a bit closer.
Kokang conflict that erupted in February 2015 is the product of the former Military government's Border Guard Force (BGF) scheme. In 2009, when Peng Jaisheng refused to become BFG the then Military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), sided with a faction of the Kokang and chased out Peng Jiasheng and his troops under the pretext of drug trafficking and producing war weapons. Consequently, his deputy chairman, Bai Suoqian, was installed as head of the Kokang Self- administered Zone. On February 9, 2015, six years later, the MNDAA reclaimed its authority, and the armed conflict continues to this day. Moreover, to add more confusion, the TNLA, KIA and AA fought alongside MNDAA, prompting the Military to reject the three EAOs – TNLA, AA and MNDAA – from participating in the peace process, unless they surrender their arms. Exceptionally, KIA is still accepted as a negotiation partner, as the Military said that it is an old organisation and not new ones like the said three EAOs that are excluded. This stalemate continues to this very day, and no solution to further the peace process is in sight.
Before the ratification of NCA, there were EAOs' gatherings in Law Khee Lah and Panghsang on how to go about it. The Law Khee Lah ethnic leadership meeting mostly made up of UNFC members was unable to agree whether to sign the NCA together. In the end, 7 UNFC members, together with RCSS which is not, signed the NCA on 15 October 2015 and the other seven stayed away, arguing that it is not all-inclusive. This partial-ceasefire agreement situation still goes on today with no positive development in the peace process.
The Panghsang meeting also couldn't decide to sign the NCA, as the host United Wa State Army (UWSA) that hosted the meeting was then of the opinion that it didn't need to sign as it had already signed the union-level ceasefire agreement and has never been in armed conflict with the Military since the fall of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), of which the Wa were also a part. Thus, the Wa position then was to participate in the peace process without having to sign the NCA. The UWSA now under the banner of a seven-party alliance called Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) still holds this same position and no progress has been made, as the government insists that the NCA has to be signed as a pre-condition to participating in the peace process. Also, the government insisted it meets its members separately and not as a group as demanded by the alliance. Thus, no progress has been made.
Shortly after the signing of NCA in October 2015, the RCSS expanded its troop presence in the northern Shan State with hundreds of reinforcements, where the TNLA also operates. Armed conflict ensued between the two and until today no solution to the conflict has been made. The TNLA accused the RCSS of encroaching on its territories, while the RCSS maintained that it has always been there and has the duty to protect the Shan population, and said the TNLA has been riding roughshod over the Shan population.
The nationwide, multiparty elections in November 2015 ushered in the civilian, NLD administration to the dismay of the USDP. The Military bloc has counted on the USDP to do better, but the NLD was able to gather the absolute majority vote of some 80% from the contested 75% left over seats after the subtraction of 25% appointed seats, according to the military-drafted constitution, for the Military.
Many believed that the NLD received the tactical votes from the ethnic states as they were convinced that Suu Kyi's party could bring in a change from military to civilian rule.
Suu Kyi went about with her promised reconciliation by employing military personnel and ethnic individuals in forming her administration. She first installed key positions like president, house speakers and herself taking four cabinet portfolios of foreign affairs, education, electric power and energy, and head of the office of the president. Moreover, within days of taking office President Htin Kyaw, Suu Kyi's trusted childhood friend, signed a bill making Suu Kyi the “State Counsellor,” a sort of prime minister-like position which holds the most powerful office in Myanmar.
To sum up, I sincerely hope that this book would serve as an archive for the said period and also instill a better understanding for those interested in the making of a new Burma or Myanmar that still has a long way to go.
Additionally, a second book which would cover the period of 2016-2017 probably under the name of "One Year After", meaning one year after NLD came to power is planned. The materialisation of the project would depend on many factors but keep your fingers crossed that this will happen sooner rather than later.