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Burma’s Armed Ethnic Minorities Present Agenda for Successful Ceasefire

Analysis by Preethi Nallu

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella for Myanmar's armed ethnic factions, laid out its agenda for a successful ceasefire. Credit:  Preethi Nallu/IPS

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella for Myanmar's armed ethnic factions, laid out its agenda for a successful ceasefire. Credit: Preethi Nallu/IPS

THAI-BURMA BORDER, Mar 9 2012 (IPS) - “Our past experiences have demonstrated that a mere ceasefire agreement will not result in the durable peace that we have long sought. Political peace is the only way forward.”

This was the overriding sentiment expressed by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) at its latest press conference held Feb. 28 on the Thai-Burma (Myanmar) border.

The UNFC was formed last February as an umbrella group that would collectively represent all the ethnic resistance groups in comprehensive peace talks with Myanmar’s military.

This reunification was particularly significant in terms of the merger between the ceasefire and non- ceasefire parties.

The membership initially comprised six armed ethnic groups – the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the Karen National Union (KNU), the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Chin National Front (CNF), representing six distinct ethnic minority groups, each with a unique relationship with the state government and armed resistance since the formation of a Burmese state in 1948.

By November 2011, right ahead of Myanmar’s first elections in 20 years, the alliance expanded with the membership doubling to 12 groups, when the Palong State Liberation Front (PSLF), Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), Arakan National Council (ANC), Wa National Organisation (WNO), Pa’o National Liberation Organisation (PNLO) and Kachin National Organisation (KNO) joined the group.

The founding members explained that the formation of the umbrella started in early 2010, well before the November polls, in response to the then-military regime’s insistence that the ceasefire groups merge with the Border Guard Force (BGF) that would become part of the state military apparatus.

Given the recent bout of skirmishes in Karen State and Shan State throughout the month of February, despite the signing of initial ceasefire agreements between these ethnic armed groups and the government, the UNFC reiterated its ‘starting points’ for any meaningful dialogue to continue.

Nine representatives opened the press conference by stating that talks cannot progress without cessation of all military offensives against members of the UNFC by the Mynamar military.

The spokesperson for the New Mon State Party, Nai Hong Sar, explained key prerequisites for talks to proceed.

First, “We demand a nationwide ceasefire before any substantial dialogue takes place. We also demand a nationwide conference with leaders of all mainstream ethnic opposition groups to have substantive political dialogue with the goal of solving our crisis in (Myanmar),” Nai Hong Sar explained.

Meanwhile, President Thein Sein himself reiterated during his latest speech to the Union Parliament in Naypyidaw that “an all-inclusive peace process” was his immediate priority.

“It is necessary that we, the current government, help to end the misunderstanding and mistrust between ethnic groups and the government,” the President stated during his Mar. 1 speech.

Another critical demand of the UNFC members has been a call for comprehensive dialogue with all parties upon establishment of a viable truce to last throughout the peace talks. However, continued local skirmishes and fighting in Kachin State in Northern Myanmar, bordering China, have greatly impeded progress on talks.

The joint-secretary of UNFC, Hkun Okker, explained that all groups are collectively demanding an end to hostilities in Kachin State as an immediate precondition for talks.

“The government asked us to give them a list of areas from where we want their forces to withdraw so we gave it to them. We don’t know if they are going to follow up on that with action,” La Ja, secretary- general of the KIO, told IPS.

When asked about continued fighting in Kachin State, despite the President’s orders to troops stationed in the area, La Ja pointed to divisions between the civilian members of the government and the military wing, as well as splits between ‘reformists’ and ‘hardliners’ in the administration.

“It is someone higher up from the army side that is making these decisions. It seems like the government, the Hluttaw (legislature) and the army are different. This is the question we are asking, whether they (all parts of the government) really want to negotiate politically in order to solve this ethnic issue,” he explained.

Despite peace talks progressing between the union-level delegations and the Karen, Shan, Mon and Chin armed groups, continued fighting in Kachin State, where an estimated 50,000 civilians are displaced, points to inconsistencies in government objectives.

Though Thein Sein called for cessation of hostilities in the Kachin fighting areas in December 2011, and negotiations took place between the two sides on the Chinese side of the border in January and February of this year, the desired result of a tentative ceasefire has not yet been achieved.

Concerns over constitution’s ‘military bias’

Yet another hurdle to the negotiations has been the 2008 constitution, which the UNFC rejects as the political basis for peace talks.

“We cannot accept a dialogue based on the 2008 constitution. The government requires that the constitution can only be amended in the parliament (but) we reject (the notion) that all political dialogue must be in the parliament,” Okker explained at the conference.

The 2008 constitution’s mandate has been criticised by opposition parties and exiled Myanmar activists because of the inordinate power granted to the military. Twenty-five percent of the seats in both houses of parliament are reserved for members of the security forces with key ministerial positions held by military personnel.

The UNFC delegation acknowledged the positive changes taking place in the political arena inside the country and described their reaction as “cautiously optimistic.”

But they stressed that the leadership itself has not changed dramatically since elections, adding to their suspicion about government intentions in abiding by peace agreements.

“We see that President Thein Sein has taken initiative and so far he looks sincere on some of these changes. But we don’t know if the military wing is going to listen to him…we don’t know whether behind the scenes, perhaps Than Shwe (chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Armed Forces until 2011) is playing both Thein Sein and the Army,” Okker elaborated.

Despite the unprecedented level of peace talks begun this year, complete disarmament in the conflict- riddled areas does not appear to be an immediate option for either side.

The UNFC created the Federal Union Army (FUA) as means of collective defence whereby troops would be stationed even during a ceasefire period. On the other hand, state military outposts continue to remain in place. Approximately 200 outposts are estimated to continue operating in Eastern Karen State, despite the signing of an initial ceasefire agreement on Jan. 12 this year.

Decades of mutual distrust between the ethnic armed groups and the state military, who continue to operate within close proximity of each other and are often susceptible to localised skirmishes, has tampered with the process of negotiating peace.

Achieving a concrete ceasefire agreement is expected to take up to two years according to both government officials and ethnic minority representatives.

Despite these obstacles, representatives from the ethnic armed groups acknowledge that the negotiations initiated by the government are different from previous years and offer a more equitable platform.

“All previous agreements were top-down initiatives from the Government. They would set the terms and conditions for peace. So we had no room to make decisions. This time the tone is different as they invited us to make peace instead of just asking us to accept their terms and conditions,” explained Colonel San Aung representing the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), formerly allied with the Burmese Armed Forces.

All members of the UNFC reiterated that ‘self-determination and equality’ have been and continue to be their main objectives.

“We are not terrorists, we are not separatists, we are just fighting for our rights,” concluded Sai Soe Aung, representing the SSPP at the conference.

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