The powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) said it is not attending the nationwide ceasefire talks between ethnic armed groups and the government this week because of Burma Army allegations that the Wa are supporting the Kokang rebels in the ongoing conflict in northern Burma.
UWSA spokesman Aung Myint told The Irrawaddy that the group’s leadership had been irked by the allegations, adding that they were also too busy to attend the meeting in Rangoon.
“We’ve been constantly engaged in the peace process. UWSA leaders are somewhat annoyed with the [government] allegations about that case [the Kokang conflict]. We are also busy, and that’s why we are not attending the meeting,” he said in a phone call.
The Union Peacemaking Working Committee of Minister Aung Min and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents an alliance of 16 ethnic groups, are meeting for the seventh time in Rangoon on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss a nationwide ceasefire accord.
It is the first nationwide ceasefire meeting since September, when the negotiations hit a deadlock. NCCT leaders have said they would like to discuss reducing the fighting in northern Burma, which has involved the Kokang rebels and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
The UWSA are not a NCCT member but had until now attended the meetings as observers. The Mongla group, a small ethnic army based in northern Shan State that is allied to the Wa, is attending the talks this week as an observer.
The UWSA are the country’s largest ethnic army, with some 20,000 fighters and equipped with sophisticated Chinese arms. The group has had a long-standing ceasefire with the government.
Wa leaders have indicated they desire to enter into political dialogue with Naypyidaw about their demands for regional autonomy, even if a nationwide ceasefire accord cannot be reached, Aung Myint said. He added that the Wa had supported some 1,000 displaced civilians who fled the Kokang Special Region because of the fighting and entered the Wa Special Region.
Heavy fighting between the Burma Army and the Kokang rebels of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) has raged in northern Shan State since Feb. 9. Dozens of soldiers have been killed, while tens of thousands of civilians have fled.
The government does not recognize the MNDAA as an armed group, though it is a NCCT member.
The Burma Army has alleged that Kachin Independence Army (KIA), UWSA, Shan State Army-North, the TNLA and Mongla group are supporting the Kokang rebels—an allegation denied by all concerned groups except the TNLA.
At a press conference on Feb. 21, Lt-Gen. Aung Than Htut of the Commander-in-Chief’s Office told reporters that UWSA-manufactured weapons were found among arms seized from Kokang troops.
Aung Than Htut invited seven UWSA delegates, including a brigadier-general, to Lashio on March 14 and warned them not to support arms and ammunitions to the MNDAA.
The MNDAA, Mongla group and UWSA are all based in the rugged border region of northern Shan State and used to be part of the China-backed Communist Party of Burma until its demise in 1989, when the party splintered into three ethnic armed groups.
Additional reporting by Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint.