As Summit Closes, Ethnic Leaders Say Unchanged Charter Cripples Peace Deal

By Lawi Weng 7 May 2015

PANGHSANG, Wa Special Region — Burma’s ethnic rebel leaders on Wednesday called on the government to prove its commitment to peace through constitutional reform and a cessation of hostilities on the country’s northeast and western frontiers.

At the end of a six-day summit held in Wa Special Region, a remote, semi-autonomous zone in eastern Burma, representatives of 12 ethnic armed groups said the country’s decades-long civil war can only be solved through political dialogue following the adoption of a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA).

President Thein Sein announced on Monday that the government is “ready to sign” the NCA draft, which was endorsed by both ethnic and government negotiators on March 30, pending results of a forthcoming ethnic summit. Wa spokesman Aung Myint said at a closing ceremony that ethnic leaders will convene again before talks can continue with the government, but no date for the meeting has been set.

A statement unanimously endorsed by attendees said they urged the government “in all seriousness” to stop assaults in Kachin, Ta’ang, Kokang and Arakan territories, warning that the attacks undermine trust and endanger the prospect of durable peace.

Chief ethnic negotiator Nai Hong Sar, head of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), reiterated the group’s solidarity with three armed groups that are still in active conflict with the Burma Army, vowing that “we will not leave them [behind].”

“Some of our members feel that we did not listen to their feelings, and they may have misunderstandings if we sign the NCA,” Nai Hong Sar said. “They think we are not considering the situation they are in. But we will try to bring about an agreement inclusive of all armed groups.”

The Arakan Army (AA), the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—the latter being the only of the three to be recognized by the government—are still engaged in fighting with the government. The conflict in Kokang, in particular, has been the deadliest and most aggressive in recent memory, despite ongoing negotiations elsewhere in the country geared toward a nationwide accord.

“You all may not know how forcefully [the Burma Army] are attacking Kokang,” said the UWSA’s Aung Myint. “In the history of Burma, they have never used such large armed forces and heavy military assaults. This is largest and strongest one.”

The conflict in northeastern Burma’s Kokang Special Region, a disputed ethnic territory that borders China, was reignited in early February and has since claimed at least 200 lives and displaced tens of thousands of civilians.

The Wa have some experience in how to negotiate peace with the government. Formed from the splintered remains of the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) reached a ceasefire with the Burma Army in 1989, paving the way for some economic opportunities while also cementing itself in a notorious and devastating drug trade, from which it claims to be disengaged.

The Wa region has maintained Burma’s largest and most well-equipped non-state army, and has not fought with the government in 26 years. It also never fully achieved the autonomy it sought in a peace accord, and still remains an unrecognized special zone within Shan State. One of the points made in Wednesday’s statement was that “most of the ethnic armed groups attending this conference understand and support Wa group demand for a Wa State.”

The UWSA is not a member of the NCCT and as such is unlikely to sign the peace accord, though it nonetheless affirmed its support for an agreement that includes all parties involved in the conflict. The group’s spokesman also pointed out a number of concerns about the current draft, particularly involving the government’s insistence that rebel groups disarm.

“As for the Tatmadaw [Burma Armed Forces], they say all ethnic armed groups have to disarm,” he said, “but these points are not included in the current draft of the NCA. If they keep saying these things, ethnic groups will not participate in the peace process.”

Other attendees showed similar concern, worried that they could again come under attack after a deal is reached. Tar Bong Kyaw, general secretary of the TNLA, said the group has “a bad feeling” about signing the accord because “the Burma Army might still come to attack us despite signing the draft.”

Despite these concerns, ethnic leaders were unanimous that while peace must be reached, it could only be achieved through political dialogue and its prerequisite, the NCA. For ethnic armed groups to become signatory to that document, however, will require the government to take additional steps to demonstrate its sincerity and commitment to a peaceful federal state that grants political rights to ethnic minorities.

“Our history has the burden of 60 years of conflict,” said Aung Myint in his closing remarks. “This is too heavy a burden to be resolved in one or two days. These ethnic conflicts are related to the Constitution. As long as the country doesn’t amend the Constitution, it will need to work hard to achieve peace.”