Ethnic Rebel Summit in Panghsang Redux, But Dynamics Differ

By Lawi Weng 30 October 2015

PANGHSANG, Wa Special Region — The leaders of several ethnic armed groups will converge this weekend on Panghsang, where the United Wa State Army (UWSA) has invited 12 fellow ethnic armed groups for a meeting to discuss their shared absence from the signing of a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government earlier this month.

While some ethnic armed groups’ delegations have already arrived to the town, many of them are still en route to Panghsang, the capital of the semi-autonomous Wa Special Region in northeast Shan State.

Security in UWSA-controlled territory appeared heightened during the three-hour drive by car from Mong La to Panghsang, with checkpoints administered by the ethnic Wa army stopping the car in which The Irrawaddy was traveling three times, despite the vehicle being clearly marked as belonging to the rebel group. Our driver was asked to show his ID card at one stop, despite him wearing a full UWSA uniform.

The summit beginning on Sunday is the second time this year that the UWSA has hosted a meeting of Burma’s ethnic armed groups, though the conflict dynamics have shifted markedly since the first meetup nearly six months ago.

While the meeting in early May came with most of the nation’s ethnic armed groups in relatively equal standing vis-à-vis the government, the coming summit is being convened less than three weeks after the groups split over the signing of the ceasefire, with eight armed organizations signing the accord but about a dozen others either abstaining or shut out by the government.

The UWSA’s invitation exclusively to non-signatories is not likely to be viewed favorably by a Burmese government that pushed aggressively to ink the peace pact this month.

As the leaders of ethnic armed groups make their way to Panghsang, many have opted to enter the Wa Special Region through China or Thailand, using illegal channels to avoid Burmese government authorities that they worry could give them trouble.

Nai Hong Sar Bong Khaing, a central committee member of the New Mon State Party (NMSP), told The Irrawaddy that members of the NMSP delegation headed for Panghsang had asked him for travel advice ahead of the meeting, and he suggested not to travel inside the country with those concerns in mind.

“They asked for my thoughts about traveling inside the country. … For me, I told them that it is not a good time to travel inside the country,” said Nai Hong Sar Bong Khaing, adding that he did not know which way the NMSP leadership ultimately would choose.

To attend the Panghsang meeting in May, leaders from the NMSP traveled through official channels, flying from Rangoon to Kentung before driving to Mong La and then on to the Wa Special Region. That, however, was before the group had positioned itself among those who did not sign the nationwide ceasefire.

Other armed groups as well have decided to cross the borders of China or Thailand to get to Panghsang for the meeting,

However, Saw Lwin, the general secretary of the Kayan New Land Party, told The Irrawaddy that his group kept its travel aboveboard, flying from Loikaw in Karenni State to Shan State’s Lashio, and then traveling overland from there.

Asked by The Irrawaddy if he was concerned about hassle from the government along the way, he replied: “We cannot be afraid of them because this is the right thing for our group, we need to attend this meeting.”

“They never like whenever our ethnic armed groups all get together and talk at a meeting. They are afraid of this,” Saw Lwin added.

Though eight armed groups signed the nationwide ceasefire in Naypyidaw on Oct. 15, several of the nation’s largest ethnic armies, including the UWSA, withheld their signatures.

Other non-signatories include the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Shan State Army-North, groups with considerable strength based primarily in Shan State. All three have clashed with the Burma Army even as negotiations for the nationwide ceasefire moved haltingly forward this year, and the most recent flare-up between the government and the SSA-N began on Oct. 6 but has continued in the post-ceasefire signing period.

Saw Lwin’s Kayan New Land Party is among three groups invited to the upcoming meeting that did not attend the May gathering, along with the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang). The most notable absence from the talks that start Sunday is the Karen National Union (KNU), one of Burma’s largest ethnic armed groups, which signed the ceasefire with the government earlier this month and thus did not receive a UWSA invite.

A statement issued by the UWSA ahead of this weekend’s meeting said participants would discuss two points: how to present a united front as non-signatories, and how to deal with whatever new government takes power following Burma’s Nov. 8 general election.

The UWSA is Burma’s strongest ethnic armed group, but did not participate in the multilateral negotiations over the nationwide ceasefire agreement. It reached a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government in 1989, and has said that pact would have made its signing of the nationwide accord redundant.