Naypyidaw Expected to Hold Major Conference With Ethnic Groups

By Lawi Weng & May Kha 20 June 2013

RANGOON—Burma’s government has told a visiting delegation from the European Union that it will hold a major conference with ethnic minority groups who are fighting for greater political autonomy.

The government will hold the conference next month, said a senior EU official from the delegation, which held two days of meetings with Burmese officials in Naypyidaw this week to discuss EU-Burma trade and investment, as well as the implementation of a large EU aid program in coming years.

“What is happening with the peace process is very encouraging, I must say. I think the government has succeeded in having ceasefires,” David O’Sullivan, chief operating officer of the European External Action Service, which serves as an EU diplomacy corps, told reporters on Wednesday. “Hopefully now, with the completing of the full set of ceasefires, as I understand it, it’s intended to hold a major conference in July, which would be the signing of a nationwide ceasefire, accompanied by the beginnings of political dialogue.”

He said the conference was expected to engage in “the beginnings of a debate about how Myanmar could perhaps move toward a slightly more decentralized [system].”

“The word ‘federal’ is perhaps a loaded word, depending on where you come from, but allowing a greater degree of autonomy to some of the ethnic regions as part of an overall political settlement, this seems to us—we know how difficult it is—but it seems to be moving generally in the right direction,” he said.

After Burma’s independence from Britain, many of the country’s ethnic minority states fought decades-long wars against the government’s army in pursuit of greater political autonomy. Ethnic armed groups also fought for better human rights for ethnic minority people, who were long oppressed by the military regime and continue to lack equal representation under Burma’s nominally civilian government, which took power in 2011.

President Thein Sein’s government has signed ceasefire deals with most major ethnic armed groups, but clashes have continued in many areas.

In north Burma’s Kachin State, fighting escalated in January this year after a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011. Clashes died down in February with the start of peace talks, which last month led to the signing of a preliminary peace agreement between both sides, although a formal ceasefire has not yet been achieved.

Hla Maung Shwe, a peace negotiator from the Myanmar Peace Center in Rangoon, said negotiations with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) were the key to achieving a nationwide ceasefire agreement in Naypyidaw.

“If the government could sign a ceasefire with the KIA, President Thein Sein will hold a nationwide ceasefire agreement in Naypyidaw first,” he told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “Then it [the government] will have a framework for political dialogue.”

Ten of 11 major ethnic armed groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the government. In addition to the KIA, smaller armed groups such as ethnic Naga and ethnic Paluang armed groups, as well as the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), are also still fighting with the government.

Leaders from the KIA and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, say they will only sign a ceasefire agreement if Burma’s government holds a political dialogue open to all ethnic people.

“We want all people to have the ability to participate in this event,” said the KIA’s deputy chief, Gen Sumlut Gun Maw. “But there are Naga and other armed groups which haven’t yet agreed to a ceasefire. All of them should participate in this event. It should not only be the 11 ethnic armed groups.”

Sam Khun, a spokesman for the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in east Burma’s Shan State, said he did not believe a nationwide ceasefire would be possible without political dialogue.

But Maj Sai Hla, a spokesman for the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), said the government did not yet have plans to discuss a federal system in Naypyidaw.

“As I understand it, they are not saying this will be a political dialogue. It’s only to have a nationwide ceasefire agreement,” he said.