LAIZA — At the start of a three-day conference in Laiza on Wednesday, there were signs that Burma’s most important alliance of ethnic rebel groups is supportive of a government proposal to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement next month.
Several ethnic leaders, nonetheless, urged representatives of the assembled 18 armed groups to push the Burmese government into accepting a federal union that guarantees political autonomy for their ethnic regions.
Representatives of 18 ethnic groups are gathered in Laiza, a KIO stronghold in Kachin State located on the Burma-China border, where they will discuss taking a joint position on the government’s proposal to hold a nationwide ceasefire conference in November.
Following the meeting, the ethnic representatives will reportedly travel to the Kachin State capital Myitkyina to hold discussions with the government’s chief peace negotiator Aung Min.
Khun Okkar, general secretary 2 of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), told reporters on Wednesday evening that the UNFC had considered the government proposal and in principle agreed with its conditions.
“We are fine with signing the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement]. However, it also depends on other individual ethnic groups. We need to negotiate with other ethnic groups,” he said.
“But, I want to emphasize here: The UNFC won’t sign the NCA alone. It will sign the NCA only when all individual groups agree to sign it.”
President Thein Sein’s reformist government has earned much international praise after it signed ceasefire agreements with 14 groups since assuming office in 2011. It is now keen to cap this progress with a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
The KIO and the Taaung National Liberation Army have not yet signed any ceasefires, however, and skirmishes with government troops continue.
The remarks by Khun Okkar come as somewhat of surprise as talks between the UNFC and the government about the nationwide ceasefire proposal seemed to have stalled during a recent meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The UNFC is an alliance of 11 ethnic rebel groups and includes several major armed groups, such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Chin National Front.
During opening remarks at the conference on Wednesday, UNFC chairman N’Ban La urged ethnic representatives to push Naypyidaw into accepting a federal union of Burma during the negotiations to end ethnic conflict.
“We can no longer repeat the mistakes from the past. We must be brave. It is no longer possible to go along with a sham federal union,” said N’Ban La, who is also vice-chairman of the KIO. “Establishing a real federal union with full equal rights for ethnic nationalities is the only solution.”
General secretary of the Arakan Liberation Party Khine Thu Kha also stressed that ethnic groups should demand federal autonomy for their regions. “We might have different ideas and approaches, but we generally have the common goal of federalism,” he told the conference.
Burma’s ethnic regions have been wracked by conflicts that broke out soon after independence in 1948. The groups fought against the former military regime for decades in order to demand more political autonomy, control of natural resources in their areas and respect for basic human rights.
After the regime’s bloody crackdown on the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, it sought ceasefires with most ethnic rebels and 17 groups eventually signed such agreements. But many groups have complained of their “bitter experiences” during the ceasefires, as the Burma Army attempted to erode their military powers, while abusing ethnic populations and pillaging resources.
Many of the ceasefires broke down and military conflicts resumed in 2010, after Naypyidaw demanded that the groups become Border Guard forces under Burma Army command.