Ceasefire Talks Progress Despite Kachin War

By Simon Roughneen 23 May 2014

RANGOON — As representatives of Burma’s government and ethnic militias met this week to finish a second draft of a proposed nationwide ceasefire accord, it appeared that negotiations were largely unaffected by fighting in the country’s north.

“We are not discussing ongoing issues on the battlefield—we were discussing issues of the text,” Salai Lian H. Sakhong, director of the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies and a representative of the Chin National Front (CNF), one of the ethnic militias, told The Irrawaddy on Friday after three days of negotiations in Rangoon.

He said the conflict in Kachin State needed to end before a nationwide ceasefire could be signed, but that the government and leaders of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) had effectively carved off their war from the broader ceasefire discussions.

“The KIA and the government met separately in Myitkyina not so long ago,” he said, referring to talks in the Kachin State capital earlier this month.

In Rangoon this week, representatives of Burma’s government and ethnic militias saw discussions about the nationwide ceasefire inch forward, with agreement on a second draft of a proposed accord.

“Both parties are trying to achieve a nationwide ceasefire and to begin political dialogue,” read the short statement released on Friday evening at the end of the latest round of discussions, with both sides agreeing to meet again in June.

The government delegation, led by Aung Min, a minister in President Thein Sein’s office, met with a delegation of ethnic minority militias, most of which are under the umbrella United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and are represented at negotiations by the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT).

The three days of talks, which were attended by military representatives and parliamentarians, were perhaps most noteworthy for an agreement to include wording on federalism in the draft text, a concession by the government that came after comments made by Thein Sein earlier this year that a federal system of government could be implemented in Burma.

While minorities have sought a federal Burma since the country won its independence shortly after World War II, the former military government saw local autonomy as synonymous with secession, leading to prolonged wars in the Burma’s border regions close to China and Thailand.

Implementing a federal system of government would likely mean amending Burma’s 2008 Constitution. Some ethnic militias have backed a ramped-up drive by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s biggest opposition party, to have the charter changed.

The NLD wants to reduce the influence of the army and to give party leader Aung San Suu Kyi a shot at the presidency after elections due to take place in late 2015. However, Burma’s ethnic minorities want charter amendments to focus on decentralizing power to the divisions, homelands of some of the country’s bigger minorities such as the Arakanese, Kachin, Karen, Mon and Shan.

And while ethnic groups have said a longer-term peace in Burma will depend on such political reforms being implemented, changing the Constitution has not been a part of ceasefire negotiations.

Col. Hkun Okker, joint general-secretary of the UNFC, said constitutional reform was an issue for discussing at another forum.

“It is a little bit beyond our NCCT mandate,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We are only here to discuss the ceasefire, and political questions are for another day.”

The Burmese army said in April that ethnic militias should respect the 2008 Constitution, a document that opponents say centralizes power in Naypyidaw.

The ceasefire negotiations have dragged on longer than the government had hoped, with Naypyidaw saying in 2013 that it wanted to achieve a nationwide ceasefire by the year’s end.

“We have 16 militias talking to the government, the Tatmadaw [the Burmese military] and the Hluttaw [Parliament],” said Hla Maung Shwe of the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a government-affiliated organization that is facilitating the ceasefire talks and whose spacious Rangoon compound played host to this week’s round of negotiations.

“The media might think this is moving slowly, but, it is moving along and there are many issues to discuss and many people involved.”