Leaders of eight armed ethnic groups yesterday signed a ceasefire agreement with the government and military that has been broadly hailed as an important step toward a wider peace settlement, even though two years of negotiations had failed to deliver a truly nationwide pact.
Speaking at a grand televised ceremony in Nay Pyi Taw attended by hundreds of dignitaries, officials and combatants, President U Thein Sein said, “The nationwide ceasefire agreement is a historic gift from us to our generations of the future.
“This is our heritage. The road to future peace in Myanmar is now open,” he said.
The US State Department said it commended all sides for their continuing efforts to bring to an end the world’s longest-running civil conflict. It called the signing “a critical first step in a long process of building a sustainable and just peace in Burma”.
But the US also expressed concern over continued military offensives in Kachin and Shan states, where the Tatmadaw is fighting at least five ethnic armed groups which remain outside the ceasefire agreement.
U Thein Sein’s government excluded three ethnic groups from the deal, a move that resulted in a boycott of the pact by a majority of armed organisations, including the country’s two strongest – the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army.
But the president said he was confident more groups would sign the document if it could be implemented successfully with the initial eight.
“How many sign is not important. How we implement the negotiated terms is more important. If we can implement it, the other groups will sign too,” he said.
Saw Mutu Say Poe, head of the Karen National Union, which is the largest of the eight signatories and has been at war on and off since 1948, urged the Tatmadaw to stop fighting to persuade the holdout groups to join the ceasefire.
“I would like to especially request and urge the Tatmadaw to resolve issues through negotiations rather than use of force in order to bring the organisations that are currently unable to sign the NCA back into the process,” he said.
Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy, Vice Senior General Soe Win, signed the pact on behalf of the military. Pyithu Hluttaw Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann, who was ousted as acting chair of the ruling USDP in August, signed on behalf of parliament, together with Amyotha Hluttaw Speaker U Khin Aung Myint.
The 12-page agreement goes beyond the bare parameters of a ceasefire pact to set out a broad vision of a federal Myanmar that it says will be democratic and secular, and guarantee equal rights to all citizens.
Its timetable sets out the adoption of a “framework for political dialogue” within 60 days, and the start of dialogue within 90 days. That could give U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government just over two months to make a start before the next president – to be selected by the incoming parliament – forms a new administration at the end of March.
Saw Mutu Say Poe cautioned that the next stage of political dialogue would face challenges.
“We will face diverse opinions in the dialogue. Without too much focusing on our own interests but on national reconciliation, we shall have to continue the peace process,” he said.
More than 1000 people attended the ceremony, including envoys representing China, India, Japan, Thailand, the United Nations and the European Union as international witnesses.
Roland Kobia, EU ambassador, told The Myanmar Times that the government needed to continue working to bring in other armed groups.
“The president says they are not turning back. We hope there is a great commitment from the government, from the ethnic groups, the army, civil societies and from citizens to really implement the NCA,” he said, noting that his signature for the EU represented 28 member states.
China’s special envoy Sun Guo-xiang reaffirmed Beijing’s commitment to supporting the peace process.
His declaration followed comments from advisers to U Thein Sein questioning China’s role following reports suggesting that China had put pressure on ethnic armed groups close to its border not to sign unless Myanmar dropped its policy of excluding the three factions in conflict in Shan State.
Notably absent from the ceremony was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy. She had been invited but her party said she was busy with her election campaign in Rakhine State, although she was not due to begin her three days of rallies there until today.
The party did not send a representative to act as a domestic witness to the signing.
However, the domestic witnesses did include representatives of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, two ethnic affairs ministers from Yangon Region, and delegates of some political parties.
U Htay Oo, acting chair of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, was a signatory. He urged full implementation of the accord and the need to bring in other armed groups.
Soldiers on both sides wanted peace, he said.