International Pressure on Ethnic Armies to Ink Ceasefire

By Lawi Weng 2 June 2015

LAW KHEE LAR, Karen State — Envoys from the United Nations and China joined one of Burma’s most powerful ethnic armed groups on Tuesday in urging ethnic leaders to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the government, at the opening of a summit here to discuss the issue.

Mutu Say Poe, chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU), spoke at the meeting, acknowledging that the gathered ethnic representatives had a variety of interests to consider as they debate the merits of a draft accord for which a declaration of support was signed by ethnic leaders in late March.

“This meeting will be an important meeting to make a political platform for the future of our ethnic armed groups. Regarding the signing of the NCA [nationwide ceasefire accord], I want to give my thoughts: There are different armed groups in our NCCT, and we have different political interests,” he said, referring to the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, a grouping of 16 ethnic armed groups.

“Should we abandon what we have in the current agreement from the draft NCA or take what we have got?” Mutu Say Poe continued.

He encouraged NCCT members with reservations about the agreement to embrace a “culture of negotiation” that four years of peace talks had fostered.

“Political conflicts must be solved with political dialogue, this is the political stance and commitment of our KNU,” he said, adding that the draft ceasefire was not a perfect agreement.

“I want to say to you all that we will not get all the rights that we want from this draft NCA. It is not a comprehensive draft, but we need to negotiate more to get our rights via political talks. This draft is just an agreement to talk more,” he said, asking ethnic leaders to “be brave” and sign onto the accord.

The KNU chairman also addressed ongoing fighting in northeastern Burma, where clashes between the Burma Army and armed Palaung, Kokang and Arakanese rebels have led some ethnic leaders to question the government’s commitment to the peace process.

The fighting “should not disturb the peace talks,” he said, a sentiment no doubt easier said than done for some of the summit’s attendees, who have in recent months fought some of the fiercest battles in Burma’s civil war since the late 1980s.

The UN special adviser on Burma, Vijay Nambiar, and the Chinese envoy Sun Guoxiang attended the meeting as international observers and also gave remarks on Tuesday in support of the ceasefire’s signing.

Nambiar said it was important that ethnic armed groups sign the agreement before elections due late this year, so that a political dialogue with the government could begin “as soon as possible.”

“This will require you to make some concessions,” he added.

Conversations with ethnic leaders on Tuesday revealed varying perspectives on the state of Burma’s peace process, and whether members of the NCCT should sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement.

N’Ban La, the joint chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), told The Irrawaddy that the KIO would sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement only if it guaranteed a future federal system of government for Burma.

Phone Win Naing, a communications officer from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), said that his group would not sign the nationwide ceasefire unless the ethnic Kokang were afforded equal rights.

The MNDAA has been the target of a sustained campaign by the Burma Army to rid the Kokang Special Region of the insurgent group, after MNDAA fighters first attacked the city of Laukkai on Feb. 9.

“Other people do not understand our situation. We understand our situation. Why would we sign an NCA if we do not get our political rights,” Phone Win Naing told The Irrawaddy on the sidelines of Tuesday’s meeting.

The MNDAA is a member of the NCCT, but the government does not recognize its seat at the negotiating table, nor the claims to NCCT membership of the Arakan Army.

A leader from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) reiterated a position, taken by the MNDAA, TNLA and Arakan Army, that the three ethnic armed groups would resign from the NCCT if its other members went ahead with signing the nationwide ceasefire accord.

Supporters of Burma’s peace process hope the Law Khee Lar meeting will be the final word on whether ethnic armed groups will sign the nationwide ceasefire accord.

Last month, however, NCCT chief Nai Hong Sar said ethnic leaders were considering changes to the draft accord, which Naypyidaw’s chief peace negotiator has said could protract Burma’s peace process.

“He [President’s Office Minister Aung Min, the government’s lead peace negotiator] did not want us to add more new points to the NCA draft, but our members generally have discussed adding a few more points to the draft. However, we can only decide at this meeting [in Law Khee Lar] whether we will get agreement from all our members about adding more new points,” said Nai Hong Sar.

Out of 22 ethnic armed groups invited to the summit this week, three have decided not to join, according to Nai Hong Sar. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), National Democracy Alliance Army (NDAA) and the Restoration Council of Shan State opted out, he told The Irrawaddy.

Law Khee Lar, situated along the Thai-Burma border, is controlled by the KNU’s Brigade 7 and also played host to a meeting of ethnic leaders in January 2014.

In a testament to the decades of conflict that has ravaged the region, a KNU leader warned journalists on Monday not to stray from a designated zone that was determined to be free of landmines.

The summit in Law Khee Lar is expected to conclude on Saturday.