Nationwide Ceasefire to Include ‘Federal System’ Clause: Ethnic Leader

By May Kha & Lawi Weng 22 May 2014

RANGOON — A representative of Burma’s ethnic armed groups says military representatives have accepted that ongoing peace negotiations will be based on achieving a “federal system, which would ensure the ethnics equality and democracy,” during a meeting aimed at drafting a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Wednesday.

The Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), comprised of 16 of Burma’s ethnic armed groups, and the government’s Union Peace Working Committee are meeting this week in Rangoon, where negotiators are attempting to hammer out differences between the two sides’ separate ceasefire proposals.

Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, coordinator of the NCCT’s drafting team, said the ethnic groups had proposed three different phrases—“genuine federal system,” “union based on federalism,” and the wording that was ultimately agreed upon—to serve as the basis for a political dialogue expected to follow the eventual signing of a nationwide ceasefire. That dialogue will seek to address the ethnic groups’ longstanding political aspirations, including demands for greater autonomy and control over natural resources.

The NCCT and the UPWC are slated to meet for three days this week, with negotiators convening the discussions on Wednesday. Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong said the two sides would still have to bridge differences on other principles, but added that the agreement on wording pertaining to federalism had put the negotiations “in good shape.”

Incorporation of the phrase “federal system” is a major win for ethnic groups, with Burma’s central government for decades seeking to quash such talk on the ostensible basis that devolving political power would lead to disintegration of the union.

Representatives from the Burmese Army did not bring up their so-called “six demands” at the first day of the latest round of peace talks, according to the NCCT coordinator, who said the omission was accompanied by an apparent softening of the military representatives’ stance.

“We found that they [Army negotiators] stood very strong during the meeting in April,” said Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong, a Chin National Front representative, referring to the last time the two sides met. “They told us [previously] that they could not accept our proposal asking for self-determination. Now, we found that they are looking for ways to move the peace process forward.”

The six-point statement from the Army was put forward last month, and included demands—such as that rebel armed groups respect Burma’s controversial 2008 Constitution—that many ethnic voices have deemed unacceptable. Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong said that although Army negotiators did not mention the six points on Wednesday, it did mean that those demands had been dropped.

“We have our own stance and so do they. If we can negotiate between these stances, we can sign [a nationwide ceasefire agreement],” the ethnic leader said.

Khun Okkar, joint-secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups, said some other disputes over wording were also resolved on Wednesday.

“They [government representatives] now have agreed to the words ‘armed conflict,’ which is a replacement for the wording ‘civil war,’” he said, referring to initial government consternation over how the decades of fighting between the two sides would be characterized.

“It is now likely that they will accept to include the word ‘revolution’ in the second section,” he added. “Both the government and the Tatmadaw [military] have negotiated well with us on those wordings.”

Hla Maung Shwe from the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), which is hosting this week’s talks, told The Irrawaddy that both sides approached the discussions openly and amicably. He said this approach was more conducive to the success of the negotiations, adding that both sides were committed to reaching agreement on a single ceasefire text.