Ethnic Rebels Move Closer to Ceasefire—With Strings Attached

By Saw Yan Naing 24 January 2014

LAW KHEE LAR, Karen State — Nearly all of Burma’s ethnic armed groups have said they will sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement proposed by the government so long as political dialogue begins immediately during the signing conference.

On the fourth day of a meeting in rebel-held territory of Karen State, leaders of ethnic armed groups said Thursday they would accept the nationwide ceasefire agreement proposed by the government’s peace negotiation team. Negotiations are still ongoing, with ethnic leaders expected to finalize their draft document of the ceasefire accord this week.

But while the government team led by Minister Aung Min has pushed them to sign the agreement first and later prioritize political dialogue, ethnic leaders are calling for inclusive political dialogue to start immediately.

“We have agreed to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement and hold political dialogue at once,” said Gen. Gun Maw, deputy chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). “We will combine these two things—we won’t separate the nationwide ceasefire agreement and political dialogue,” he told The Irrawaddy.

He said that after months of debate, ethnic leaders had agreed they would sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement because the latest draft from the government includes concrete provisions guaranteeing the rights of ethnic minorities to time-bound political dialogue and a more federal system that would grant greater power to ethnic minority states.

An estimated 40 percent of Burma’s 60 million or so population is an ethnic minority. Since Burma achieved independence from the British in 1948, ethnic rebel groups have been engaged in armed struggles against the central government—which is dominated by the ethnic Burman majority group—for greater autonomy. There are at least 17 ethnic armed groups with an estimated 100,000 soldiers nationwide.

The meeting this week in the Karen State town of Law Khee Lar, which is territory held by the Karen National Union (KNU), began on Monday. In mid-February, ethnic armed groups are expected to meet again in Shan State, in territory belonging to the ethnic Mongla armed group. This meeting will only include top leaders of the armed groups.

Khunsai Jaiyen, a spokesman of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the political wing of the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), said the United Wa State Army (UWSA), an ally of the Mongla army, would get involved in the Shan State meeting, as would the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA).

Both groups were not able to attend the Karen State meetings this week.

“They couldn’t come to attend due to travel inconveniences,” Khunsai Jaiyen said. “But if we hold it in the Mongla area, they can join the meeting. They said not to forget them. They asked to be included in the last decisive stage.”

Further talks between ethnic rebel groups and the government peace team are scheduled to begin Feb. 20 in the Karen State capital of Pa-an.