CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The official peace talks scheduled for Thursday between the government and the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) were cancelled. In their place, the negotiators met informally to keep the process alive.
All of the members of the UNFC’s Delegation for Political Negotiations (DPN) had travelled to Yangon on Wednesday. But on Thursday, only a few of them met the government’s Peace Commission (PC) members for an informal discussion.
The DPN referred to the cancelled talks as the 9th round of formal talks, following a custom of designating each official meeting as a new round (thus they referred to their talks on Nov 8-9 as the 8th round of talks).
The government insists on numbering the latest talks as an extension of the 7th round held in October and seems in a hurry to bring the talks to a conclusion so that the five armed ethnic groups who make up the UNFC – the New Mon State Party (NMSP), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), Arakan National Council (ANC) and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) – will officially join the national peace process as signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
No public explanation was given for the cancellation of Thursday’s formal talks. However, according to inside sources, it was to avoid a possible ‘deadlock’ over one of the eight demands that the UNFC has made as a pre-condition to signing the NCA, regarding the future name of the country. The UNFC wants the country to be officially described as the “Federal Democratic Union” but the government wants it to be the “Democracy and Federal Union.”
The UNFC has repeatedly raised this point since the first session of the 21st Panglong peace conference, which was held in Aug-Sept 2016, under the National League for Democracy government, when all of the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) attended the conference and presented their political objectives.
Alliance chairman Nai Hong Sar said at that time that a future federal union should have a name that “demonstrates ownership by all ethnicities or regions,” instead of representing one ethnicity. Myanmar – the current name – is deemed to represent the majority Burmans.
For about 17 months, talks between the DPN and government’s PC have focused on the eight-point proposal that the UNFC put forward as its terms for signing the NCA. And despite the alliance saying this week that it was close to signing the agreement, it appears there is still a long road ahead until an accord can be reached.
The government had initially expected the UNFC would sign the NCA before the third session of the 21st Panglong Union Peace Conference, which State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi plans to hold before the end of 2017. However, that looks unlikely to happen now as both the UNFC and the Northern Alliance stick to their existing positions. The UNFC is demanding that specific conditions be agreed before they will sign, while the Northern Alliance wants an alternative approach to the NCA.
According to the sources close to the negotiations, further talks with the non-signatories to the NCA may be postponed if the government does not agree to all of the UNFC’s terms. The UNFC has said that unless the government relaxes its rigid approach to the talks, the hurdles would remain.
In addition to the differences over specific proposals a lack of mutual trust dogs the talks. Disputes over terms as such “federal” and “revolution” are not new in the Myanmar peace process, which began in late 2011. In 2014, negotiations reached a stalemate due to differences over terminology as well as the Tatmadaw’s inclusion of its Myanmar Army’s six-principles on the process.
This major hurdle led to a disagreement between the EAOs and a split between those that signed the NCA in October 2015 and those that did not. Whenever it has seemed that progress was being made during the six years of peace talks in Myanmar, an issue has arisen to derail the process.
The current NLD government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is dealing with three separate stakeholder groups in the peace process; the UNFC, the Northern Alliance and the eight-signatories of the NCA.
The government’s talks with the active armed ethnic groups that are based in the northeast are currently on hold. The Northern Alliance’s representatives, known as the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), have demanded to hold talks as a bloc, a position the government has rejected, insisting it meet the groups separately.
The Tatmadaw has clashed militarily in northern Shan State with some of the FPNCC members – namely the Taang Nationalities Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA) and Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – and has been reluctant to accept these groups as peace talk partners. This month the AA has also become more active in western Myanmar, in Paletwa of Chin State, which is close to the border with northern Rakhine State.
Meanwhile, the government continues its political negotiations with the signatories of the NCA, as it pushes forward with the broader peace process. Ongoing meetings regarding the political dialogue framework and reviews of the implementation of the NCA are being held.
The eight ethnic armed organizations’ Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) has expressed a shared optimism about the peace process. Its leaders said the peace talks were a channel for both sides to collaborate to reach a solution to the country’s political problems.
General Yawd Serk, a PPST leader and chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), urged all sides to have “patience to reach a common agreement, which would benefit both of the peace negotiation partners,” during his speech after the PPST’s 16th meeting in Chiang Mai on Wednesday.
“Our aim is to establish a federal union, self-determination, and peace and development in the country,” he said. “Therefore, we must aim to benefit our union, rather than winning over the negotiation partner [Tatmadaw and government].”