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  • Writer's pictureIngyin May

Diagnosing core problems in Myanmar's peace negotiations

Kachin Independence Army cadets prepare for training in Lai Zar, Myanmar, 2017 (photo credit: Paul Vrieze)


Myanmar’s peace process began in earnest in 2011 with the democratic transition under President U Thein Sein. After 49 years of dictatorship, Thein Sein and his quasi-military-civilian political party had won leadership over the government in a landslide victory. Among his first initiatives was finding peace for the beleaguered nation. Five years later, this initiative would continue even after the peaceful transition of power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) Party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who also won in a landslide victory. For ten years, these two administrations both sought to advance the peace process, but there were challenges abound.

Although outside observers may focus on various reasons for the failure of the peace process in Myanmar, from a negotiation perspective, there were three insurmountable issues: (1) the number of groups involved; (2) the strength of their alternatives to cooperation; and (3) the absence of implementation mechanisms. For two administrations, each committed to advancing peace, these were the common challenges, and it is essential to understand them in developing policy or assessing the prospects for peacebuilding in Myanmar.

Background on the peace process in Myanmar

Understanding the peace process in Myanmar requires recognition of the nature of the conflict and the players involved. While foreign media reporting tends to focus on the central government’s civil-military relations, Myanmar has faced a series of conflicts owing to the presence of nearly two dozen “ethnic armed organizations” (EAOs) including, but not limited to: (1) the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army; (2) the Chin National Front; (3) the Karen National Union; (4) the Restoration Council of Shan State; (5) the Arakan Liberation Party; (6) the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front; (7) the Pa-Oh National Liberation Army; (8) the Karen National Liberation Army; (9) the United Wa State Army; and (10) the Kachin Independence Army. The goal for the Myanmar government has been to pacify the conflict with and among these different groups, despite their disparate ethnic backgrounds and interests related to autonomy and governance.

When the U Thein Sein government came to power in early 2011, Myanmar’s peace process become a pivotal element of reform in the country’s new political paradigm. The government immediately initiated the “new peace process,” reaching out to opposition parties and calling for peace with the country’s myriad ethnic groups. But responses were tepid. At the outset, there was a dearth of trust in the newly formed government, and for many of the groups, maintaining the status quo was a safer option than negotiating with the centralized authority.

To overcome this, the government adopted a policy of engagement. The Thein Sein administration sent two teams of representatives to engage with the EAOs, pursuing separate talks with each of the groups and seeking to conclude bilateral agreements. What he then needed to do was build a holistic peace framework, so his administration started peace talks with the “United National Commission for Ceasefire Team,” a coalition of EAOs comprised of representatives from eleven groups at that time. To demonstrate his commitment, Thein Sein established and chaired the “Union Peace Central Committee,” and created the subordinate “Union Peace Working Committee” chaired by the Vice President Sai Mauk Kham. In total, the Thein Sein government would conduct upwards of 4000 formal and informal meetings with individual ethnic groups.

The policy of engagement proved moderately successful. By the end of the Thein Sein government’s tenure, the administration managed to push through the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight EAOs as signatories.

President Thein Sein signing the National Ceasefire Agreement in Naypyidaw, (photo credit: Z. T. Soe)

After Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took office in early 2016, her administration pushed to organize a first-ever national peace conference. Representatives from all EAOs were invited to the conference, not just the eight signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. In August 2016, the Suu Kyi administration convened the multi-day “21st Century Panglong Conference” to discuss political, economic, social, security, land, and environmental issues. The goal was to isolate and manage any barriers to advancing peace, national reconciliation, and the emergence of a democratic federal union.

Shortly after the inaugural conference, the NLD government announced a seven-step roadmap to peace. To implement this roadmap, she employed several organs. First, there was the National Reconciliation and Peace Center and Peace Commission (PC), which was under the control of the Ministry of the State Counsellor Office. There was also the “Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee” composed of representatives from EAOs, political parties, and the Myanmar government. This committee’s role was to oversee the “Framework Political Dialogue” among all the relevant parties.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addresses the 21st Century Panglong Conference, August 2016 (photo credit: A. N. Soe)

These efforts succeeding in increasing the number of EAOs engaging with the central government, but there were problems advancing beyond that first step. While Thein Sein was only able to muster eight EAOs for his peace committee, Suu Kyi upped the number to eleven members across the NRPC and Peace Commission. But the Suu Kyi government soon demonstrated that it lacked technical expertise in policy implementation, and there was too great a separation between the previous peace negotiators (who were from the prior administration) and the current implementers. Exacerbating the situation was the presence of major veto players in the form of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military). Obstacles soon manifested.

The outlined roadmap published by the Suu Kyi government was clear enough in its steps: the government would work to get all the EAOs to sign the NCA; the government would host the EAOs in political dialogues; they would amend the 2008 Constitution in line with the results of the talks; and then they would hold free and fair elections for the future federal democratic union. But the government soon ran into sequencing issues in implementation and veto players. Some EAOs wanted political negotiations without signing the NCA. Meanwhile, the Tatmadaw was opposed to amending the constitution and holding an additional election. Absent any mechanisms for working through those issues, the Suu Kyi government failed to achieve meaningful progress.

Now, the peace process is stalled completely. On 1 February 2021, the military wrested control of the government from the NLD-led administration, and any progress of the past ten years has begun to regress. The obstacles faced over the past decade are resetting, hardening once again until the central government decides to restart the peace process in earnest.

Breaking down the negotiation challenges

Two consecutive administrations dedicated much of their effort to advancing peace, so what explained the lack of progress? Of course, this was a complex process with many internal and external factors, but taken from a negotiation perspective, there were three core issues: excessive players in the negotiation; strong alternatives to cooperation for EAOs; and weak implementation mechanisms.

U Thein Sein Government: Too many parties to the negotiation

Negotiating between two parties is difficult enough, because each party brings its own set of interests, constraints, and restraints. With each additional party to the negotiation comes another set of interests, which makes it more difficult to work out a mutually agreeable deal. Under those circumstances, a negotiating party’s alternatives to cooperation become more attractive, undermining the prospects for achieving an agreement.

In the case of U Thein Sein, he had nearly two dozen parties to the negotiation. Despite the challenges, the military-backed U Thein Sein administration’s approach of holding of peace talks without any preconditions and equal treatment of all EAOs regardless of military strength was sound. His administration’s empowerment of EAOs by accommodating their requests for format and style of engagement. But no matter how effective the approach to the negotiations, there were still over twenty ethnic armed organizations engaged in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement negotiating process. For eight ethnic groups to sign onto the NCA was still a feat, but nowhere near the scope for which the administration had hoped.

Ethnic Armed Organizations: Strong alternatives to cooperation

With so many players and interests involved in the peace process, a core negotiating concept a play is that of the “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement,” or “BATNA.” As the name implies, it is what a party to a negotiation stands to gain if it walks away from a negotiation. Among other things, the BATNA enables negotiators to accomplish two fundamental objectives; first, to protect themselves from making agreements that are in their best interests to reject; and second, to reach agreements satisfies their core interests. BATNAs accomplish this because negotiators are aware of the other options available to them and employ that both in their individual decision-making and as leverage in a negotiation.

The role of BATNAs was evident in the behavior of the EAOs in engaging with the U Thein Sein government. Despite thousands of meetings to achieve the landmark Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, only eight signed onto the deal. Two of the groups that held out on signing the NCA until the NLD government took control were the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA). A simple examination of the available alternatives for each of the groups indicates why.

Among the non-signatories, both the UWSA and KIA enjoyed similar conditions. Both possessed relatively large standing forces, with the UWSA boasting 30,000 armed personnel and the KIA having around 10,000 military end-strength. Both EAOs are situated along the Sino-Myanmar border, proximity which affords them economic and military ties with their Chinese neighbor. As mostly autonomous groups with their own means for economic and military support, there was little need to deliver concessions to the central government. In other words, their BATNA was more attractive than any deal the U Thein Sein government was offering. NLD Government: Weak implementation mechanisms A fundamental principle in any negotiation is that for an agreement to succeed, it must be implementable. If there are not the right mechanisms put in place, a sound understanding of the provisions of the deal, or adequate implementers ready to put policies into action, even the most attractive agreement will fall apart quickly. The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi government offered no shortage of grand designs on the peace process. The administration published its roadmap and set about tackling a wide range of issues that exist between the central government and EAOs. However, the government had little clarity in how it would implement its plans for the peace process, especially as it encountered opposition from the other players involved. The powerful Tatmadaw continually exercised its veto power until finally ousting the NLD government altogether. While the peace process is currently halted as Myanmar adjusts following the military takeover of the government last year, these three fundamental challenges to the country’s peace process will ultimately remain. Whether it is the military-led government or a democratically elected one, any administration which endeavors to achieve long-lasting, meaningful peace designs for Myanmar will have to reconcile the issues related to the number of parties involved and the strong alternatives generated by external players like China, all while creating implementation mechanisms that can overcome challenges as they emerge. Until they do, the peace process will remain frozen in its early stages.


Ingyin May is completing her graduate studies in the Policy Management and Policy Analysis Program (PMPP) at the International University of Japan. Previously, she studied Political Science at the University of Mandalay, the second oldest university in Myanmar. Her research areas include peacemaking and conflict resolution, with a specific focus on the peace process in Myanmar.

Cable No 19_Diagnosing core problems in Myanmar's peace negotiations
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