Exclusion of Smaller Groups Emerges as Ceasefire Sticking Point

By Lawi Weng 23 September 2014

RANGOON — An ethnic leader has expressed doubts over the military’s willingness to sign a nationwide ceasefire, after Burma’s commander-in-chief reportedly rejected a call by ethnic groups for a more inclusive accord than the government has been willing to allow.

The contention centers on the government’s decision not to recognize five of the ethnic minority groups that are part of the 21-member United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). Local media reported that Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in a speech on Friday said a request by the UNFC that the five unrecognized members be given the opportunity to sign a nationwide ceasefire would make peacebuilding efforts in Burma more difficult.

The government has allowed the five groups to join ongoing ceasefire negotiations as “observers,” but has said they will not be eligible to sign the agreement.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy at the end of first day of the latest round of negotiations with the Burmese government on Monday in Rangoon, Nai Hong Sar, who heads the ethnic groups’ Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), said the senior general’s comments could be indicative of lingering resistance to signing a nationwide ceasefire.

“Regarding his criticism, it is very possible they do not want to have peace talks. They may put more pressure on our current peace talks by saying this. But, let him criticize as he wishes, we will not say anything in response to his speech,” Nai Hong Sar said.

He speculated that the Burmese Army remained unhappy about the government conceding to ethnic minorities’ longstanding demand for a federal system in the country, potentially prompting Min Aung Hlaing to hit out at the UNFC.

The ethnic armed groups and Burmese government negotiators agreed to work toward a “federal system” at their last meeting in August.

Min Aung Hlaing reportedly criticized the UNFC in a speech last week at a defense academy in Naypyidaw, where he was meeting with military officers.

Local media reported on the speech, quoting Min Aung Hlaing as saying the UNFC’s push for greater inclusion would complicate ongoing ceasefire talks.

“Min Aung Hlaing Warns UNFC Will Make Peace Difficult,” read a headline in The Voice, one of the country’s biggest Burmese-language dailies, which cited the general referring specifically to a UNFC statement issued earlier this month.

The commander-in-chief went on to say that the army would compromise as necessary to bring peace to the country, in accordance with the will of the people, according to the reports.

The UNFC issued the statement in question after hosting its First Congress in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The umbrella grouping’s statement said it would seek to bring all of the UNFC’s ethnic groups into the peace process.

The five members of the UNFC that are not recognized by the government are smaller and largely political organizations of the Kokang, Wa, Arakanese and Lahu ethnic minorities.

Nai Hong Sar told the BBC’s Burmese service on Monday that the NCCT would not sign a nationwide ceasefire unless the government allowed the five UNFC members to sign.

Negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire agreement began last year, and five rounds of talks have come and gone with a finalized accord still proving elusive.

The sixth round of talks began on Monday and is expected to run through the end of this week. The government has said a ceasefire signing could come by November.

However, this week’s meeting is not likely to result in a finalized agreement, according to Nai Hong Sar, who said there are still many issues to negotiate.

“We still have the code of conduct issue to discuss, but they [the government] proposed not to discuss this issue first because this issue could delay a peace agreement,” Nai Hong Sar said.