Kachin Leader Deals Dose of Reality at Ethnic Ceasefire Summit
By Lawi Weng 3 June 2015
LAW KHEE LAR, Karen State — The second day of an ethnic leadership summit here in eastern Burma started off with a markedly different tone, as a senior Kachin official urged his peers to proceed toward peace with caution.
N’Ban Hla, joint chairman of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), delivered opening remarks on Wednesday countering the eager optimism of yesterday’s speakers, among them Karen National Union (KNU) Chairman Gen. Mutu Say Poe and UN special envoy to Burma Vijay Nambiar.
The summit, a meeting of the ethnic negotiating bloc known as the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), convened in Karen State’s Law Khee Lar on Tuesday, and is expected to continue through Saturday. As the 16-member bloc inches closer to reaching a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) between ethnic armed groups and the Burmese government, the conference is expected to cover most of the remaining points of contention about a draft to which both sides of the conflict committed in March.
The Kachin spokesman urged other members of the NCCT to abstain from the agreement until all members were included. Three NCCT members—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA)—are still in active conflict with government forces.
N’Ban Hla further warned his brothers-in-arms to be skeptical of President Thein Sein’s commitment to establishing a federal system of government, one of the key demands of ethnic leaders nationwide.
“All our ethnic people know it is easy for President Thein Sein to say he accepts what we ask for: establishing a federal system in the country,” N’Ban Hla said to an audience of diligent listeners. “We all know [the government] made a similar promise when it wrote the 2008 Constitution. We have to be careful that they will not bring this Constitution to the political dialogue [as it precludes political autonomy for ethnic states].”
Political dialogue is set to commence within 60 days of signing the accord, and amendments to the military-drafted charter have long been considered prerequisite to peace by many ethnic leaders. At present, constitutional amendment does not seem likely before elections slated for November, as the head of Burma’s election commission recently indicated.
N’Ban Hla, who also serves as chairman of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the latest iteration of an ethnic political coalition in Burma, spoke at length about the seriousness of conflict in northern Shan State, particularly involving Kokang and Palaung (Ta’ang) forces, which are not recognized by the government.
“Palaung and Kokang are among the groups included in the list of 135 ethnicities officially recognized by Burma. But we can see that [the government] is treating the Kokang as though they don’t belong to our country,” N’Ban Hla said, referring to recent conflict in the remote border region that has been among the most relentless in decades.
N’Ban Hla expressed his deep respect for the Kokang of the MNDAA, saying the group’s leader, Peng Jiasheng, was “like a golden star which came down from the sky.” The MNDAA, he reminded his peers, was one of the first ethnic armed groups in Burma to reap the developmental benefits of a peace deal, which Jiasheng helped to secure in 1989.
Regarding Jiasheng’s 2009 ouster by the government and his attempted return earlier this year—which triggered the conflict—N’Ban Hla said fondly that, “we have sympathy for him.” He urged negotiators to hold out for an agreement inclusive of all ethnic stakeholders, especially those that are now vulnerable to attacks.
While some attendees, most noticeably the KNU’s Mutu Say Poe, said it was time to push ahead with the NCA and move on to political dialogue, several sided firmly with N’Ban Hla. Nai Hong Sar, who sits at the head of the NCCT, told reporters on the sidelines of Wednesday’s meeting that the group would “not abandon” the Kokang, Palaung and Arakanese forces. A top KIA official, who wished not to be named, predicted that the KIA would not sign a ceasefire agreement until successful elections had been carried out.
Despite some disagreements, likely leading to lively discussions throughout the remainder of the conference, most attendees could appreciate N’Ban Hla’s closing sentiments, which asked ethnic leaders to remain mindful that a lasting peace has been their goal for decades, and that no one ever expected it to come quickly.
“I want to ask all ethnic leaders joining this summit to deeply discuss their cases for or against signing the NCA. Many of our ethnic people have paid with their lives in the fight for peace,” he said. “Now is the time for all of our ethnic people, and the Burmese involved in the fighting, to find one common agreement and create a federal system in our country. We have fought for this for many decades.”