Senior members of 12 Burmese political parties will meet with leaders of ethnic armed groups in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, later this week to discuss ongoing efforts to resolve the Southeast Asian nation’s numerous armed conflicts.
The three-day meeting will be organized by the government-linked Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) and is set to begin Friday. The meeting will precede further talks between government negotiators and armed groups that the government of President Thein Sein hopes will lead to a nationwide ceasefire agreement before the end of the year. The government also wants to hold a political dialogue with ethnic groups in the early part of next year.
According to the MPC, representatives of 12 political parties, including the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the main opposition National League for Democracy, as well as ethnic parties, will meet with the United Nationalities Federation Council (UNFC), an alliance of ethnic armed groups and other groups involved in the ethnic conflicts.
“[The meeting] will help to strengthen trust between the leaders prior to future political dialogue, which will happen sooner or later,” said MPC spokesman Hla Maung Shwe.
He said that although it was now possible to hold such talks inside Burma, some rebel leaders were still apprehensive about meeting in the country.
“There are some exiled people who still feel unsafe about going back inside the country for such a meeting due to the matter of Section 17 (1) of the Unlawful Association Act. So the party leaders will go [to Chiang Mai] and meet them to share their different ideas,” he said, referring to the 1908 law, still in force, that makes it illegal to be associated with dissident groups and is often used to prosecute ethnic rebels.
“We want to show that the political culture is, in fact, changing toward political dialogue.”
Than Than Nu, the secretary of Democratic Party (Myanmar), told The Irrawaddy she was at a meeting last week with the MPC, where the government’s lead negotiator, Minister Aung Min, said the meeting would help politicians of all parties and civil society to be more involved in negotiations to end armed conflict in Burma.
“This meeting is to prepare for all-inclusive participation in the peace process,” Than Than Nu said.
The meeting comes after talks earlier this month in Myitkyina, Kachin State, between government negotiators—led by Aung Min—and most ethnic armed groups. The parties agreed to work toward a nationwide ceasefire, although there remain key points of disagreement—including the rebels’ call for a federal army and for drastic changes to Burma’s current Constitution to allow a federalist system.
Nai Hong Sar, secretary of the UNFC, said he welcomed the MPC initiative to bring politicians into the peace process. Although the agenda for the meeting has not been specified, Nai Hong Sar, said he will want to discuss constitutional reform.
“When we meet, the main focus will be to talk about peace prevailing urgently in our country,” Nai Hong Sar said. “We will talk about peace-building in our country. When talking about peace building, it is related to the 2008 Constitution, so we will talk about how to prepare for [changing] it.”
On Friday, the political leaders will also meet with women activists from the Chiang Mai-based Women’s League of Burma (WLB). “It will be a separate meeting with the political parties’ leaders and us on Friday,” said Tin Tin Nyo, the general secretary of WLB.
The MPC’s Hla Maung Shwe said that in addition to the UNFC and the WLB, the parties’ leaders will also meet with the members of Working Group for Ethnic Coordination (WGEC), Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and other Shan community leaders.
The USDP has not yet confirmed who it will send to the meeting. But 11 other politicians will represent the National League for Democracy, two Shan political parties—the Shan National League for Democracy and the Shan Nationalities Development Party— the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the Chin Development Party, the Chin National Party, the Karen People’s Party, the National Democratic Force, the Union and Diversity Party, the Democratic Party (Myanmar), and the Democracy and Peace Party.