CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Representatives from 17 non-Burman ethnic armed groups are demanding that Burma’s future military establishment consist of a federal army, with the coalition finalizing terms of a proposed peace deal with the government on Thursday in which they call for “forming a federal union with a federal army.”
The so-called “Laiza Agreement” was first drafted in Kachin State’s Laiza, a rebel town on the Sino-Burmese border, on Nov. 2, with this week’s three-day meeting in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, bringing together the ethnic minority coalition’s technical team to make tweaks and finalize the document.
The creation of a “federal army” is viewed by the ethnic rebels as the only way to solve the thorny military issues that have arisen in ongoing peace negotiations with the central government, but its formation faces strong headwinds from an ethnic Burman military establishment that appears reluctant to embrace the idea.
Given that Burma is a multiethnic nation with more than 100,000 rebel groups’ troops controlling territories largely in the country’s border regions, the ethnic armed coalition believes the idea of a “federal system” for the armed forces is the only way to end decades of civil war.
Ethnic rebels have been fighting for greater autonomy against the now 400,000-strong government army known as the Tatmadaw since Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948.
Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong, an ethnic Chin representative from the Chin National Front (CNF) who was closely involved in drafting the Laiza Agreement, said the final document included provisions on the signing of a “nationwide ceasefire agreement,” and on holding an inclusive political dialogue.
Asked about a government proposal suggesting that the ethnic armed groups give up their armed struggle policy, Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong said, “We need to talk to end the civil wars and talk about the reason why the civil war started. We don’t have plans to hold our arms forever. The armed struggle has been to protect ourselves and demand political rights.”
“If we get what we want, we won’t hold onto our arms. The aim of armed struggle is that we want political problems to be solved through political means. Unless this is addressed, we can’t give up our arms,” he added.
The central government is dominated by ethnic Burmans who make up 60 percent of the country’s population. The country’s previous military regimes have been repeatedly called on the ethnic armed groups to disarm and fall in line with the central government since 1962, under the rule of Gen Ne Win, the late Burman dictator.
The ethnic minorities that make up the remaining 40 percent of the country have been marginalized by the ethnic Burman-dominated government for generations. Civilians have not been spared in the government’s military campaigns to quash the various ethnic rebellions and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the decades-long civil war.
Since a nominally civilian government took power in 2011, restrictions on media and freedom of expression have eased, hundreds of political prisoners have been released and Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) has been allowed to enter the political arena.
Despite such positive reforms, national reconciliation between the government and Burma’s ethnic rebels remains a major challenge. Armed clashes between government troops and ethnic armed groups still occur semi-regularly, most glaringly in northern Kachin State, where a ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke down in mid-2011, with some 80,000 people displaced in sporadic fighting since then.
Though nearly all of the country’s major ethnic armed groups have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government, a trust deficit remains, highlighted in October when a government Army offensive in Kachin State’s Mansi Township forced about 2,000 civilians to flee their homes.
Military matters are a key challenge to the national reconciliation process, with Burma’s constitutionally enshrined “one nation, one army” policy at odds with what ethnic rebels want. Among other things, the armed groups are seeking a quota system that would see ethnic minorities in senior military leadership positions.
Khun Okkar, joint secretary 2 of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups, said that because the government had already accepted the creation of a federal union for Burma in principle, acceptance of a federal army structure should follow.
“It is not just the ethnic Burman majority that has a military; the ethnic minorities have them too, so the country needs to establish a ‘Federal Armed Force’ combining both ethnic rebels and the government Army,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Asked about the objection of Lt-Gen Myint Soe, commander of a unit that oversees military operations in Kachin State, on the “federal army” proposition, Khun Okkar said Myint Soe perhaps misunderstood the ethnic groups’ proposal.
“He maybe thought that we asked for the government’s armed forces to be abolished immediately and form a federal army. But, if we triy to explain more about it, he may understand it. But it will take time,” said Khun Okkar, adding that a Constitution guaranteeing a federal system of governance should be written to replace the current, military-drafted charter.
The UNFC leader said that even Suu Kyi, who serves as chairwoman of the NLD, had accepted the idea of a “Federal Armed Force.”
Asked about the government proposal, Timothy Laklem, a spokesperson for the Karen Peace Council (KPC), said that some points offered by the government contained with military mindset, only to marginalized the ethnic armed groups.
“They should not ask the ethnic minorities to give up armed struggle. They asked us to disarm, but will they also give up their arms? They can’t do it to the ethnic minorities. The ethnic groups such as the Karen and Kachin have practiced armed struggle since the colonial era—even earlier than the ethnic Burmans,” Timothy said.
In early November in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, a draft document from the government proposed that the minorities end their armed resistance, while the ethnic groups’ corresponding proposal put forward the “federal army” condition. In an interview with The Irrawaddy following the Myitkyina talks, Myint Soe expressed concern that a federal army could cause the military to “collapse or become divided.”