Ethnic Conference Stresses Need for Nationwide Peace Deal

By Saw Yan Naing 2 August 2013

CHIANG MAI — Burma’s ethnic rebel leaders conferring in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, have reiterated their demand for a joint, nationwide peace agreement between Naypyidaw and all rebel groups, saying it is prerequisite for permanent peace in the country.

United Wa State Army (UWSA) representatives also attended the congress organized by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). It was the first time that the powerful rebel army joined such a meeting, and rebel leaders said the Wa were seeking support from other groups for a politically autonomous Wa region in Burma.

“We don’t know about [the government’s] intention, but we signed ceasefire agreements with the aim of continuing on the road to permanent peace,” UNFC joint secretary 2 Khun Okkar said during a press conference on Friday “We won’t think of signing any further agreements as long as they [the government] don’t officially announce [plans for] a nationwide ceasefire.”

David Takarpaw, a leading UNFC member, said, “Our UNFC approach is that we want a principal peace agreement for all ethnic groups.”

The representatives were speaking at the end of a four-day ethnic peace congress organized by the UNFC, an alliance of Burma’s main 11 ethnic rebel groups, including Kachin, Karen and Shan rebels.

The UNFC’s demands were supported by some prominent Rangoon-based ethnic politicians, such as Aye Thar Aung of Arakan League for Democracy and Pu Chin Sian Thang, fromChin State’s Zomi Congress for Democracy. It was the first time that the politicians joined an ethnic rebel conference.

“To end ethnic conflict with the government, ethnic rights and demands for real federal union need to be addressed,” said Aye Thar Aung.

Burma’s ethnic groups have been fighting decades-long rebellions in order to gain greater political autonomy through the formation of federal states. They also want better protection of their rights and amendments to the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

Since assuming office in 2011, President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government has signed ceasefire agreements with 10 of the 11 main ethnic rebel groups. It has promised to soon hold a national peace conference with all armed groups.

Ethnic rebels say, however, that they first want Naypyidaw to agree to meaningful and time-bound discussions over their political demands for a federal union. They oppose the government reaching ceasefires with each group individually, and instead prefer a comprehensive, nationwide agreement.

On Friday, the UNFC said it would also like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to be an observer to the peace process, adding that it is planning to draft proposed amendments to the Constitution together with ethnic NGOs and activists.

Lately, a rift has occurred between the UNFC and the Working Group for Ethnic Coordination (WGEC) — a smaller ethnic alliance that includes the Restoration Council of Shan State and one Karen National Union faction — over the direction of the peace talks.

“There is disagreement between some leaders within the UNFC and WGEC. So, we decided to disassociate ourselves from the WGEC … our political aims are the same but our approaches are different,” said Khun Okkar.

Some 130 representatives, including ethnic NGOs and activists joined this week’s event. Non-UNFC members rebel groups, including an ethnic Kokang militia known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and an ethnic Mongla militia known as the National Democratic Alliance Army also attended the discussions.

Most notable among the non-UNFC participants were representatives of the UWSA, Burma’s largest and most well-armed rebel army. Based in northern Shan State on the Burma-China border, the UWSA is believed to have more than 20,000 soldiers.

The group has enjoyed a stable relationship with Naypyidaw for much of the past two decades, but in recent months there have been persistent reports of growing military tensions.

UWSA representatives did not attend Friday’s press conference and UNFC leaders made only brief mention of the presence of the secretive, ethnic Wa leaders. “The UWSA wants a [Wa] State with self-determination power. So, they want the UNFC to recognize their demand,” said Khun Okkar.