Myitkyina Talks Show Obstacles on the Path of Peace Process

By Saw Yan Naing 5 November 2013

MYITKYINA, Kachin State — Leaders of Burma’s ethnic armed groups and the government’s negotiating team have agreed to the common goal of signing a national ceasefire agreement, according to a joint statement released Tuesday. But the two sides differing demands show obstacles lying ahead in the peace process.

On the final day of talks in the Kachin State capital, the government told ethnic armed groups to end their armed resistance, while ethnic minorities proposed a federal army for the Southeast Asian nation.

The two-day meeting between the government delegation and ethnic leaders in Myitkyina ended on Tuesday without a press conference, despite the presence of international and local media.

However, the two parties released a joint statement after the meeting saying they had agreed to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement, draw up a framework for political dialogue and then hold a political dialogue. At the meeting, the two sides also exchanged their draft proposals for continuing negotiations.

The two parties have agreed to hold another meeting in the Karen State capital of Pa-an in December, said Lt-Gen Myint Soe, commander of the government bureau of special operations for Kachin State, who attended the two-day meeting. But he conceded that a nationwide ceasefire agreement this month, as had been targeted by the government, will not happen.

A 15-point proposal drafted by the government urged the armed groups to “give up the policy of armed struggle that damages the livelihood of civilians, does not provide safety for civilians and endangers the civilians.” Instead, ethnic groups should build trust through the negotiating process, the proposal says.

It also warns the armed groups against antagonism with each other, encouraging an inclusive approach to peace talks.

Ethnic leaders said a national ceasefire agreement would still take some time because ethnic leaders need more time to look at the government’s draft proposal.

“We will need to take the government draft proposal to our respective regions and brief our fellows about it,” said Col Sai La, a spokesperson for the Restoration Council of Shan State. “It will take time to study it.”

For their part, the ethnic leaders proposed that the government form an army based on a federalist system, combining all Burma’s ethnic groups, including those who have been engaged in conflict with the Burman-dominated government army for more than six decades.
Saw Kwe Htoo Win, general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), said details of the proposal for a federal army had not yet been worked out.

“We have various ethnic armed groups in the country. This is what we need to discuss in the future. We haven’t discussed in detail how to form the federal army,” Saw Kwe Htoo Win said. “There are different federal army structures. But, this is what we have to discuss—which country will be our role model? America, Switzerland or whoever? We haven’t talked about it yet.”

Sources inside the meeting said that the government peace delegation disagreed with the proposal. Burma’s current Constitution, drawn up in 2008 under military rule, dictates a “one nation, one national armed forces” policy, and reserves a quarter of Parliamentary seats for the military. Ethnic groups want the Constitution revised or completely rewritten reflect a federalist system.

Burma still has 18 different armed rebel groups, including major groups the Karen, Kachin, Shan, Wa and Mon, who each control parcels of territory of various sizes in the country’s border territories. Although the government estimates the ethnic rebels have 200,000 fighters in total, independent estimates suggest only about 100,000. The government says it has 400,000 troops.

A government effort to create a combined military in 2009, which involved the ethnic armed groups being partly absorbed into the government army as Border Guard Forces, was largely rejected by rebel leaders.