RANGOON — State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s words to leaders of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) ethnic armed alliance during their first closed-door meeting were leaked to the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News on Thursday.
According to the leaked transcript, during the meeting at the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) in Rangoon on July 17, Suu Kyi told UNFC leaders of her commitment to “non-separatist” federalism under the “Panglong spirit,” and explained why she wanted the Union Peace Conference to be expedited for later this month.
Suu Kyi also stated that those armed groups who have not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) could not be given “equal status” to signatory armed groups, so as not to undermine the NCA, which she hoped all groups would sign.
The nine ethnic armed groups that comprise the UNFC either refused to sign the NCA—reached between the government and only eight ethnic armed groups in October last year—or were excluded from doing so at the insistence of the military.
UNFC members have expressed concerns that the government is rushing to hold the peace conference in premature circumstances, and have demanded that the government declare a unilateral ceasefire beforehand—a move that would require negotiation with Burma’s armed forces, who have not appeared receptive to the idea so far.
In the meeting, according to the leaked transcript, Suu Kyi said she wished to hold the peace conference as soon as possible out of an urgent need to “set a timeframe” for peace negotiations—a lesson drawn from peace processes elsewhere, such as Northern Ireland.
She said that, if they were to only meet for political dialogue after every group had signed the NCA, it would provide an opportunity for “any group that does not want peace” to spoil the process.
Political dialogue, envisaged as a central part of the Union Peace Conference, refers to anticipated negotiations over a federal restructuring of the state to accommodate longstanding demands from ethnic minority groups for greater autonomy.
Right after the July 17 meeting, the government publicly described the meeting as “a family gathering” aimed at building mutual trust. Spokespersons from both sides said the meeting had yielded good results, with participants discussing federalism and issues related to the NCA.
The transcript did not contain comments from the armed group leaders present: UNFC chairman Gen N’Ban La from the Kachin Independence Party, UNFC secretary Khu Oo Reh and Abel Tweet from the Karenni National Progressive Party, Naing Htaw Mon from the New Mon State Party, and Gen Say Htin from the Shan State Progress Party.
The absence of their voices from the transcript could suggest that Suu Kyi dominated the dialogue. So thought political commentator Aung Thu Nyein, who said, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should be listening more to the ethnic leaders rather than just talking.”
The transcript also has Suu Kyi advising the ethnic armed group leaders to take a “calculated risk” by taking part in the peace process, citing her own decision to participate in the 2012 by-elections and the 2015 general election.
But Aung Thu Nyein and other commentators have criticized this as a false equivalence, because a key stakeholder—the Burma Army—is demanding that some ethnic armed groups disarm before taking part in peace negotiations, which would fundamentally impair their leverage.
Suu Kyi invited them to “ask for whatever you want, but I cannot guarantee that you will get 100 percent of what you ask. We will negotiate. If you take part with the intention of gaining 100 percent, nothing can work.”
In response to Suu Kyi’s much-publicized request to ethnic armed groups to “think more of giving rather than taking,” UNFC secretary Khu Oo Reh told the press in Rangoon the following day, “What more do they want from us? We have nothing more to give because our natural resources have been destroyed and our people have faced hardship.”
During the meeting, Suu Kyi reassured them that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government accepted a federal state as the “sole solution,” but was at pains to distance the notion from “separation from the Union.” She said, “Federalism [would mean] the separation of power between the central government and the state and divisional governments, which must be defined in the constitution.”
“Federalism is not about encouraging separation. It is about building institutions that can guarantee non-separation,” she said.
In accordance with the “Panglong spirit,” she said she had no intention of restricting the rights of minority ethnic groups. She referred to the preamble of the 1947 Panglong Agreement—a deal guaranteeing regional autonomy for “frontier areas” signed between her father Aung San and Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders—which she said contained the “spirit of ‘working together’ for all ethnic groups in Burma.”
In her final words, she cited her desire for the peace process to be “all-inclusive,” and expressed a hope that all groups would sign the NCA prior to entering peace negotiations.
She said, “I want to create a space for [current] non-signatories to the NCA to be able to participate in the 21st Century Panglong Conference”—the name she has given to the upcoming Union Peace Conference—“but I cannot give equal status to signatories and non-signatories. If I did, nobody would pay attention to the NCA.”
According to the current political dialogue framework—agreed in January this year—the armed groups that are not signatories to the NCA are invited to take part in the peace conference, but only as “observers.”
A political dialogue framework review meeting is scheduled for the middle of this month. The government has invited UNFC members to participate.