News analysis

Suu Kyi to drive peace process with armed ethnic groups

Window of opportunity opening for a ceasefire agreement to end the long conflict

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi has thrown her weight behind a peace process with armed ethnic groups that goes to the heart of Myanmar's post-colonial history of conflict and fraught ethnic relations.

On Monday, speaking at the office of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which will take power in March, she said: "The peace process is the first thing the new government will work on. We will try for the all-inclusive ceasefire agreement."

She added: "We can do nothing without peace in the country."

The same day, to underline that a significant part of the country is still at war with itself, a report emerged that the insurgent group Restoration Council of Shan State, which signed a National Ceasefire Accord (NCA) last October, had accused the army of violating the terms of the accord with an attack on one of its camps.

There have been more skirmishes between the army and groups that did not sign the NCA.

However, there is now a historic opportunity, says Mr Tin Maung Thann, a key adviser to the peace process. The country will, in March, have a parliament and a new leadership deemed politically legitimate after the successful Nov 8 general election that swept Ms Suu Kyi's NLD to power.

That addresses one concern of the armed groups - dealing thus far with a government that is seen as an extension of the army and came to power in 2010 in an election seen to be rigged. Trust is a huge issue.

"This is a window of opportunity for everyone to re-align their positions," Mr Tin Maung Thann said.

Ms Suu Kyi has come on board the peace process after speculation that she may make changes, after she did not attend the NCA signing ceremony last October.

With powerful groups like the Kachin Independence Organisation staying out, critics see the NCA as half-baked. Eight out of 16 groups that had approved the draft of the NCA did not sign it, and they have thousands of armed troops between them.

But last month, for the first time, Ms Suu Kyi met leaders of the eight groups that signed the accord, seeking to reassure them.

She told them: "It is not that we do not support the peace process and the signing of NCA. As there are armed groups who decided against the signing, we do not want to be seen taking sides one way or the other between the two groups."

Skirmishes are not unusual in an environment in which armies have been facing each other on rugged terrain for decades, fighting for autonomy and, often, also over natural resources.

While analysts say it remains to be seen whether the incoming civilian leadership will have any influence on an army that is used to making its own decisions and controls three key security-related ministries, the peace process looms as the most fundamental challenge - and prize - for the NLD.

Armed group leaders, top advisers, government ministers and negotiators, and Ms Suu Kyi and key NLD figures will attend a national Union Peace Conference in Naypyitaw later this year, from Oct 12. Leaders of groups which have not signed the NCA will be invited, Mr Tin Maung Thann said.

Following a briefing on Dec 23 by the Myanmar Peace Centre's top figures for senior NLD figures, including Ms Suu Kyi, party senior Win Htein said the centre was to be congratulated on the NCA "despite it not being ideal". He added: "The NCA would bring good results when it is implemented under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2016, with the headline 'Suu Kyi to drive peace process with armed ethnic groups'. Print Edition | Subscribe