In late 2015 a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) was signed between the government of Myanmar and eight of the 15 rebel groups active in the country. Although seven armed groups (including the largest insurgent forces) refused to sign the NCA, the ceasefire was a welcomed step in the current peace process. The process was launched by the civilian government that came to power in 2011 following decades of military rule, and is the first, since 1963, to invite all armed groups to participate.
The history of armed conflict in Myanmar is complex at best and will not be discussed at length here. Suffice it to say that the conflict dates back to colonial rule when the British divided the country according to ethnicity. Efforts of unification were abruptly halted when Aung San, a leader of the Burman ethnic group (father of Aung San Suu Kyi), who had led the country to independence, was assassinated, and the military government came into power. Many ethnic groups ended up taking up arms and demanding autonomy. Conflicts over vast natural resources have also contributed to continued disputes.
The NCA signed in October includes a political roadmap that outlines the next steps of the peace process, including the convening of a political dialogue. It is indeed quite unlikely that any ethnic armed groups would have signed a ceasefire agreement if the government did not assure them of political discussions in the future. Hence, the political dialogue remains decisive for achieving a negotiated settlement and resolving the protracted ethnic conflict and root causes thereof, and thus for the future of the country. There are however multiple outstanding issues in the NCA, which may prove to be stumbling blocks for upcoming negotiations. The question of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) is one such issue.
DDR has for long been a contested topic in Myanmar, and has even been argued to be a “non-negotiable”. During talks between the government and armed ethnic groups, the government has maintained that military integration would mean disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, while armed groups (who are willing to consider DDR), have advocated for a more holistic approach that would encompass security sector reform (SSR). Some armed groups have however expressed unwillingness to accept any kind of “reintegration” with the military (the Tatmadaw), and are highly suspicious of any such efforts. This is not unfounded, seeing that history has demonstrated that giving up weapons without a comprehensive political settlement is likely to lead to significant grievances. In the 1950s, plans for armed groups to exchange “weapons with democracy” ended in failure. For other groups like the powerful Karen National Union (KNU), “never to surrender weapons” is one of the most important rules of the group. This naturally makes any negotiation on DDR challenging. But some kind of DDR is necessary for the peace process to succeed, and in this regard a discussion on DDR will need to be included in the political dialogue that is scheduled to follow the signing of the NCA. Disarming the armed groups and reintegrating the former fighters into civilian life is crucial for nation-wide security and stability. But without clear DDR objectives, transparent negotiations and a clear implementation plan, Myanmar risks spiraling back into conflict.
As SSR has wider implications than DDR – in that it includes a range of reforms such as judiciary- and police reforms – DDR could be used as a tool for a broader SSR that might also be more attractive to the armed ethnic groups that are suspicious of DDR efforts. Stay tuned for another blog on this particular topic and other alternative DDR options for Myanmar!
By Helena Gronberg