No Longer Unlawful, Ethnic Armed Groups Meet President to Demand Assurances

By Nyein Nyein 13 October 2015

NAYPYIDAW — Two days before inking a long-awaited ceasefire agreement, representatives of two major ethnic armed groups met with President Thein Sein on Tuesday to discuss the implications of their recent removal from Burma’s roster of unlawful organizations.

Delegates from the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) met to discuss the executive order and emphasize that it must apply to both their political organizations and their armed wings, should culminate in the release of all members imprisoned under the Unlawful Associations Act and an immediate cessation of hostilities.

On Monday, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that the KNU, RCSS and the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) had been removed from the government’s list of unlawful associations. The latter two were also removed from a list of terrorist groups.

KNU secretary Kwe Htoo Win told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the group wanted to “make sure” the order would apply to the groups’ militants as well as political leaders, and that representatives conveyed the necessity of easing the current conflict “in every region after signing [a ceasefire agreement], so that the pact will be meaningful.”

The date has been set to Oct. 15, when eight ethnic armed groups will convene in the capital Naypyidaw to sign what has been referred to as a nationwide ceasefire agreement, though about half of the ethnic stakeholders in Burma’s protracted peace process will abstain.

Conflict continues in parts of Kachin and Shan states, and the dominant ethnic organizations in both areas—the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP)—will not be party to the pact.

Prominent politicians will also be absent from Thursday’s signing ceremony, most notable opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) will be represented at the event by spokesperson Win Htein. Shan leader Khun Tun Oo and Arakan State’s Aye Thar Aung have also declined an invitation to sign as witnesses.

The ceremony will carry on nonetheless, with more than 20 domestic witnesses and six international observers from the United Nations, European Union, China, India, Japan and Thailand. The government had initially invited some 1,100 signatories, witnesses and observers from political parties and diplomatic missions to attend the ceremony, according to Hla Maung Shwe, an official at the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC).

Key issues discussed on Tuesday were whether representatives of ethnic armed groups could attend the ceremony in their respective military uniforms, the release of political prisoners and the retention of rebel bases in non-government controlled areas.

Regarding ethnic armed group uniforms, which the government had previously said it would prohibit at the signing, Kwe Htoo Win said “the President has agreed to let them” don their respective attire.

The release of political prisoners could prove tough to resolve, as a number of the affected armed groups still do not have an accurate list of how many people had been arrested for unlawful association with their groups. Col. Sai La, a spokesperson for the RCSS, said his group would collaborate with organizations representing prisoners of conscience to establish ha complete list and petition for their amnesty.

At present, some 96 political prisoners are currently in detention, three of whom were sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for associating with the ABSDF. The group’s vice chairman, Myo Win, said the ceasefire accord to be signed on Thursday stipulates that all political detainees—those arrested for unlawful association as well as those currently facing trial for demonstrations against a new National Education Law—must be swiftly released.

The RCSS spokesperson said the group also discussed maintaining its military bases in 16 townships and the opportunity to establish additional liaison offices in Shan State to better facilitate conflict resolution. Sai La said the president “said he had ordered ground forces to cooperate.”

Both the RCSS and the ABSDF said they were previously unaware that they were even included on a list of terrorist groups, but welcomed their removal from both designations. The revocation of unlawful status would likely make a major impact on their partnerships with other stakeholders in the peace process, the ABSDF’s Myo Win said, as they would “not need to worry about dealing with us as an unlawful association anymore.”

Both groups—KNU and RCSS—were represented at Tuesday’s meeting with Thein Sein. In addition to spokesmen Kwe Htoo Win and Sai La, RCSS Brig-Gen Pao Khay and KNU chairman Mutu Sae Poe were also in attendance.