CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The united front that ethnic armed groups have striven to maintain during almost two years of negotiations on a nationwide ceasefire agreement was upended this week, as ethnic groups were split on whether to ink an agreement the government is desperate to conclude this month.
After a three-day summit in Chiang Mai which the Karen National Union insisted should be the last before a potential signing ceremony, only seven of 19 ethnic groups agreed to accede to the agreement.
On Wednesday, ethnic leaders focused on building mutual understanding between the two factions, with those holdout groups pledging to sign as soon as the government accepted all armed groups as signatories.
Gen Gun Maw, deputy chief-of-staff of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), told The Irrawaddy the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) would not live up to its “nationwide” label unless all stakeholders were included.
“We have discussed this several times during past summits. If only some groups sign, they will just be signing the NCA-draft and it will not be regarded as a nationwide accord,” he said.
“But if the government accepts our [demand] for all-inclusivity, we would sign the NCA.”
The government has only accepted the 14 ethnic armed groups that have previously inked bilateral ceasefires with Naypyidaw since 2011, in addition to the KIO, as signatories.
Three armed groups locked in ongoing conflict with government troops, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army, have been excluded.
The government has also refused to accept noncombatant groups, the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), Wa National Organization (WNO) and Arakan National Council (ANC), as signatories.
Gun Maw said the KIO would not be pressured into signing the NCA while conflict continued between the Burma Army and Kachin, Ta’ang, Shan and Kokang armed groups.
During talks on Wednesday, ethnic leaders agreed to dissolve the recently reconstituted negotiating bloc known as the Senior Delegation (SD).
“Our SD has completed its task to finalize the NCA-single text, which has 15 chapters and 33 articles,” said Pu Zing Cung, secretary of the Chin National Front and a former SD member.
The ethnics’ Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team would continue to function, Pu Zing Cung said, to complete negotiations on the framework for political dialogue, a code of conduct and the formation of a joint monitoring committee.
“We will continue negotiations with the government [to discuss including members of] those groups that have not yet signed on upcoming committees for drafting the political framework, the CoC and the JMC,” he said.
On Tuesday, seven ethnic armed groups agreed to sign the accord: the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF); Arakan Liberation Party (ALP); Chin National Front (CNF); Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA); Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNLA-PC); Karen National Union (KNU); and the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO).
But major armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), declined to sign until the agreement was open to all.
The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), which has clashed on multiple occasions with the Burma Army in recent weeks, has not yet revealed its intentions.
At a Sept. 9 meeting in Naypyidaw between President Thein Sein and the leaders of nine ethnic armed groups, the former pledged to address the issue of incorporating non-ceasefire groups into the peace process.
However, over the ensuing weeks, ethnic groups’ claim there was no further communication with the president on the issue, leaving the last major obstacle to an all-inclusive signing unaddressed.
Nai Htaw Mon, the chair of another holdout group, the NMSP, said in a closing speech on Wednesday that the ethnics’ divergence on the ceasefire pact had endangered ongoing collaboration.
“Although the majority of [ethnic armed groups] are unable to sign yet, we had to follow the minorities’ desires for the sake of our future unity,” he said.
However, most ethnic leaders were reluctant to openly criticize the decisions of other ethnic armed groups.
For the political dialogue slated to follow the ceasefire signing, the government has stipulated that non-NCA signees can participate only as observers. However, the three non-armed groups outside the NCA process—the LDU, WNO and ANC—would be accepted as full participants.
Kyu Dui, secretary of the Lahu Democratic Union, told The Irrawaddy that, if invited, his group would join the dialogue.