The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in Myanmar The Time for Reflection and New Solutions

A TNI Myanmar Commentary

15 October 2023 marks the eighth anniversary of the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which the State Administration Council and few remaining ethnic armed organisations in the accord are honouring in Nay Pyi Taw. Although the NCA process did involve a lot of theatre, the SAC’s true commemoration of the NCA occurred in the middle of the night earlier this week, when the military bombed the Kachin internally displaced persons’ camp of Munglai Hkyet, near the border with China. The attack killed at least 29 persons, including young children, with 56 more injured. Throughout the NCA negotiation and attempted implementation periods, fighting and human rights violations raged on, especially in the country’s north. The Myanmar military and government blocked humanitarian assistance then, as the SAC continues now. The international community responded at times with statements of concern and other assistance, but lacked coherent approaches to curtail the killing or ensure compliance with agreements.

On this anniversary, the NCA’s vestigial institutions remain without public legitimacy, manipulated as part of the SAC’s strategy to divide, confuse, and manipulate national and international actors. The NCA’s basic principles remain valued by various actors, but would be more likely to be practised through new and different approaches and processes. Drawn from an analysis of the NCA published by TNI earlier this year, this summary highlights how the accord was never inclusive, effectively developed or truly implemented and is not fit for purpose in a political and conflict landscape greatly changed since the 2021 coup.*

Aung San Suu Kyi


Ex-KNU chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing at NCA meeting, Nay Pyi Taw, October 2018.

A Backdrop of Failure

Many problems can be identified in the failure to build a nationwide process for peace. These were evident even before the 2021coup and renewed spread of civil war. Following the NCA’s 2015 signing, a catalogue of errors quickly built up. The treaty was initiated under the quasi-civilian administration of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). But the difficulties continued after the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to government office in 2016. Problems and weaknesses in the NCA were not acknowledged; the peace process was not inclusive; the hand of the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw or Sit-Tat) was never far away; and initiatives to address the reform impasse too often ended in stagnation, political regression and increased conflict. Ultimately, over many years of meetings, the NCA did not bring the key stakeholders and conflict actors to the same table.

Underpinning these failures, the complex nature of the NCA process led to procedural breakdowns and a build-up of disagreements over technical issues. Restructuring the peace process and addressing technical problems was undoubtedly necessary. But the challenges at the root of conflict and failure in negotiations have always been political. Technical fixes alone were never likely to bridge the political divides that exist on such scale. The outcome was the prioritisation of process over delivery, meaning that many commitments were never fulfilled.

In part, these failures stemmed from very different perspectives among NCA signatories over the role of the agreement as a process towards ending armed conflict, protecting the human rights of war-affected communities and negotiating reform. For their part, ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) – both those party to the NCA and those outside the agreement – focused on the need for trust-building and substantive agreements first. In contrast, government and Tatmadaw leaders insisted on resuming formal meetings or signing agreements before addressing concerns about trust, substance and the implementation of ceasefires. Meanwhile, despite the promise of Panglong-21, NLD leaders focused on electoral politics rather than the peace process as the instrument for reform once in office. In consequence, fundamental differences in interests and needs were never addressed, and the parliamentary and peace processes were never brought on to the same track.

These proved errors of historic proportions. The NCA never acted as a catalyst for building ethnic peace and national unity. Instead, dysfunction and instability grew at the heart of the peace negotiation process. National politics remained dominated by the ethnic Bamar (Burman) majority; the NLD and Defence Services were uneasy partners in government under the 2008 constitution; the Tatmadaw maintained a controlling role in many aspects of political, economic and security affairs (including selecting dialogue partners); ethnic armed movements were represented by a diverse array of ceasefire and non-ceasefire organisations; ethnic political parties and civil society organisations were never effectively included in the NCA or wider peace process; and the Tatmadaw continued to back a multitude of local militia groups and Border Guard Forces that play a key role in their efforts to manage conflict in the ethnic borderlands.

Warning signings were persistently ignored. After the NCA was signed, frustration with the peace process tangibly grew in many ethnic states and regions. Continued fighting, land expropriation, the internal displacement of civilians, natural resource exploitation and the acceleration of business deals with outside investors all sustained an impression that the peace process was being used as a delaying device to constrain ethnic demands while the social, legal, political and economic landscape was reshaped to the government’s agenda and advantage. Too often, renewed conflicts in different parts of the country (including anti-Rohingya violence) were regarded by NCA donors and supporters as exceptions rather than evidence of urgent and systemic failings that need to be addressed. Rather than aiming towards peace, many political actors came to view the process as a continuation of war by other means. In consequence, the NCA never gained the momentum of countrywide support.

Among many failings, the most outstanding was the continuing launch of military operations by the Defence Services. Even while the NCA and peace talks continued, further militarization and the build-up of Tatmadaw forces took place in both ceasefire and non-ceasefire territories of the country. While new ceasefires were agreed in areas that had seen decades of fighting, old ceasefires broke down in places where armed conflict had been mostly absent for 15 years. For communities living in these areas, the words ‘peace process’ sounded very hollow. Military security – not human security – appeared to be the main priority of the central authorities, raising serious questions about the intentions of both the government and Tatmadaw leaders.

For all these reasons, contemporary judgments will be harsh. Despite many fine words, there were no fundamental changes in the conflict landscape before or after the NCA signing. Rather than charting a political roadmap for inclusive peace, the NCA process all too frequently appeared to be a vehicle for asserting and increasing Tatmadaw control. All the major challenges in conflict resolution remained, most of which exacerbated over time, and no political endgame ever came in view. Once the NCA had been signed, there was little momentum towards improving the functioning of ceasefires, deepening the reform basis of dialogue or making the process work.

As these failures continued, key elements in the NCA architecture either fell by the way side or were never fully implemented. Major omissions and weaknesses included the inadequacies or lack of national-level dialogue meetings, interim arrangements, security sector reform and new processes for political negotiation and agreement. Warnings were constantly flagged up. But ameliorative steps were never sufficiently taken.

Instead, from the beginning of 2020 both the NCA and national landscape were dominated by two new imperatives: Covid-19 and the November general election. Hopes that they might produce reflective shifts in the transitional landscape swiftly evaporated. The opportunity to use political and health responses as a means to promote cooperation and understanding between EAOs and government departments was missed by the NLD-led administration. Continued fighting, NCA neglect and the conduct of polling amidst a global pandemic only exacerbated ethno-political concerns. In reality, long before the 2021 coup it was clear that the NCA was malfunctioning as a process for national reform.

The Lack of International Focus and Cohesion

As these events unfolded, the actions of the international community also reflected different, and often divergent, aspects of Myanmar’s conflict impasse. A decade of international support for the peace process and political transition ultimately came to count for very little. Many decisions came out of self-interest rather than informed understanding of the diverse and complex challenges on the ground. A coherent peace programme never emerged, and there were many inconsistencies in the international response.

There was no shortage of international actions. Egregious human rights violations became the subject of investigation by the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. At the same time, political and business actors in China, India, Japan and various Western states were in rivalry for influence over the country’s political and economic direction. All affirmed support for the NCA and peace process as an essential step in political transition. But there was no consensus on policies or priorities to pursue. There was a failure to recognise Tatmadaw stratagems and the inherent weaknesses of the Myanmar state, opportunities were lost, and the manifest problems within the NCA were never addressed.

Adding to the difficulties, while Western actors mainly focused their peace efforts on engagement with the Myanmar government and ethnic armed organisations based in the southeastern borderlands with Thailand, the prism of Chinese officials and businesses  – always a key influence in the country – was mainly through the Myanmar government, Tatmadaw and EAOs based along its Yunnan border. Neither Western nor Chinese actors seemed willing and able to engage with all relevant groups. Rather, both apparently failed to understand that leaving out key groups in the peace process would be a major obstacle to achieving lasting solutions. Ultimately, these exclusions were never addressed.

Pro-federal protests against the 2021 coup, Yangon

private source

Pro-federal protests against the 2021 coup, Yangon

The SAC Coup: a New Cycle of Conflict and Division

For the moment, the 1 February 2021 coup by the military State Administration Council (SAC) has consigned the NCA as a potential and inclusive model for political negotiation and peace-building to history. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the NLD which won the 2020 general election are in prison, and peaceful protests have been brutally suppressed. To all intents and purposes, the tentative moves during the past decade towards a new system of federalism and democracy, brought about by negotiation and peace-building, have been brought to an end.

By seizing power, Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing may have thought it easy to return the political clock back to the Tatmadaw-controlled past. Instead, the country is faced with a scale of repression, violence and humanitarian emergency that echoes the worst times of civil war since independence in 1948. Protest and resistance against the regime has spread among the Bamar-majority population; ceasefires – including by three NCA signatories – have broken down in different parts of Chin, Karen, Kayah, Mon and Rakhine States; existing conflicts have escalated in Kachin and northern Shan States; and new armed struggles have developed in Magway, Sagaing, Tanintharyi and other regions as well as urban areas.

The consequences have been profound. The NCA and broader peace process have been subsumed into a very different ethno-political landscape from the context in which they developed. The structures and divisions in conflict have significantly changed. Amidst a diversity of new movements and alignments, there are two rival governments claiming legitimacy in the country: the SAC and National Unity Government (NUG). In this new battleground, a host of resistance groups – generally known as People’s Defence Forces – have proliferated across the country, and their roles in any future process of political negotiation and peace-building are very uncertain.

Reflecting the scale of violence, the nature of warfare has also changed. Anti-regime forces seek to launch urban attacks, while the SAC has increasingly relied on aerial attacks targeting civilian populations and created new Pyu Saw Hti and other local militia forces as it loses control on the ground. Many communities and civilians are caught in the crossfire, with it dangerous to publicly express political opinions or allegiances.

SAC leaders, in the meantime, have been using the empty language of a new general election and the NCA as a theatre to try and divide opponents and deceive credulous outsiders. Since the coup, there has been no peace process or political roadmap of real prospect underway. If the NCA did not achieve breakthroughs under an NLD-led administration, it is improbable that this could happen under a regime headed by the Tatmadaw which, even before the coup, was the most disruptive actor in the implementation of the accord, consistently escalating violence and negating its own agreements.

In the propaganda struggle, there have been intermittent meetings by the SAC with some of the remaining EAO NCA-signatories that have agreed to talks since the coup. But they are mostly among the smallest and weakest in the country. Such parties, several of which are breakaway or remnant factions, can never be regarded as representative of political opinion in the country at large while civil war continues and most of the leading voices for political change are excluded. The same lack of credibility awaits any future general election held by the military while major pro-democracy parties are repressed and during ongoing suppression of freedom of expression.

Looking forward, discussions continue in political circles – framed around the vision of federal democracy – about how a successful peace roadmap might be achieved. Although a single unifying platform may be difficult to achieve, the significance of the challenging work on coordination, relationship-building and practical governance across ethnic and pro-democracy forces should not be underestimated. It is urgent that these efforts be strengthened if military rule and state failure are to come to an end.

As experience warns, national peace processes in Myanmar over the past three decades have only led to assimilation into systems designed by the Tatmadaw. They are not platforms for negotiation, demilitarisation and reform. Indeed the further proliferation in local militia and paramilitaries under Tatmadaw authority since the coup pushes even further into the future the prospect of a peace process that answers the root causes of conflict by political dialogue and democratic reform. After sixty years in power, the Tatmadaw strategy of ‘managing’ rather than ‘resolving’ conflict still continues.

The post-coup landscape also compounds the challenges of engagement for the international community. Currently, the SAC is one of the most criticised armed actors in the world. This is evidenced by repeated condemnation by the Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Independent Investigate Mechanism for Myanmar and other international bodies. Since the coup, impoverishment, the loss of life and civilian displacement due to conflict have only increased. Currently, there are counts of over three million refugees and IDPs, more than 19,000 political prisoners still in jail, 4,150 civilians killed by the security forces, and estimates of over 20,000 people, including combatants, killed in the conflict zones. Clearly, eight years after its signing, the NCA is effectively null and void.

Recommendations and Lessons for the Future

Given the scale of crisis, it is vital that a united response is developed which supports national healing rather than exacerbates division. It is for Myanmar’s peoples to determine their political future. But, in support of this, human rights protections are essential, and the perpetrators of violations on all sides must be held accountable if lasting peace and justice are to be achieved. In any conflict resolution path, accountability must be at the heart of peace-building. This has been demonstrably missing until now. To date, however, there is little indication of lessons learned. Despite the depth of humanitarian emergency, there has been no indication of a cohesive strategy to address the challenges of national breakdown, whether by the United Nations, ASEAN or other governments and international institutions.

The same imperatives are also essential in any international efforts to build a future peace process. While peace is required, a new process may well be considered inappropriate in the circumstances of coup d'état and repression. New realities should be explored, including those that reflect the role of youth and social dynamics driving elite-level political change, the momentum supporting federal democratic reform, and agreements among stakeholder parties that go beyond the agenda of the 21st Century Panglong Conference. After decades of conflict and military rule, it needs to be recognised that fundamental mistakes were made in support for the NCA in the hopes for rapid change after the accord was signed.

Manifestly, a different and broad-based approach has long been overdue. Since the coup, however, different international representatives have already sought to initiate talks between select groupings, including between the SAC and preferred EAOs, as if this will be enough to build a peace process that is just and equitable for the country. It is critical that such errors are not repeated once again. Simply continuing the same ceasefire practices, tinkering with accord guidelines and mechanisms, or changing faces around the NCA or other peace talk tables will never be sufficient. Most importantly, talks that exclude current major stakeholders or that primarily serve to reduce national and international pressure on the SAC to accede to the public’s demands for meaningful political change will never be enough, and indeed may instead further postpone the time when nationwide peace could become achievable.

In this respect, Myanmar is not unique. After the ending of the Cold War, aid became a Western response to conflict. But this, in itself, does not provide the platform for peace and reform. Rather, it may entrench division and an unrepresentative elite in power. Too often the word ‘transition’ has been invoked as a panacea during the last three decades without understanding the political context and causes of state failure. At best, peace processes in Myanmar have frozen conflicts without opening the way to political solutions. Sustainable peace requires political agreement and compromise. In contrast, approaches that only serve to strengthen the state and existing security apparatus will cause resistance among the wider population, feed community grievances and delay the opportunity for meaningful change.

In Myanmar, a legacy of failure has built up during the past decade that overshadows the NCA and peace process in five key areas: military dominance, non-inclusion, lack of implementation, lack of accomplishment, and lack of political will. After decades of conflict, all sides must take responsibility for their actions. But standing at the centre of these obstacles has always been the Tatmadaw. All too often, international actors have fallen for the illusion of a ‘normative’ state, which can be reformed, without recognising that the Tatmadaw has continued to dominate central government for more than half a century, claiming ‘prerogative’ powers for itself and intruding into every aspect of national life.**

In the aftermath of the 2021 coup, the evidence is clear. Under the 2008 constitution, the Defence Services already enjoyed sweeping powers. But Tatmadaw leaders operate well beyond these parameters, including arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, land seizures, resource exploitation, paramilitary deployments, and political manipulation in favour of its own party, the USDP. As long as these practices continue, the NCA or any similar peace process can never be an instrument for national reconciliation and democratic reform. Transparency, inclusion, understanding, compromise and dialogue have always been essential steps in any meaningful process towards political transformation and lasting peace.

On a cautionary note, precedent warns that the Tatmadaw leadership may continue to employ an ad hoc mixture of stratagems of political repression and ethnic ceasefires – bilateral, unilateral and NCA – as means to try and maintain central authority. In essence, the NCA, which had been used as a process to extend state control, is now being used to attempt to cling on to power – not as a gateway to political reform. As history has repeatedly shown, military-imposed systems will never achieve inclusive, just or sustainable solutions in the country. If the government does not represent the people, why should the people support it? Headed by a hermetic clique of ruling generals, the Tatmadaw leadership represents a Bamar-centric elite and a narrow nationalist view of the world. The question, then, remains for how much longer they can continue to find, persuade or coerce sufficient support to maintain such dominant position without long-needed reform.

Myanmar today is a land in grave suffering and civil war. A decade after a new peace process began, the NCA did not lead to conflict resolution; it did not build the foundations for peace; and it did not lead to agreement for genuine political reforms to address the root causes of conflict and national instability. At the same time, the political landscape is far from static, and the polarisations in politics and society run deep. While military rule continues in Nay Pyi Taw, a diversity of ethnic armed movements remains in control of extensive territories, presenting very different visions for the future of the country. Adding to the complexity, there are a further cast of conflict actors in the wake of the new divisions created by the coup, claiming the right to be in the seat of government. These are presently symbolised by the SAC, NLD and NUG, while EAOs – in a number of alliances and positions – also demand that their voices are included if solutions are to be achieved. In any new peace process, these contested dynamics must be taken on board.

A critical moment in post-colonial history has been reached. Hopes for better change still remain, and the struggle to shape Myanmar’s destiny is far from over. Shaken by the 2021 coup, there is a willingness among diverse parties to look at the challenges of conflict resolution anew, and there is a resolve that young people today will be the first generation to enjoy nationwide peace. The needs for reform are greater than simply regime change, requiring a federal democratic system of governance which, as the 1947 Panglong Agreement set out, is based upon the equality and union of all peoples.

A political process towards peace, taking account of experiences in the past, can be a key element in such change. But to achieve this, the politics of exclusion must end and a fundamental change in political mind-set are essential. Political transformation, including sustainable and inclusive peace, are urgently required today.

* Martin Smith and Jason Gelbort, The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in Myanmar: Promoting Ethnic Peace or Strengthening State Control? (Transnational Institute, Amsterdam, April 2023).

** In Ernst Fraenkel’s theory of the ‘dual state’ (developed in the 1930s), the ‘normative’ state co-exists with the ‘prerogative’ state whereby authoritarian parties or actors employ unlimited, arbitrary powers and violence unchecked by legal protections: see, Ernst Fraenkel, The Dual State: A Contribution to the Theory of Dictatorship (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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