The end of Myanmar’s international isolation and its passage to democratic rule are seen as such momentous developments for geopolitics — owing to the country’s contiguity with China and its wealth of natural resources — that there is inevitably considerable interest in the country’s nation-building processes. Hence the ‘nationwide ceasefire agreement’ that Naypyidaw signed with eight insurgent groups on Thursday is being heralded as an important breakthrough towards a stable political future.
The government headed by President Thein Sein has been pushing for the agreement since 2013, negotiating with 15 armed groups of varying sizes that clamour for autonomy and greater control over resources — some of whom control vast regions, running parallel economies including along the border with China and Thailand. A ceasefire was important to end the staunch regional conflicts that have displaced 650,000 persons over time, with about 240,000 civilians displaced during Mr Sein’s rule alone.
The ceasefire is expected to allow armed groups to enter mainstream politics, create an enabling environment for the national elections on November 8, and lead to talks that will discuss federal arrangements in Myanmar. Prospects for national unity, however, remain grim. For one, this is a limited agreement. Seven groups that participated in the talks stayed away. Groups from the Karen region have signed on but the United Wa State Army, the largest armed group, and the Kachin Independence Army have not. The former already has a separate ceasefire agreement with Naypyidaw and its refusal to sign another one is seen locally as a decision taken at the behest of China, whose influence in Myanmar’s political circles is reportedly declining. Fighting also rages on in the Kachin and the Shan states in the north while the future of the ceasefire itself is not a given as it has been introduced prior to agreeing to political deals. The ceasefire is a step in the right direction, but there is plenty for the new dispensation to handle when it does emerge in the months ahead.
India will welcome the outcome, expressed by the presence of NSA Ajit Doval at the signing of the ceasefire deal. That groups aligned with Beijing have not signed the deal, including the NSCN (Khaplang) faction — which was a participant in the ceasefire talks — will not be lost on New Delhi. India must devote enough attention and resources to take advantage of the opportunities that Myanmar’s hedging strategies present.