Amid More Delays, Rivalries Divide Burma’s Ethnic Groups

By Saw Yan Naing 7 February 2014

The Burma government and ethnic rebel groups will not meet as planned this month for a nationwide ceasefire conference. The meeting has been postponed once again, to March, with ethnic leaders claiming they need more time to negotiate among themselves before presenting their draft ceasefire proposal.

Ethnic leaders say delays in the final stages are to be expected. But under the surface, rivalries between different rebel groups have slowed the process.

Mahn Nyein Maung, a central committee member of the Karen National Union (KNU), said the government negotiation team and ethnic groups had planned to hold the nationwide ceasefire conference in late February in the Karen State capital Pa-an.

“But we had to postpone because we haven’t finished negotiating,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We haven’t finished pre-negotiations.”

He was referring to meetings over the past month or so between the government negotiation team, the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which is the working team for an alliance of ethnic groups around the country.

The MPC and the NCCT plan to meet again on Feb. 16 for informal talks in Rangoon, where they will discuss the draft proposals of the nationwide ceasefire agreement.

“In the peace process, we hold informal meetings often to discuss and amend disagreements from both sides, and to include what we want. We do it often just to prepare, to ensure there are no difficulties in the final stage,” Mahn Nyein Maung said, adding that he believed the nationwide ceasefire agreement would likely be signed in March.

However, some ethnic groups may not join. The Wa and the Mongla, along with Shan leaders from the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), have not confirmed that whether they will add their signatures to the list during the upcoming Pa-an meeting.

The NCCT is requesting that the government army be forbidden from attacking rebel groups that do not sign the agreement in Pa-an, said Mahn Nyein Maung.

While both sides attempt to compromise, internal divisions may also explain why so many meetings have been called before the nationwide ceasefire conference.

Last month, ethnic groups came together in Karen State, at the KNU base of Law Khee Lar. Observers at this gathering said that on the peripheral of the peace talks, a power struggle was ongoing between leaders of different ethnic groups—particularly between the KNU, the RCSS and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).

They say the process has been slowed by distrust that has deep historical roots.

“They are fighting over the chair of the United Nationalities Federal Council,” said one observer at the Law Khee Lar gathering, who requested to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak with the media. The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) is an alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups, currently chaired by a KIO leader.

“The KNU also wants to chair the UNFC,” he said. “They don’t really like the KIO leading the alliance. That’s why the Shan [RCSS] did not join the UNFC and have not yet signed the draft of the ethnic nationwide ceasefire agreement.”

“I think the problem is, they are fighting for mandate and credit.”

This is not the first time ethnic minorities have teamed up to call for greater autonomy from the central government, more control over the natural resources in their states, and basic rights such as more representation in Parliament.

In 1976 members of the National Democratic Front (NDF), a bloc of ethnic armed groups, vowed to cooperate in pursuit of these common goals. But in the 1990s two NDF members—the KIO and the New Mon State Party (NMSP)—signed individual ceasefire deals with the military government. They were criticized for prioritizing their own interests above the common goals of the alliance, and for leaving other members behind.

The KIO ceasefire broke down in 2011, and today the Kachin organization is one of two major ethnic rebel groups that have yet to sign an individual ceasefire.

A Karen militia known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), whose members were formerly part of the KNU, also signed a ceasefire deal with the government in the 1990s. At this time the government launched a heavy offensive against the KNU.

Today some leaders of the KNU military wing say they resent the fact that the KIO deputy chairman N’ Ban La currently leads the UNFC, while Nai Hong Sar of the NMSP has taken the second-highest position in the alliance.

“When we suffered the government offensives in the 1990s, they went to sign ceasefire agreements. Now they come back and act like bosses to lead us. We had to resist the government army until the fall of our farmer headquarters in Manerplaw,” an official from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) told The Irrawaddy, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The headquarters were overtaken by the government army in 1995.

“The government at that time also divided us by using religion as a tool. We were divided into two factions, and we suffered a lot,” he said, referring to the Buddhist Karen-led DKBA’s breakaway from the KNLA.

The KNLA has since signed a ceasefire with President Thein Sein’s government, and he said its political wing, the KNU, would cooperate with other ethnic groups to continue moving forward with the peace process. “We will let them play in politics, and we will wait and see,” he said.

In Law Khee Lar last month, divisions among ethnic groups led to a verbal confrontation between ethnic Pa-O leaders and Shan leaders from the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) after a Pa-O representative asked to discuss a proposal for ethnic minorities in Shan State to have the right to split from the state.

The Pa-O is one of many ethnic minorities that live in Shan State.

“When representatives from the SSPP heard about this proposal, they said they would leave the meeting if participants talked about it. But the Pa-O representative finally gave in and said his proposal did not need to be discussed urgently—that it could wait until later,” an ethnic Arakanese observer said, also requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

In an earlier meeting of ethnic groups in Laiza, Kachin State, last year, some observers speculated that the RCSS did not support a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement because they did not want the KIO to receive credit for such a major step in the peace process.

RCSS spokesman Col. Sai La told The Irrawaddy at the time that his group needed time to consult Shan political parties and community-based organizations about the draft agreement.

“After briefing these fellow Shan organizations, the RCSS will sign the common agreement at any convenient time,” he said.

The deputy chief of the KNLA, Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, later told The Irrawaddy that he felt discouraged by divisions among ethnic groups.

“We have been meeting and talking again and again, time has passed year by year, but unity among us is up and down. That’s why the Burmese government has divided us into pieces,” he told The Irrawaddy.

“It’s not that the Burmese government is so smart, but we ourselves are also not smart enough.”