Ethnic leaders have concluded a conference on trust-building with a five-point agreement aimed at helping to end more than six decades of civil war and ethnic strife in Burma.
More than 300 participants took part in the three-day conference in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, which ended on Monday with an emphasis on the need to build mutual trust among the country’s ethnic groups, the military and Burma’s nominally civilian government.
The parties involved in the conference, including many ethnic minority groups, outlined five objectives that they said would further the peace process: to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement; abolish undemocratic or otherwise problematic laws including the Unlawful Association Law; establish a federal union that guarantees equality and a measure of autonomy for the country’s ethnic groups; hold a Panglong-like conference; and amend or redraft the 2008 Constitution.
The Panglong Conference was convened in 1947 by Gen Aung San, and resulted in an agreement among some of Burma’s ethnic minority groups and the majority ethnic Burman interim government that would have granted significant autonomy to the country’s ethnic minorities. Aung San was assassinated shortly after the Panglong Agreement was signed, ethnic rebellion in Karen State and elsewhere erupted, and the accord’s provisions have not been honored to this day.
Sai Nyunt Lwin, the secretary of the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD), told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the five-point accord reflected the collective views of conference participants. The SNLD initiated the Taunggyi meeting, working together with ethnic Mon and Karenni (Kayah) groups.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, Aye Thar Aung, the chairman of the Arakan League for Democracy, said trust-building was key to a lasting peace and national reconciliation in the country.
“The cause of the [military] re-engagement in the ceasefire regions is due to the lack of trust between the government, its army and the ethnic armed groups,” he said, referring to sporadic fighting that has occurred between government troops and ethnic militias in several parts of Burma over the last few months.
“When we talk about peace, it comes together with ethnic equality and autonomy and the issue of federal union. The Panglong Agreement cannot be left out.”
Echoing a call made by many groups inside Burma and abroad, the ethnic leaders said the military-backed 2008 Constitution must be amended, as it leaves no possibility for a federal political system. Burma recently formed a parliamentary committee to review the Constitution and it will issue a report on its findings by the end of the year.
“It would be faster to redraft the Constitution than to amend the current one,” Aye Thar Aung said.
The ethnic conference in Shan State comes ahead of government plans to hold a ceremony next month at which a nationwide ceasefire agreement would be signed.
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and the smaller National Democratic Force, attended the conference along with 19 other ethnic political parties and three government ministers. In addition, 17 ethnic armed groups, leaders from the 88 Generation Students group, Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) representatives and other civil society representatives joined the discussion.
President’s Office Minister Aung Min, the head of the government-affiliated MPC, attended the first day of the conference and called for all parties to work together for ethnic equality under a federal system.
“Talking about federalism is no longer a dangerous thing, as it was in the past, but we will have to see the approach taken to a federal policy and the implementation,” said Sai Nyunt Lwin.
Burma’s ethnic groups have long raised the issue of creating a federal state with a devolved power structure, but only since the government of President Thein Sein took office in 2011 has the issue been openly discussed by senior cabinet officials, lawmakers and the president himself.
Aung Min said in Saturday’s opening address that a nationwide ceasefire, followed by the convening of a national dialogue, would take place soon. He said government negotiations with the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) were proceeding, with the government having already signed ceasefire agreements with 14 of the nation’s armed rebel groups.
The minister’s optimistic timetable runs counter to an appraisal offered earlier this month by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 11 of Burma’s armed ethnic groups. Following a meeting with Aung Min and the government peace team in Thailand, a UNFC spokesman told The Irrawaddy that he doubted an October ceasefire signing would be possible, saying the ethnic alliance had remaining disagreements with some of the government’s conditions for a deal.
The KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), constitute the largest rebel group in the country’s north and were not invited to the Taunggyi conference. Ethnic Kachin peace brokers who claim to be independent of the KIO and the government were invited.
Sai Nyunt Lwin, the SNLD spokesperson, said conference organizers did not invite KIO/KIA representatives because the group has yet to sign a ceasefire agreement with the government. He cited the fact that the absence of a ceasefire allowed for the potential arrest of KIO/KIA members, who are deemed participants of an “unlawful group” under Article 17/1 of the Unlawful Association Law.
Aye Thar Aung, however, expressed concern over the exclusion.
“It is important to include all ethnicities of Burma, including the KIO/KIA, in the nationwide [reconciliation] process,” he said.