RANGOON — More than 100 civil society organizations (CSOs) have questioned plans to hold an upcoming political dialogue, dubbed the Union Peace Conference, beginning in the capital Naypyidaw next week.
The joint statement released Tuesday said that adoption of a framework for political dialogue last month and the planned Union Peace Conference on Jan. 12 were developments—touted heavily by the government—that appeared divorced from the reality of ongoing conflict in Burma.
Clashes in northern Shan and Kachin states have persisted since the signing of a so-called nationwide ceasefire in October. Most recently, fighting also flared in Arakan State, where the Arakan Army has exchanged hostilities with the Burma Army, joining the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in northern Shan State, as groups in active armed resistance to the government.
“[The government] calls it a nationwide ceasefire agreement and Union Peace Conference, but clashes are still ongoing and the choice of words is therefore controversial,” Kyaw Htin Aung, a central committee member of the Union of Karenni State Youth, told The Irrawaddy. “It also implies turning a blind eye to ethnic people who are suffering from civil war. If [the government] wants to use those words, the ongoing assaults need to cease.”
Though President Thein Sein’s government managed to bring 16 major non-state armed groups together for peace negotiations after coming to power in 2011, it was only able to convince eight of those groups to sign the multilateral ceasefire agreement last October.
Ethnic leaders and CSOs have predicted that a non-inclusive political dialogue presents a major challenge to the new government that is slated to take power in late March.
The joint statement from 126 CSOs expresses serious concern that an attempt to initiate a non-inclusive political dialogue while several ethnic armed groups remain non-signatories to the ceasefire—whether by choice or exclusion—could lead to negative consequences rather than positive outcomes.
Khun Myint Tun, chairman of Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), stressed that in order for Burma’s peace process to succeed, collaboration was required among the outgoing government, its National League for Democracy (NLD) successor, the military and all ethnic armed groups.
“It seems that CSOs are concerned that it would be difficult to build national reconciliation in our country [under the framework currently moving forward]. I agree with their views,” he said. “If national reconciliation can’t be built, both signatories and non-signatories [to the nationwide ceasefire] will not succeed, and neither will the NLD nor the military. To ensure a win-win situation for all, all stakeholders need to take responsibility.”
The government and the eight ethnic armed group signatories to the ceasefire have agreed to a framework of proportional representation for the political dialogue that breaks down as such: Among 700 full-fledged participants, representatives will be divided equally between the Burma Army, ethnic armed signatories and political parties, with 150 delegates each. The outgoing Thein Sein government and Parliament will each be allotted 75 seats, and 50 will go both to other ethnic leaders and experts from a variety of fields.
Non-signatories to the ceasefire accord will be allocated nearly 50 seats at the table as observers.
The CSOs’ statement called for postponing the political dialogue until a more inclusive nationwide ceasefire agreement is signed; a reassessment of the proportions of representatives of parties to the conference and of the vote threshold needed for decision-taking; and a greater effort to seek the inputs of non-signatories, as part of an overall review of the political dialogue’s framework.
Among the 126 CSOs that released the joint statement are the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), Kachin Peace Network and Burmese Women’s Union.