CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Burma’s ethnic leaders convened this week in northern Thailand following lackluster peace talks in Rangoon, reaffirming their commitment to an inclusive nationwide pact that would bring all major non-state armed groups into the fold.
The country’s main ethnic coalition, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) on Monday issued a public statement calling on the government to end offensives against minorities, accept all stakeholders in a forthcoming peace deal and allow international observers as signatories to the pact.
The statement said that ongoing offensives in northern Burma’s Kachin and Shan states, as well as conflict in southeastern Karen State, were “obstacles” on the path to achieving a nationwide pact, which has been in the works for more than 18 months.
Moreover, the statement said, “the government must stop denying the ethnics’ proposal for an all inclusive pact,” referring to ethnic negotiators’ request that three groups currently ineligible to sign be accepted as full participants in the peace process.
The ethnic negotiating bloc, newly reconstituted as the Senior Delegation in June, is set to reconvene with the government’s Union Peace-making Work Committee (UPWC) in early August as the two sides inch closer to a nationwide ceasefire.
Delegation member Pu Zing Cung said the team has received recommendations from the ethnic leaders regarding whether they are ready to move forward with the pact, which the government has expressed a desire to secure before elections set for November. A decision will be made tomorrow, he said.
Three items in the draft remain contentious after a dozen revisions were made at the request of the delegation.
At present, the pact excludes several non-state armed groups that have recently been in conflict with the government, and which are not officially recognized as legitimate: the Myanmar National democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
Several other UNFC members also remain outsiders, including the Arakan National Council, the Wa National Organization, and the Lahu Democratic Union, which negotiators also want to bring into discussions.
The government has thus far agreed to include 14 armed groups that have reached bilateral ceasefires and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has not yet done so. KIA Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Gun Maw told The Irrawaddy on the sidelines of this week’s talks that the group’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), “has prioritized work on the nationwide pact over reaching a state-level ceasefire.”
While the north seems committed to ending hostilities through an inclusive pact, new troubles are brewing in southeastern Burma’s Karen State, where clashes between government troops and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army have disrupted trade and led to several casualties in recent weeks.
As the conflict drags on, however, a military newspaper claimed that 17 members of the DKBA had defected to the government-backed border guard force with which they were fighting over the militarization and taxation around the new Asia Highway linking Burma with Thailand.
Myawaddy newspaper reported on Sunday that the rebel soldiers “had come under the law enforcement by joining the Tatmadaw [Burma Armed Forces] columns monitoring military operations in Thay Thaw Boe village in Wallay Township.”
The paper also accused two DKBA leaders—Kyaw Thet and San Aung—of abetting the production and trafficking of narcotics. The allegation remains unconfirmed, as is a fast-spreading rumor that both men were expelled from the DKBA last week.
When contacted by The Irrawaddy on Monday, DKBA Gen. Saw Moe Shay declined to comment on the allegations. Speculation abounds in the remote and conflicted area along the border with Thailand, with some social media users claiming that the DKBA was also facing off with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), of which it is a breakaway faction.
Regarding reports of conflict between the two Karen groups, Saw Mo Shay told The Irrawaddy that “we are not in clashes” with the KNLA. A spokesperson for the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of the KNLA, also denied clashes between the two rebel armies.