RANGOON — Burma Army representatives and top leaders of ethnic armed groups are not attending the two-day nationwide ceasefire talks in Rangoon this week, a situation that indicates just how much the negotiations have suffered following the army’s surprise attack on a rebel training school last month.
The government’s chief negotiator, Minister Aung Min, led a delegation that included Border Affairs Minister Lt-Gen. Htet Naing Win and Immigration Minister Khin Ye, but Burma Army representatives were conspicuously absent as the sides convened at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in Rangoon on Monday morning.
The National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), an alliance representing 16 ethnic groups, sent NCCT representatives Khun Okkar and Kwe Htoo Win to the meeting, but NCCT Chairman Nai Hong Sar and Gen. Gun Maw, the influential deputy commander-in-chief of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), did not attend. Neither did leaders from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
It was the first high-level meeting since September when NCCT leaders, Aung Min and the military met in Rangoon. At the time, hopes for a quick breakthrough to reaching a nationwide ceasefire began to fade as the sides were unable to bridge differences over key issues, such as political autonomy and federalism for ethnic states.
Trust between the sides was shattered when on Nov. 19 the Burma Army fired a number of artillery rounds into the grounds of a KIA training camp where dozens of young cadets were exercising. The surprise attack injured more than a dozen cadets and killed 23, most of them from rebel groups allied to the KIA, such as the TNLA and the Arakan Army.
In recent months, deadly armed clashes between the Burma Army and the KIA, TNLA and Kokang ethnic militia have become more frequent in northern Shan State. The three rebel groups all lack bilateral ceasefires with the government.
The NCCT representatives had stressed prior to this week’s meeting that the issue of the attack should be properly explained by the government and army before discussions could move on to nationwide ceasefire talks.
On Monday, they repeated their demands. “We wanted to ask for the formation of a commission [to investigate the shelling] and hold a meeting to negotiate this agreement, which could involve every leader who was involved in the [shelling] case in Laiza,” said Kwe Htoo Win, who is also the Karen National Union general secretary.
“By negotiating this issue, it will help the peace talks … It would open the door for future discussions for having a nationwide ceasefire accord,” he said. “Our NCCT will not skip discussions on this issue and we will confront it to find a solution.”
Aung Min said in his opening remarks at the meeting that the shelling incident in Laiza shows that much work remains to be done to strengthen existing bilateral ceasefires between ethnic groups and the government, and that a nationwide ceasefire is needed to achieve peace and stability.
“We cannot solve conflicts if we could not reach a nationwide peace agreement,” said Aung Min, adding that there is a need to resume nationwide ceasefire negotiations so that they can be completed ahead of the general elections in late 2015.
Hla Maung Shwe, a senior government advisor at the MPC, told The Irrawaddy that the Burma Army was absent because of the NCCT’s demands that the shelling incident is addressed before the nationwide ceasefire issue.
“The army wanted to join the meeting, but from the ethnics’ side they said they just wanted to have a framework meeting first. This is why U Aung Min informed [the military] not to come,” he said.
Nyo Ohn Myint, another MPC advisor, said the army did not join because the NCCT did not send its top leaders. “From their side, they did not let their top leaders come. So, we could not arrange to have our top leaders from the army join. This is protocol.”
KIA commander Gun Maw told The Irrawaddy last week that resolving the Nov. 19 incident was a critical step towards re-building trust and resuming ceasefire talks. “We are trying to have negotiations to solve this issue,” he said.
Additional reporting from Chiang Mai by Nyein Nyein.