A Word Could Delay Burma’s Peace Process: Ethnic Leaders

By Saw Yan Naing 21 January 2014

LAW KHEE LAR, Karen State — The terminology to be included in a draft of Burma’s awaited nationwide ceasefire agreement became the hot topic of conversation Tuesday at a conference of ethnic armed groups in territory held by the Karen National Union (KNU).

At issue was the use of the word “revolution” (taw lan yay in the Burmese language), which leaders said could become a sticking point and further delay the peace process.

Armed groups are meeting ahead of more talks with the government’s negotiating team in the Karen State capital of Hpa-an, scheduled for Feb. 20.

Nai Hong Sar, general-secretary of United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups, said some groups wanted the document to refer to them as “ethnic revolution armed groups.”

“[The government] doesn’t want us [ethnic rebels] to use the word ‘revolution’ in the document. As the ethnic armed groups have been signing ceasefire agreements with the government and we are in the process of peace negotiations, [they say] a word like ‘revolution’ is not appropriate,” he said.

“We want to include the word ‘revolution’ because we engage in military means for a political purpose. We use armed struggle to demand our rights. ‘Armed groups’ could be any groups who hold arms for looting. They could be terrorists or pirates,” said Nai Hong Sar.

“But we are not terrorists. We are not pirates. We hold guns and fight against the government to demand our fundamental rights.”

Nai Hong Sar said the dispute showed the difficulty in reaching a nationwide agreement.

“If we can’t deal with just a word, like ‘revolution,’ the peace process can be prolonged. Terminology alone can delay the peace process,” he said.

Respectively founded after Burma gained independence from its British colonial rulers in 1948, the country’s ethnic rebels have been engaging in armed struggles against the central government for autonomy, self-determination and equality—aims that rebels say have not yet been addressed. There are at least 17 different ethnic armed groups with an estimated 100,000 troops combined.

Lia Hmong Sakong, an ethnic Chin academic who is writing the draft document for the ethnic armed groups, agreed that the term “revolution” was important.

“They [the government] said that as we are in the peace process, a word like ‘revolution’ is provocative. But, we hold arms not for looting,” he said.

“By using a word like ‘revolution,’ we want to show that we don’t hold arms for looting and attacking people without reason.”

Most ethnic minority armed groups, with the exception of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its allied Palaung group, have signed ceasefire agreements with the government individually since late 2011.

Ethnic leaders also said that the conference, which is currently being held at a KNU base at Law Khee Lar, will be extended, since they still have to discuss disagreements and amendments among the ethnic groups involved in the meeting.

The conference involves all ethnic armed groups except the United Wa State Army and its allied Mong La militia. It began on Monday and will now continue until Thursday.