Ethnic Armed Group Summit Commences in Kachin State

By Lawi Weng 26 July 2016

MAI JA YANG, Kachin State — Leaders representing 17 ethnic armed groups gathered in Mai Ja Yang, Kachin State on Tuesday to search for common ground in working toward a federal system in Burma.

Representatives from China and the United Nations also joined the meeting as international observers. The summit was held in preparation for the upcoming Union Peace Conference in late August in Naypyidaw.

Khu Oo Reh, the secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)—a coalition of nine ethnic armed groups who opted out of signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) with the government in 2015—spoke in Mai Ja Yang about the significance of the event.

“This could be historic meeting for our ethnic armed groups. We intend for this meeting to prepare for the coming [Union Peace] Conference,” he said, adding that the organizations would “negotiate” to “reach a common agreement” during the four-day summit, which ends on Friday.

“Our conflict,” Khu Oo Reh continued, “can only be solved at the table,” a reference to the need for peace talks over continued clashes.

Not in attendance, however, were the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), despite being invited to the event.

“They [the TNLA and MNDAA] did not come because the UWSA did not come,” said UNFC vice chairman Nai Hong Sar. The UWSA is thought to be Burma’s largest non-state armed group—with an estimated 20,000-plus troops; the organization reportedly plans to meet government representatives in Naypidaw on Friday.

The United Nationalities Alliance—a coalition of ethnic political parties—and the Women’s League of Burma—an umbrella group of women’s organizations across Burma—also joined Tuesday’s session.

Gen N’Ban La, who serves as the vice chairman of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—which hosted the event—and also acts as the UNFC chairman, spoke about the importance of the upcoming Union Peace Conference for Burma and its ethnic communities.

He attributed Burma’s civil war, which began shortly after the country’s 1948 independence, to the former military regime’s failure to abide by and implement the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which promised equal rights and self-determination to ethnic nationalities. The upcoming Union Peace Conference has been dubbed Burma’s “21st Century Panglong Conference,” in an attempt to replicate the spirit of the original 1947 summit.

“We have the Panglong Agreement, but we could not implement it. I have questions about who blocked the implementation of our agreement,” said Gen N-Ban Hla. “We all wanted to have equal rights. They [the military regime] used a unitary system, and therefore our country has problems now,” he said.

The KIA general also pointed out that not all ethnic armed groups could sign last year’s NCA with the former government; only eight armed groups became signatories to the agreement—and the KIA was among those who opted out.

Even though Burma now has a new, elected National League for Democracy-led government, N’Ban La highlighted the ongoing fighting with the Burma Army in the country’s northern regions.

“This time is important for us, and we all need to have unity,” he said.

The UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Myanmar Vijay Nambiar, who joined the Mai Ja Yang summit, said that the UN will stand alongside ethnic armed organizations and the government in support of the peace process.

Sun Guoxiang, from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that China will “continue supporting” Burma.

Mai Ja Yang lies on Kachin State’s Chinese border, in area under KIA control. Fighting broke out between the Burma Army and the KIA in the area in 2011, and Mai Ja Yang’s Chinese investors had to leave their businesses and projects behind, leading the town to become largely abandoned.

Since then, fighting has continued sporadically outside of Mai Ja Yang between the KIA and the Burma Army.