Ceasefire Dialogue off to Rocky Start as Parties Complain of Exclusion
By Connor Macdonald & Phyo Thiha Cho 27 November 2015
RANGOON — While fighting rages in northern Shan State between Burma’s army and ethnic rebel groups that failed to sign a nationwide ceasefire, the start of a dialogue among signatories of the accord also ran into problems, as some political parties voiced anger over being excluded from the process.
On Oct. 15, the government and army representatives signed a so-called nationwide ceasefire accord with the Karen National Union, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, the Shan State Army-South and five smaller armed groups.
Seven of Burma’s most powerful ethnic rebel groups, including the United Wa State Army, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North), declined to sign as the government refused to include three small rebel groups in the agreement.
In recent weeks, heavy clashes have broken out between the army and the KIA and the SSA-North, causing some 10,000 civilians to flee.
According to the accord, a long-term political dialogue to resolve issues such as ethnic demands for a federal union has to begin within three months of its signing, so no later than Dec. 15.
On Saturday, a meeting was held to elect 16 representatives of political parties that would make up part of the 48-member Union Political Joint Dialogue Committee. The other two groups are 16 representatives from the ethnic armed organizations and 16 of the government and military.
Representatives of 87 registered political parties assembled at Yangon Regional Government’s Office for a meeting chaired by outgoing President’s Office Minister Aung Min and organized by the influential government advisors of the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC).
Aung Min, who has lead the government side in ceasefire negotiations since 2012, oversaw the process of selecting party representatives and his remarks and decisions quickly raised the ire of some of parties.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), which crushed the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the Nov. 8 polls, should get two representatives each, said Aung Min, so he could continue to play a lead role in the process, despite losing his parliament seat in the elections.
“You’re probably asking: ‘Is it too much that the USDP is taking two seats when the NLD has two seats? Please consider, if U Aung Min leaves the government where would we be? Do you want me to sit in the USDP seat? If so, you need to give two seats to USDP,” he told attendees.
He also told the meeting that a seat each was allocated to the Shan National League for Democracy, the Arakan National Party, and the United Nationalities Alliance, Federal Brotherhood Alliance and Federal Democratic Alliance. The latter three organizations are alliances comprising several ethnic parties.
The fact that the NLD and USDP were awarded two seats each angered a number of representatives from ethnic parties and small parties from central Burma, some of whom walked out of the meeting before lunch.
After they left, Aung Min oversaw a ballot among attendees to determine which other seven parties could participate in the dialogue. The ballot lead to the selection of seven small or little-known parties, most of which failed to win seats on Nov. 8.
These are the National Democratic Force, Democratic Party (Myanmar), Democracy and Peace Party, All Mon Region Democracy Party, Chin League for Democracy, Federal Union Party and the Phone-Sqaw Democratic Party.
Small, Ethnic Parties Excluded
The selection results angered some representatives of smaller parties and ethnic parties.
“They should prioritize the ethnic people’s wishes, but in the end they went ahead with their own plans. The ethnic groups couldn’t say anything,” said Nan Sandar Su of the Kayin Democratic Party. “No party should take two seats, everyone should just have one seat each.”
Aung Min and the MPC advisors “said because of time shortage, we are sorry, but we are going to do this whether you agree or not,” according to Kam Lam Khup, whose Zomi Congress for Democracy was left out of the dialogue despite winning four union level seats and two Chin State parliament seats on Nov. 8.
“They didn’t care no matter how much you objected, or if you left the room,” he said. “That’s not democratic.”
Mi Than Shin of the Women Party (Mon State) said she was unhappy with her party’s exclusion from the dialogue, but noted that a new NLD government was likely to take a different approach to the dialogue and ceasefire process. “This is a transition period so we have to pass through this period with patience,” she said.
MPC government advisor Aung Naing Oo said there were some complaints by parties on Saturday, but added the process would enable official discussions to start almost immediately. This would allow the political dialogue to be established by Dec. 15, as prescribed by the NCA.
“The process isn’t perfect… but the design, the representation aren’t fixed, they’re flexible. After January 14, the new government can re-negotiate,” he said.
NLD Leading the Ceasefire Process?
Some observers have also questioned why the MPC and government had first sought to bring in numerous small political parties at Saturday’s meeting when only a handful of parties had won seats in the elections.
“When they were first in the process they never invited these kinds of small parties to be involved in peace talk issues,” said Zin Lin, managing director at Burma News International, a network of ethnic media outlets that run the Myanmar Peace Monitor, a resource site on the peace process.
“They would like to leave many problems, chaos in those areas for the NLD, because they think the NLD has no experience in administration,” he added.
In the coming weeks, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi hopes to meet with President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to discuss the formation of a new government.
Her party has said little about how it intends to approach the nationwide ceasefire process. Suu Kyi declined to attend the signing of the accord in October.
The NLD’s approach will be a highly sensitive issue for Burma’s powerful military. The army fought for decades to suppress insurgencies among dozens of ethnic minority groups in Burma’s rugged periphery who seek greater political autonomy.
Last week, NLD spokesperson Win Htein told Myanmar Now that he could not see any reason to involve many small parties in the political dialogue, particularly since some are considered “proxy” parties of the USDP.
“In the future, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will look at this process. We will review the processes of the MPC,” he added.