News analysis

Kokang a wedge in Myanmar peace talks

Govt will still sign deal if all groups are willing, or if ethnic Chinese group is ditched

Myanmar's ceasefire deal with armed ethnic groups - touted as President Thein Sein's legacy - after tortuous negotiation was finally agreed upon and ready to be signed when it ran aground last Friday over one issue: the Kokang.

However, the government - which is anxious to sew up the deal - is not ready to write off the process yet, said sources involved with the peace negotiations.

The armed ethnic groups involved in the talks have said that, in the name of the principle of "all-inclusiveness", they will not sign without the Kokang, an ethnic Chinese group in the north-east that had not been part of the negotiations and which in February this year began a vicious war with the Myanmar military.

But the government said an agreement may still be signed between Aug 24 and Aug 27 if the armed groups part ways with the Kokang. The government would sign with all groups willing to, and invite neighbours Thailand, China and India, and the United Nations, as witnesses, the sources said.

In a war of wills, the government wants to force the Kokang to come to the table and sign or the rest of the armed groups to ditch the Kokang, leaving them isolated.

Troops of Kokang warlord Peng Jiasheng, driven out of power in 2009, attacked the Myanmar army in February. The army took severe casualties but regained control of territory and the Kokang region's capital, Laukkai.

The conflict triggered mass public support in Myanmar for the army. But it strained somewhat the country's ties with China, which the Kokang region borders, as local people fled to China and Myanmar air force planes mistakenly dropped bombs in Chinese territory.

The Kokang were seen to have received new equipment and weaponry from elements across the border in China, though analysts say this most likely took place without Beijing's knowledge.

The army believes that the Kokang are regrouping.

Leaders of major armed groups involved in the negotiations for Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) have been meeting the President, most recently last Monday, before the talks resumed.

At last week's talks in Yangon, they said they wanted to meet him again. But there is a new aspect that President Thein Sein has to weigh, insiders say. After several meetings with ethnic leaders, he stands to lose face if he agrees to more meetings and there is no ceasefire agreement to show for it.

Last weeks' talks were characterised as a last chance in a tortuous two-year process with some 16 armed groups and alliances, some of which have been at war on and off for decades with the state.

Centre-periphery tension is a critical issue in Myanmar, which was plunged into civil wars very soon after independence in 1948. It was a key element underpinning the army's rationale in maintaining an iron grip on the nation for decades.

The army - which still ultimately calls the shots - defined the attack by the Kokang as an attack on the sovereignty of Myanmar, making it difficult for it to back down now.

The army is also impatient with the peace process. The government negotiators' most consistent message in recent months is that time is running out.

A general election is looming in November and a power shift to a new government will take place some time in March next year. Meanwhile, there is a flood disaster, dispersed across the country, to deal with.

It has killed at least 69 people and displaced tens of thousands.

If the ethnic groups do not sign, the peace process will be put in cold storage for months - and there is a chance of renewed conflict not just with the Kokang, but also with some of the other groups especially in Kachin and Shan states.

"The government has accommodated most of the armed groups' demands. Now the government, the army, and parliament as well, want the Kokang to surrender, period," said a Yangon-based analyst familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified.

"The government wants to go into the election with the ceasefire in hand so that election period stability is assured. The bottom line is the election is more important for the government than the peace process," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2015, with the headline 'Kokang a wedge in Myanmar peace talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe