Myanmar- Civilians continue to die in military assaults even as attention turns to talks next month aimed at a broader ceasefire
Myanmar's parliament on Tuesday approved the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord that had been signed by the government and eight armed ethnic groups in October. On the surface it was cause for celebration, but any optimism has to be tempered by the refusal of other groups to agree to peace terms. In fact the military continues its bloody campaign of suppression against the Shan and Kachin in the northeast.
Since 2011 the fighting there has taken a terrible toll on civilians. More than 110,000 have fled their homes in the face of advancing government troops who have little regard to rules of engagement, let alone humanitarian principles.
The rebel outfits that are holding out for better terms before signing any agreement include the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army and the United Wa State Army, all defending a wealth of natural resources in their respective regions. It is the promise of lucrative mining that explains why these militias are demanding autonomy and why the government is loath to accede.
The government commenced peace talks with 16 armed ethnic groups in late 2013 and after two years they reached agreement in principle on a 17-page document outlining the terms of peace and reconciliation. What was lacking was consensus between the two sides as to whether the ceasefire should cover other rebel groups that were not part of the negotiations. In the end, eight of the 16 would-be signatories walked away from the deal, irrevocably tarnishing the legacy of outgoing President Thein Sein.
A core obstacle to Thein Sein's peace push was Myanmar's military-dominated bureaucracy, which has for decades followed a top-down approach to national affairs. The armed ethnic groups at the talks maintained a similarly uncompromising and doctrinaire attitude as they grappled with the transition from fighting war on separate fronts to finding common ground from which to confront the government.
Mediators identified the easiest goals, seeking to secure positions that the two sides could readily agree upon in order to build a solid foundation for progress. The strategy paid dividends, yet sticking points remain, most obviously over the right to self-determination and a federal structure of governance. The terms of individual ceasefire agreements are also still being forged. As with peace pacts anywhere, the devil is in the details.
The most troubling aspect of all this is the absence of three of the largest ethnic armies from the ceasefire agreement. Negotiations scheduled for mid-January offer a chance to win over these warring groups, but the government will have to jettison any ambition to win peace by force and commit fully to political dialogue.
Myanmar must demonstrate that it is serious about respecting the needs of its ethnic groups - and the distinctions among them. They make up 40 per cent of the population, and yet for decades have been pushed aside in the allocation of resources and public services.
The signing of the ceasefire made international headlines in October, but largely unmentioned amid the clamour were the civilian victims of ongoing fighting in the north between government troops and the Kachin (KIO) and Shan rebels.
The government and international observers have criticised neighbouring China for backing the KIO and the Kokang and Wa armies, which served as Beijing's proxies during Burma's post-colonial communist insurgency. The complaint is justified, but it will do nothing to alter attitudes in Beijing, which cannot be expected to place moral principles ahead of strategic concerns.
The reality is that the power to achieve peaceful coexistence with the different ethnic groups lies solely with the government of Myanmar. The rebels' historical ties with China would inevitably loosen if they were offered tangible benefits that Beijing can't match. This would, of course, involve concessions and compromises that the government has thus far been unwilling to countenance.
There is meanwhile the widespread belief that the incoming government of Aung San Suu Kyi offers renewed hope that a genuine nationwide ceasefire can be achieved. However, operations against the ethnic rebels will remain in the hands of the military, over which Suu Kyi can exert little control. Given its ongoing willingness to use violence against civilians, political concessions are unlikely to be on the generals' minds.