Ethnic Armies Pledge Talks First, ‘Joint Defense’ Contingency

By Lawi Weng & Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 29 March 2016

RANGOON — Five ethnic armed groups in conflict with the government and Burma’s largest non-state army will first seek to negotiate an end to hostilities, but the strategy will evolve into “joint defense” if those talks fail, the groups’ leaders agreed following a meeting in Panghsang, Wa Special Region.

“Our ethnic armed forces will take action jointly if they [aggressors] continue to fight, or try to control others’ areas of control,” said Kyi Myint, a spokesperson for the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), one of the groups invited to the meeting, while noting that negotiation was the preferred means of conflict resolution.

The groups said this approach applied both to recent fighting between the government and ethnic armed groups, and in an apparent territorial dispute that last year saw troops from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) clash with the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S).

The TNLA was also among the ethnic armed groups that sent representatives to Panghsang, headquarters of the United Wa State Army, Burma’s largest non-state armed group. The UWSA is not among actively warring parties in Burma, with a 1989 bilateral ceasefire with the then junta government holding strong. The six groups signed onto a joint statement echoing Kyi Myint’s remarks following the three-day meeting, which concluded on Monday.

“What’s most important is to settle the lives of people, bringing peace. This is what we all agreed to do at the meeting. We are asking them to stop fighting,” Kyi Myint said, referring to inter-ethnic hostilities. “We are also asking the Tatmadaw [Burma Army] to stop fighting.”

The SSA-S, a signatory to the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) signed by eight non-state armed groups and the government in October, was not invited to the Panghsang summit. Kyi Myint did not specifically mention the SSA-S, but said any group that fomented conflict in the region would be subject to the approach laid out in the joint statement.

Col. Sai Hla, a spokesperson for the SSA-S, said his group welcomed UWSA involvement in resolving northern Shan State’s conflicts.

“It would be appropriate for them [UWSA] to go and say to the TNLA first not to fight us, because the TNLA was first to attack us. There will be no more fighting if the TNLA does not fight anymore,” said Sai Hla.

Sai Hla said his group hoped to have direct talks with leaders from the TNLA, describing it as the “only solution” to lingering tensions between the two groups.

In November, troops from the TNLA clashed with the SSA-S in Shan State’s Namkham Township, in a troubling setback for peace prospects in the region. More recently, in February, thousands of civilians in Kyaukme Township were displaced by fighting between the TNLA and government troops, in what the former has described as a massive Burma Army offensive.

Clashes were reported as recently as last week by both the TNLA and Kachin Independence Army (KIA), both of which sent representation to Panghsang over the weekend.

Kyi Myint said also discussed was how to handle the resettlement of civilian populations displaced by recent fighting in northern Shan State.

The statement from the six groups in Panghsang said the meeting’s attendees would participate in peace-building with the new government, to be led by the National League for Democracy (NLD).

“We all made the decision at the meeting to actively participate in the peace process by cooperating with new government,” said Kyi Myint, adding that the NCA framework that the incoming administration will inherit was “not perfect.”

“There was fighting between Ta’ang and RCSS,” he said, referring to the Restoration Council of Shan State, the political arm of the SSA-S. “This fighting broke out just after the signing of the NCA. The RCSS took advantage by signing the NCA, then fought others to get more territory under its control.”

The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Shan State Army-North and Arakan Army also joined the Panghsang summit. None of the six groups attending is an NCA signatory, and all have clashed with government troops within the last year.