The UNFC: From High Hopes to an Uncertain Future

By Saw Yan Naing 29 May 2017

On its founding in 2011, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) was one of the most formidable blocs of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) Burma had ever seen, with the grand ambition of representing almost all of the country’s EAOs during peace talks with the government.

Resignations and suspensions have eroded the alliance’s original 13-strong membership to seven since 2014, with further plans for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Wa National Organization (WNO) to leave.

Arguments over which way to approach Burma’s peace making process are rattling the bloc. Five of its members—the New Mon State Party (NMSP); the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP); the WNO; the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU); and the Arakan National Council (ANC)—are in favor of signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). But the KIO wants to abandon the NCA.

A trail of criticism followed the Karen National Union (KNU) when it left the bloc in 2014, including accusations of an uneasy proximity to the Burma Army and a lack of solidarity with the UNFC leadership under the KIO.

The KNU argued for a decentralization of power away from the KIO, but the leading member rejected the KNU’s proposal, triggering KNU leaders to walk out of the meeting and quit the bloc the next day.

In 2015, the bloc dismissed the Chin National Front (CNF) and the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) when they signed the NCA.

In the same year, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA)—resigned from the bloc because they said the UNFC could not offer them protection or help them negotiate with the government.

Leader of the UNFC, the KIO, has shown interest in leaving the bloc to join the China-backed Northern Alliance, which includes powerful EAOs such as the United Wa State Army, the TNLA, and the MNDAA. The departure of the KIO would significantly diminish the military might of the UNFC.

Members of the bloc rejected an invitation to attend the 21st Century Panglong peace conference in Naypyidaw as “special guests,” dismissing the status as that of observers who could not participate in the conference’s discussions, in contrast to the Northern Alliance, which attended unexpectedly.

The Burma Army and the government will continue to reap political benefits from the discord with the UNFC, as its members are pressured and pushed aside.

As the NCA signatories negotiate with the government and the Burma Army, and the Northern Alliance attempts to carve an alternative way to peace for itself, the future of the bloc remains uncertain.