December 2, 2015 7:15 pm JST
By Min Zaw Oo / Nikkei Asian Review

Myanmar witnessed two major events in the last quarter of 2015. First was the Nov. 8 parliamentary election when the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won a crushing victory. Before that was the Oct. 15 signing of a ceasefire pact (known as the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement) between the government and eight ethnic armed groups.

The government and the Nationwide Ceasefire Negotiation Team, which represented 16 armed groups, started talking in late 2013. By late 2015, all these groups agreed on the content of the NCA, a 17-page document that included various military and political agreements. They could not agree, however, on whether groups outside the official process could also sign the NCA, and consequently only eight groups signed the pact. There are high hopes that the remaining groups will soon join, if they can agree on entry criteria.

Irrespective of the number of signatories, the NCA is a significant achievement, as it is Myanmar's only experience with multilateral negotiations since the country's independence from Britain in 1948.

From the start of this process, I served as technical adviser to Aung Min, the government's chief negotiator and minister in the Office of the President. Besides writing most of the negotiation memos for the chief negotiator and President Thein Sein, I filled numerous notebooks with details of the peace talks over two years. Reviewing this record, I have identified 10 key lessons that are critical to the advancement of peace in Myanmar. I believe these insights will be useful when the new government takes over the peace process.

 (1) Dialogue takes place on two levels.

Dialogue is not only about talking to the opposition but also about improving communications within one's own side. While the once-powerful military intelligence arm of Myanmar's armed forces unilaterally led ceasefire negotiations with armed groups earlier on, the political transition that began in 2011 included the executive branch, the military and the parliament in the peace process. However, all three stakeholders inherited a top-down, rigid command culture, institutionalized under the previous military regime, and lacked a coordinated strategy. The top decision makers and negotiators did not conduct sufficient dialogue among themselves in the early stages.

In September 2014, when negotiations stalled, we promoted discussions among the representatives of the government, parliament and military to encourage cooperation and reach mutually beneficial solutions. All the participants indicated a strong desire to reach a settlement under the NCA. They adopted a new culture of horizontal dialogue, not overshadowed by a top-down command.

Simultaneously, the 16 ethnic armed groups were conducting discussions in preparation for peace negotiations. They often struggled as they conducted negotiations among themselves to reach a common response to the government's proposals. "It was actually easier to negotiate with the government than between ourselves," one ethnic leader said.

(2) More talk is better than no talk.

A significant milestone of the NCA is the numerous rounds of talks that occurred between the government and ethnic armed groups. There were an estimated 3,500 discussions among the wide array of stakeholders over the last three years, excluding internal talks among the ethnic groups. The Myanmar Peace Center, which acted as a secretariat for the government's negotiation efforts, was staffed with well-connected and experienced people, including Hla Maung Shwe, a special adviser and former political prisoner. He and others were able to attract a wide range of representatives from the opposition, government and civil society to the process.

Many at the MPC have a strong background in Myanmar's conflict as former rebels and exiles, and were able to provide the political knowledge and finesse needed to facilitate negotiations. They were experienced in working with leaders of ethnic armed groups, and became friends over years of negotiation. Fortunately, the government did not impose restrictions on how and with whom they could communicate. Technically it was against the law to associate with officially banned armed groups. Inevitably, frequent informal and formal discussions led to mutual understanding and trust.

(3) Moderates from both sides are allies.

Moderates are crucial to advancing peace. They often act as force multipliers, dramatically increasing the effectiveness of dialogue. When moderates from opposite sides collaborate, they improve the chances of a mutually beneficial outcome.

In the midst of negotiations, moderates have a keen ability to understand their opponents and identify their intent. In the case of Myanmar, negotiation teams were composed of a number of moderates, many of whom knew each other well. This combination of negotiators with a shared history of friendship led to a successful outcome.

(4) Dispel the "fog of peace."

For adversaries, the other side's desire to make peace is more difficult to understand than the desire to make war. In war, an enemy's intention is to inflict harm; in making peace, the enemy's intentions are less clear. One way to better clarify intent in the peace process is to share important and often confidential information.

Sharing information in negotiation is a sensitive issue that can be easily misused, so one must adhere to strict protocols when handling classified information. As negotiation facilitators, we often walked a fine line in determining what information to share, and when. We generally shared information when it helped the parties to better understand each other's intent. As a result, dialogue partners became more open and willing to share information and to discuss issues that were previously off limits.

(5) Expect ambiguity in the early stages.

We were able to address many difficult NCA-related issues but others remained unresolved due to constitutional restrictions. Ethnic armed groups, for example, wanted a government guarantee regarding key issues such as federalism, self-determination, resource sharing, civilian protection, political dialogue, ceasefire monitoring, parliamentary endorsement, international witnesses and removal from the "illegal associations" list. The NCA, however, was negotiated within the parameters of the current constitution and some of the demands required constitutional amendments. The incumbent government and parliament were unwilling to amend the constitution, while the ethnic armed groups were unwilling to drop certain demands, resulting in a stalemate.

To overcome obstacles, the two sides often agreed to temporary solutions that allowed the negotiations to advance, on the understanding that adjustments could be made later. Our approach was based on recognition that building trust in the process and implementing certain agreements would promote progress, under the concept of progressive realization.

(6) Insider advisers can be impartial.

Facilitation is a common tool used in peace negotiation. On the first day of the NCA negotiations, I was named as one of two facilitators. But I quickly realized my expertise would be more useful by serving as a technical adviser to Aung Min. In Myanmar, decision-makers, especially those in the military, do not use or appreciate the role of facilitators.

This approach worked well since Aung Min was confident in his technical support team. He listened to our advice before making his decisions. When advising him, we tried to be impartial and to highlight our commitment to securing peace. Given our experience as former rebels, we understood the interests and mindset of the ethnic representatives. We were also acutely aware of the government's limitations, particularly in terms of Myanmar's 2008 constitution. This understanding helped us to design balanced negotiation points for Aung Min. We also encouraged the ethnic armed groups to do the same. We informed both sides when they were about to cross red lines.

(7) Negotiators need flexibility.

Flexibility is an essential ingredient in negotiations, but it is not easy to practice, particularly when former and current military representatives are leading discussions. I recall one former general's words: "Military men have to pay close attention to detail to follow instructions precisely, even including commas and full stops in writing." This rigid "command culture" was the bane of the negotiations and hindered military negotiators from reaching important agreements in the early stages of the process.

Aung Min, however, discouraged this rigid style of negotiation. He encouraged his colleagues to use what he called "negotiator's space," or flexibility, within the limits of instructions to reach a settlement. Once this method was employed, we observed how hard the generals tried to achieve agreement on very difficult issues. Even the negotiators from ethnic armed groups recognized their endeavors.

Good negotiators not only need access to decision-makers -- they also must have the courage to point out what is impossible to their bosses. Sometimes, negotiators may even support an opposing side's argument for the sake of an agreement.

(8) Recognition is more important than negotiating tactics.

In peace negotiations, people often do not stick to the agenda. Many in Myanmar's peace process, particularly ethnic leaders, expressed frustration and criticized the government for more than 60 years of oppression. Often, Aung Min paid careful attention to what ethnic leaders had to say and listened attentively. His tolerance was impressive and the effect it had on negotiations profound. For the first time, many ethnic leaders felt their concerns had been heard.

We recommended that the government should allow ethnic representatives to make proposals and not set any preconditions. Ethnic groups were given the opportunity to initiate ideas, and only then would the government respond. One disadvantage was that the negotiations were time-consuming because ethnic representatives wanted to receive assurances on various issues from the government. However, this process improved the government's recognition of the concerns of ethnic armed groups.

(9) Myanmar's peace process must be homegrown.

The political transition to democracy and the peace process in Myanmar has been home grown; it should remain that way. Myanmar has hosted many international experts in the past four years. One senior MPC adviser said he met more than 120 experts wanting to impart their knowledge.

The main struggle was not a dearth of ideas and technical skills but how to apply them to Myanmar's complicated political context. Even those proficient in Myanmar's politics recognized that their understanding of the government's decision making was limited. Interagency relationships, particularly under the transition government, were more complex than anticipated. Outdated preconceptions, particularly about the military, had to be abandoned. Throughout the negotiations, we had to respond to a shifting political environment.

(10) Legitimacy matters.

The government inherited many challenges from the previous regime, including political legitimacy. The 2008 constitution, which opposition groups frequently challenged, was one of the most difficult aspects of the entire process. Ethnic armed groups often questioned the intent and political will of the government even though its officials endorsed a federal union as part of the NCA, which was a significant concession because successive governments had rejected the idea since Myanmar's independence from Britain. At the same time, the public blamed the government for failures during the NCA negotiations. The government recognized the problem of political legitimacy and accommodated most demands from ethnic armed groups in response.

This negotiation calculus is likely to change when the NLD-led government takes over peace negotiations. The new government has strong political and moral legitimacy following its landslide victory in the Nov. 8 elections. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has indicated she will lead the future peace process, has immense political capital that will undoubtedly be useful in negotiations. If she is able to develop a close relationship with the military, the new government will possess both soft and hard power never seen before in our country.

Min Zaw Oo is Director of Ceasefire Negotiation and Implementation at the Myanmar Peace Center.