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It Could Be Thein Sein's Important Legacy

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 29/02/2016 Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen
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By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a nine-member ethnic armed alliance that did not sign a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the military-backed Thein Sein government in October last year, held a meeting in Chiang Mai from February 18 to 21, 2016.

The meeting was significant specifically for two reasons. First, the meeting happened in the wake of imminent Myanmar army's plan to launch military offensives against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a UNFC member.

Second, the term of USDP government ends in March and President Thein Sein wants to leave a successful legacy by ending the decades-old armed conflicts in the country.

At the end of the four-day meeting, the UNFC accused the Thein Sein-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government of using the NCA as a military and political weapon against the group by creating racial hatred and a divide and rule policy.

The military alliance accused the government of creating clashes between the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the Palaung State Liberation Front/ T'ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA). Armed clash had also erupted between the Myanmar army and the RCSS/SSA-S.

The recent armed clashes have resulted in casualties and the internal displacement of several thousand civilians. The international community, including the US government and the European Union, has expressed concerns that escalation of tensions could jeopardize the democratization process.

If the Myanmar military launches offensive attacks against the MNDAA, there is a possibility that the other members of UNFC, particularly the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), would come to the aide of the MNDAA, which the KIA leadership had previously hinted.

If the prevailing tension does not subside, the weak link of communication between the government peace negotiation team and the ethnic armed groups could further be deteriorated. It could also reduce the likelihood of UNFC members joining the peace process.

Since the RCSS/SSA-S is a signatory to the NCA and the TNLA is a non-signatory, the escalation of tension between the two armed groups could also create trust deficit among ethnic minorities, which could in turn have ramifications on the ongoing peace talk.

Amidst the tensions, the government chief negotiator, Aung Min, who met the UNFC leaders in Chiang Mai said, "We have not closed the door to non-signatories. We are still trying."

The government's unsuccessful strategy has been to sign ceasefire agreement with the ethnic armed groups individually, which the UNFC has reiterated that it will maintain its "all-inclusive" policy.

The biggest apprehension of the UNFC leadership is that the Myanmar government would use the NCA as a pretext to launch military attacks against the groups the government is unwilling to sign a ceasefire with, which includes the MNDAA and the TNLA.

If the Myanmar army launches attacks on the MNDAA, which there is an imminent sign, the accusation of the UNFC leadership would have been justified, and more importantly, it could destabilize the entire peace process.

As a researcher and a keen observer on Myanmar's political developments, especially on issues pertaining to the country's ethnic minorities, I believe that signing the NCA with UNFC, as a collective bloc, would be a positive direction for the country.

It would have been a totally different scenario had members of the UNFC were rejecting the peace process. In fact, groups such as the MNDAA and TNLA, which the Thein Sein government has reluctant to include in the NCA, have expressed their desire to sign the ceasefire agreement and be part of the peace process.

It is very likely that the National League for Democracy, which will officially assume power from April, will review the peace process to ensure that all armed groups participate. The party has announced that the peace process will be one of its priorities,

As President Thein Sein continues to endeavor to bring an end to the decades-old armed conflicts before leaving office, it could be one of his most successful legacies to accept the inclusive policy of the UNFC.

Accepting an all-inclusive policy should not be taken as weakness on the part of the government, rather a step forward to bringing peace and stability in the country. The international community must do its part to ensure that the peace process is successful.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is Assistant Professor and Director of Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including the forthcoming "Myanmar: A Political History" available from Oxford University Press.

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