Ethnic armed groups and the Burmese government’s peace delegation met on Sunday to discuss who would qualify to sign a long-sought nationwide ceasefire agreement, with Naypyidaw seeking to limit the number of signatories while ethnic groups have expressed wariness at such exclusion.
Leaders of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) held talks with representatives of the Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, in northern Burma after concluding an ethnic summit in the Kachin rebel-held border town of Laiza last week.
The NCCT comprises representatives of 16 ethnic armed groups in Burma, while the UPWC is led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min.
Saw Kwe Htoo Win, a member of the NCCT who also serves as general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), said the two sides were trying to set criteria that ethnic armed groups must meet in order to sign a nationwide ceasefire accord.
“For example, those who meet the standard are organizations that previously reached individual ceasefires with the government and ethnic armed groups who have engaged in armed hostilities with the government for their political beliefs,” Kwe Htoo Win said.
He said organizations based abroad that are active in Burma-related campaigns and advocacy work, and overseas groups critical of the government or “anti-government,” would be excluded from the list of qualified organizations.
Currently, the government recognizes 16 ethnic armed groups and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) as meeting the criteria for signing a nationwide ceasefire accord, while the NCCT recognizes more than 20 ethnic armed groups as potential signatories.
The government has said two large ethnic rebel groups outside the NCCT, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), would be eligible to sign, but some members of the NCCT would not.
“We will carefully check existing armed groups and negotiate with the government over the criteria and standards that they [the government] lay out. During the Panglong Conference [in 1947], some groups were excluded from signing the [Panglong] Agreement and that ultimately led to civil war. We will try to include all respective ethnic groups [as signatories],” said Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong, an NCCT member and leader of the Chin National Front rebel group.
Only Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic minorities signed the Panglong Agreement with Burma’s central government led by the late Gen. Aung San on Feb. 12, 1947, while ethnic Karen insurgency leaders were present as observers.
Currently, armed groups recognized by the government as eligible signatories are the KNU, ABSDF, UWSA, National Democratic Alliance Army, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Restoration Council of Shan State, Chin National Front, Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Shan State Progressive Party, New Mon State Party, Karen Peace Council, Karenni National Progressive Party, Arakan Liberation Party and Arakan Army, as well as ethnic Pa-O, Ta’aung, and Naga rebel groups.
Smaller, politically oriented ethnic groups such as the Wa National Organization (WNO), Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) and Arakan National Council (ANC), as well as ethnic Kokang and Zomi organizations, are not recognized by the government as eligible ceasefire signatories.
“We can’t exclude any of them [unrecognized ethnic groups]. We don’t want civil war again. Even if they [the government] can’t accept the rest of the groups to sign the agreement individually, we proposed to the government that they accept these groups to sign the agreement under the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council],” said Khun Okkar, an NCCT member.
He said the NCCT delegation told the government team on Sunday that it could not accept some of the demands made by the chief of Burma’s armed forces, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Particularly unpalatable to rebel groups was a requirement that they disarm, demobilize and reintegrate (DDR) with the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, Khun Okkar said.
The six-point statement from the military, which includes demands on DDR and acceptance of the controversial 2008 Constitution, first came to light in April.
Asked about the DDR provision, Hla Maung Shwe of the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) said the issue would have to wait.
“We can’t say anything about how to proceed with it [DDR] right now. It is too early to talk about it now. Both the government and Tatmadaw are now focusing efforts on the peace process. We have to think about it carefully later.”
The informal meeting between ethnic armed groups and the government in Myitkyina was also attended by government army officials including Lt-Gen Thet Naing Win, Burma’s minister of border affairs, members of the MPC and local authorities from the Kachin State government.
Despite the efforts of ethnic leaders and the government to develop a common position, military-related matters and political terminology have emerged as sticking points to a nationwide ceasefire accord, which the two sides hope to sign in September.
The Tatmadaw has objected to ethnic groups’ demands for autonomy within a federal union, while ethnic groups have signaled that they cannot agree to the military’s six-point demands.
Ashley South, a Burma watcher who also acts as a senior advisor to the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), a Norwegian government-backed project to mobilize international support for Burma’s peace process, said there has been progress in negotiations over the past year, but added that the window was shrinking to achieve an agreement before elections expected by the end of next year.
“I think the biggest challenge is for the Myanmar government and Army to acknowledge ethnic groups’ demands, and demonstrate commitment to resolving these. One of the other challenges is to recognize the legitimacy of the main ethnic armed groups as representatives of ethnic nationality communities, while at the same time deepening participation in the peace process to include civil society and political parties,” South said.
He added that some of these issues would need to be discussed in multi-stakeholder political negotiations that would include not only the government, Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups, but also representatives of civil society and political parties.
“It will be a huge challenge to hold such discussions and reach preliminary agreement on at least some key issues, before the elections,” South said.
More than a dozen ethnic armed groups have signed bilateral ceasefires with the government since President Thein Sein took office in 2011, but the KIA and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army have yet to do so, and have frequently clashed with government troops in recent months.