Burma’s Rebel Leaders Want Army Chief Involved in Peace Talks

By Zarni Mann 25 November 2013

RANGOON — The leaders of an alliance of Burma’s ethnic armed groups, some of whom have not seen Rangoon during more than three decades spent resisting the government’s army from the borders, this week are paying a landmark visit to the former capital.

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) leadership, in town thanks to the government-linked Myanmar Peace Center (MFC) and Japan’s Nippon Foundation, said they want the Burma Army’s commander-in-chief, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to be involved in talks that the government hopes will soon lead to a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

The UNFC leaders, who represent 11ethnic armed groups, have been less enthusiastic about the government’s push to secure a ceasefire deal quickly than other rebel leaders. They were offered safe passage to visit Rangoon, and Naypyidaw, and meet with people involved in the peace process.

UNFC General Secretary Nai Han Thar and vice presidents David Thakapaw and Abel Twet arrived Sunday and met National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday afternoon.

Nai Han Thar, who is also vice-chairman of the New Mon State Party, said the current negotiations between the government and rebels were flawed by the absence of senior military representation.

“The peace process will be more meaningful if the commander-in-chief would join the conversation,” said Nai Han Thar. “The recent fighting in Kachin State, amid the peace talks, is threatening the trust building for peace.”

While the government’s negotiating team, led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min, is pushing for a ceasefire deal involving all armed groups, the Burma Army has been accused of aggressively mounting operations in areas of Kachin State controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in recent weeks.

“We are having conversations only with the government,” said Nai Han Thar. “The fighting is continuing despite the discussions, and we have no idea whether there is agreement between the government and the military regarding the recent fighting.”

The UNFC delegation met with Aung Min at the MPC on Sunday, stressing the importance of trust building in Burma’s peace process.

“To rebuild trust between us, which was broken decades ago, is very important to strengthen the peace that we want to build,” said Abel Twet, who is also chairman of the Karenni National Progressive Party.

He stressed that complete trust in the government was still a long way off among rebel groups, despite the majority of groups signing up to individual ceasefires in recent years.

“We want to see our country be developed in every sector, and that’s why we decided to start the conversation with the government to have peace, which is very important for development,” Abel Twet added.

According to Abel Twet, Aung Min said he had invited the UNFC figures to the commercial capital in order to show them the development that has taken place in Burma’s commercial capital.

“We arrived [Sunday] night and were saddened that many parts of Rangoon had black-outs, while neighboring countries have full access to electricity,” said Abel Twet, adding that Aung Min had warned the visitors about pickpockets and traffic jams in the city. “There are many ruined and untidy houses in downtown as well.”

David Thakapaw, the other UNFC vice president—who is also vice chairman Karen National Union—told reporters at a press briefing Sunday that this is his first time in Rangoon in 35 years. He also noted the lack of development compared with major cities in Burma’s neighboring countries.

“Actually, the high budget used for military expenses is unnecessary for a poor country like us,” he said. “Those military costs are only going toward fighting ethnic groups like us. That’s why we want to stop the civil wars and have eternal peace for the development of the country.”

Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of Nippon Foundation, said the group wanted to bring ethnic leaders to Rangoon to build trust and hopefully bring peace to ethnic areas.

“I’ve been to remote ethnic areas where people were suffering due to the civil wars and effected by the lack of peace,” he said.

“Peace is very important for the country, so we decided to encourage the peace process. This is just part of our humanitarian aid toward Burma, but it not related to political or economic benefits,” he added.