PANGHSANG, Wa Special Region — The United Wa State Army (UWSA) has a relationship akin to “a jaw and its teeth” with a trio of ethnic armed groups engaged in active hostilities with the Burma Army, its leadership said at the opening of a conference of ethnic leaders here on Friday.
The solidarity pledge between the UWSA and the three other ethnic groups, who are attending the summit against the government’s wishes, illustrated just how far Burma may be from a nationwide ceasefire agreement that Naypyidaw has said is on the horizon.
Palaung, Arakanese and Kokang armed rebels have continued to clash with government troops in recent weeks, even as momentum has appeared to build toward the signing of a nationwide peace accord. The 16-member Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT) that has negotiated that agreement does not include the UWSA, which made clear on Friday that it would not abide a selectively applied definition of peace in Burma.
“We invited to this meeting our brotherhood of ethnic armed groups who are in ongoing fighting [with the Burma Army]. We are like a jaw and its teeth, which cannot be divided,” said Aung Myint, a spokesman who was reading a statement on behalf of UWSA chairman Bao Youxiang.
Only a complete cessation of hostilities between the Burma Army and ethnic rebel groups would legitimize the government’s long-sought nationwide ceasefire agreement, Aung Myint said.
“Unless fighting stops in the whole of the country, a nationwide peace agreement is just a piece of paper.”
The UWSA, Burma’s largest ethnic armed group with a fighting force estimated at 20,000 soldiers, reached a ceasefire with the government in 1989 and renewed the accord in September 2011 as President Thein Sein jumpstarted peace negotiations with ethnic armed groups nationwide.
At what he termed a “confusing” time in Burma’s reform process, the chairman called on all of the nation’s ethnic rebel groups to choose their own future by asserting their political rights. Saying ethnic armed groups had been “fighting for a long time for our rights” against an “oppressive” Burmese government, Aung Myint said the goal of the Panghsang summit was “to produce one peace paper agreement.”
“There will be disagreement from our discussion, but let us keep tolerance and seek agreement,” Aung Myint said.
The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) have all clashed with the government in recent weeks, with fighting in northeast Burma some of the deadliest in years. In February, the government said Wa rebels and “Chinese mercenaries” were among those backing MNDAA insurgents in the Kokang Special Region.
Against this backdrop, the government and the NCCT came to a tentative agreement on a nationwide ceasefire accord on March 30, with ethnic representatives pledging to convene a meeting to discuss the deal before committing to a final accord. Following the agreement, the UWSA—which skipped the talks, citing in part the government’s accusation of Wa involvement in the Kokang conflict—invited ethnic leaders to its Panghsang headquarters to discuss its terms.
The summit began on Friday and is expected to run through May 6.
Twelve ethnic armed groups joined the meeting on Friday, with many key leaders of Burma’s biggest ethnic armies attending. About 50 ethnic leaders have traveled to Panghsang, many of whom serve as chairmen or deputy chairmen of their respective ethnic armed groups and will be key voices in the debate over whether to sign the nationwide ceasefire accord.
Representatives of the dozen ethnic groups began arriving a day earlier, checking in to hotels where a tightened security presence awaited.
At a press conference on Thursday, San Khun from the UWSA’s Foreign Department said the Wa rebels had only invited eight media outlets to the conference, citing concerns about the ability of many news organizations to report in an unbiased manner. He added, however, that the cost of opening the conference up to all press would have been prohibitive.
Asked by The Irrawaddy if reports were true that the UWSA had acquired shoulder-fired surface-to-air rockets capable of repelling an aerial assault, he told assembled media not to ask about military-related issues at the conference. He added that journalists were not to attempt to visit the UWSA’s military installations.
He did not directly respond to The Irrawaddy’s question, offering no explicit rejection of the reports’ veracity. Details on the powerful Wa army’s arsenal have always been difficult to ascertain, but the group is believed to possess sophisticated Chinese-supplied weaponry, with reports that it has purchased a “large number” of anti-aircraft hardware, helicopter gunships and—rather inexplicably, given the land-locked geography of the Wa region—a submarine.
San Khun told journalists that he would be happy to instead field questions about the economic development that the autonomous region has seen since the signing of a ceasefire with the government more than 25 years ago.
Situated on the Sino-Burmese border, Panghsang is a former headquarters of the Burma Communist Party (CPB). The UWSA was founded in the Wa Special Region, home to about 600,000 people, out of the ashes of the now-defunct CPB.