NAYPYIDAW — Fundamental rifts emerged as more than 700 representatives of ethnic armed groups, political parties, civil society, the government and the Burma Army convened for a fourth day of political dialogue in the capital Naypyidaw on Friday.
Thursday’s talks, which focused largely on issues of federalism, wound down with a feeling of skepticism among many ethnic representatives, as the Burma Army stood by its demand that the 2008 Constitution be kept as the cornerstone of political decisions related to defense and security.
The military-drafted charter has been a recurrent obstacle throughout the peace process, as it does not provide the level of state autonomy demanded by ethnic minorities as requisite to lasting peace. Participants argued that tethering discussion to the document implies that ethnic armed groups will be required to disarm, and that states will not be guaranteed equal rights.
“They [the Burma Army] have not explicitly said that all ethnic groups have to disarm, but they keep saying that the discussion will be based on the 2008 Constitution,” said Nai Tala Nyi, a former executive member of the New Mon State Party (NMSP), who attended the Union Peace Conference this week as a representative of the intelligentsia. The charter stipulated that there be only one military in the Union, and army representatives have repeatedly suggested that non-state armed groups simply lower their guns and join the Burma Armed Forces.
Ethnic representatives said the central government is afraid that states may attempt to secede if given too much autonomy, though ethnic leaders have insisted that they are committed to staying in the Union if a political solution can be found.
“They are very worried that ethnic groups will secede,” Tha Main Tun, a central committee member of the Karen National Union (KNU), told The Irrawaddy on the sidelines of the conference. He said his colleague, Kweh Htoo Win, spoke forcefully about the issue on Thursday, but that military representatives responded with apprehension.
Nai Layie Tama, general secretary of the Mon National Party, said the ethnic groups and the government have “a very different idea” about what would qualify as an acceptable form of federalism.
“We want power to be based on the population [of respective ethnic states], but they want power to belong to the central government,” Nai Layie Tama said. “We are talking about equal rights, but they are talking about centralized power. We have very different points of view.”
The Union Peace Conference, which began on Tuesday, will continue until Jan. 16. The unprecedented meeting marks the first steps in the political dialogue, a new phase for the peace process, after a ceasefire was reached between the government and eight non-state armed groups on Oct. 15 of last year.
The accord was touted proudly by the administration of President Thein Sein as a “nationwide ceasefire agreement,” though it has been widely criticized for excluding a number of armed groups. Many others, including some of the country’s most power and influential non-state actors, refused to sign the pact out of solidarity with those left out and on account of ongoing conflict in several parts of the country.
A new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi will be formed in March, after her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept a Nov. 8 general election by winning a majority in both houses of Parliament.
Suu Kyi has said that pursuing a lasting peace in the country, which is fractured by decades of civil war, will be the top priority of her administration. This week’s discussions are to be archived on the record and presented to the incoming government in advance of a second round of dialogue.