CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Representatives from the alliance of ethnic armed groups known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) traveled to Naypyidaw over the weekend to meet with Burmese officials ahead of major regional summits in the capital this week.
The UNFC leaders traveled to Naypyidaw for informal talks at the invitation of the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) and President’s Office Minister Aung Min, who leads the government’s peace negotiating team, said Khu Oo Reh, general secretary of the ethnic alliance.
In addition to Aung Min, Burma’s Immigration Minister Khin Yi and two other ministers attended the meeting on Monday, according to Hla Maung Shwe of the MCP, who said that although all ethnic attendees hold leadership positions within UNFC, they were not meeting in their official capacities as representatives of the group.
“We didn’t reach any agreement as it was an informal meeting,” he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “However, our relations became warmer. We were able to have an exchange about the differences and doubts between us.”
The talks come as sources close to the UNFC said ethnic representatives hope to meet US President Barack Obama, who will attend the Asean and East Asia summits in Naypyidaw this week.
The UNFC sent an open letter to Obama on Nov. 3, requesting a meeting with the American president during his visit to Burma. There has been no official response from the White House.
“We don’t have high expectations for a meeting with President Obama. But, if Obama knows that they [UNFC representatives] are there [in Naypyidaw] and is fine to meet briefly, there is a possibility,” said Khu Oo Reh.
If granted an audience with Obama, ethnic leaders plan to brief the US president on their latest round of peace talks with the Burmese government, he said. The UNFC representatives, including its leaders Nai Hong Sar and Khun Okkar, left for Burma on Sunday and will return to Thailand on Thursday.
In the open letter to Obama, the UNFC claims that Burma’s peace process has stalled since the last round of negotiations with the government in September.
Khu Oo Reh said on-and-off fighting between ethnic rebels and government troops in Kachin and northern Shan states, as well as renewed fighting in eastern Burma’s Karen State, were contributing to delays in signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
“We want to make it happen as soon as possible, but before that happens, we want to compromise with the government and make sure that our demands are addressed. In negotiations, both sides have to take and give, not only one side taking everything,” said Khu Oo Reh, adding that among those demands were government acceptance of a federal system with a degree of autonomy for ethnic regions.
In the last round of peace talks in September, the Burmese military representatives reportedly rejected ethnic groups’ push for the creation of a so-called “federal army,” the nature of which remains unclear but, broadly, would likely involve ethnically constituted armed units. Naypyidaw has also shown reluctance to the inclusion of federalism-related terminology in the proposed ceasefire agreement, reflecting the government’s long-held belief that a federal system would lead to a disintegration of the union.
Ahead of Obama’s visit to Burma, some ethnic leaders also met with US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell and shared the reasons for ethnic groups’ reticence to sign a ceasefire at the moment.
Khun Okkar of the UNFC, who attended the meeting with Mitchell, told The Irrawaddy: “He [Mitchell] asked us what made us unwilling to sign the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement] very soon; what are the difficulties we are facing. And he said the US government would help the ethnic minorities as much as possible.
“He sounded like they want us to sign the NCA, but we told him that we are not ready yet and it is not possible to sign it right now,” Khun Okkar said.
UNFC chairman N’Ban La said in the letter to Obama that ethnic minorities are not making demands that are beyond the bounds of any fair peace settlement.
The outstanding issues in the peace process are critical to the success of any negotiated ceasefire agreement, the letter said, such as the rights of ethnic nationalities to participate in a genuine federal union; a military code of conduct to govern the behavior of both Burma Army and ethnic rebel troops during the ceasefire; and the structure of an ensuing political dialogue.
“Frankly, ethnic armed resistance organizations would be both naive and irresponsible to accept a ceasefire agreement that does not address each of these topics,” N’Ban La said in the letter.
While the government has signed bilateral ceasefires with more than a dozen ethnic armed groups since 2011, two major armed resistances are ongoing in Burma’s north, and fighting has continued to flare even with some of the ceasefire-committed rebel groups.
James Lum Dau, deputy chief of foreign affairs for the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO), told The Irrawaddy that the United States was trying to exert its influence as a global superpower to steer Burma’s ethnic civil war toward resolution.
“But no matter how good their intentions are, we still need to look at the involvement of the respective [Burmese] government,” said James Lum Dau.
“Even international bodies want to help, but there is no great hope without efforts from the concerned government,” he added.
Hla Maung Shwe said it was “almost certain” that ethnic armed groups and the government would meet by the end of this month, after plans to reconvene in October failed to materialize.
Meanwhile, New York-based Physicians for Human Rights released a statement on Monday urging Obama to push for more progress on a range of human rights issues during his trip to Burma.
Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs, said in the statement: “The US-Burma relationship is at a critical juncture, and we’ll see whether President Obama will jump on the economic bandwagon and ignore ongoing human rights violations.”
“Burma’s progress on human rights is stalled, particularly with respect to the persecution of the Rohingya,” said the PHR’s director, referring to the Muslim minority group.
The Karen Human Rights Group, an ethnic Karen advocacy organization, also sent an open letter to Obama on Thursday, urging the US president to demand that the Burmese government refrain from establishing new military camps or reinforcing existing bases in civilian areas of Karen State in southeastern Burma.
The rights group has documented human rights abuses in Karen State since 1992, and said that despite the ceasefire signed between the government and ethnic rebels of the Karen National Union (KNU) in January 2012, the Burma Army maintains a substantial and growing presence in the KHRG’s areas of operation, leading to human rights violations and dimming prospects for a sustainable peace.
The group also asked Obama to demand that the Burmese government withdraw its troops from civilian areas, as well as investigate and prosecute soldiers accused of human rights abuses against civilians.