Where Is Ethnic Reconciliation Going?

By Saw Yan Naing 23 October 2013

MYITKYINA, Kachin State — In the latest peace talks in northern Burma earlier this month, a government delegation and ethnic Kachin rebels signed a seven-point agreement. It was a step forward, they said, although in fact the agreement was nothing new. Four of the seven points were recycled from earlier deals, while the most significant point—a ceasefire—did not make the final cut.

Both sides have different agendas. Rebel leaders from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) want political dialogue. The government delegation, led by Minister Aung Min, wants a formal deal to end armed conflict. Rather than satisfying either side, they both signed the not-so-bold seven-point agreement in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, to preserve relations and maintain an opportunity for further talks.

On the day of the signing, Oct. 10, high-ranking Kachin and government officials held a closed-door meeting to discuss military matters. Outside, members of the government-associated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) appeared anxious and excited, perhaps anticipating a ceasefire. They were likely disappointed by the end result. Indeed, some observers have suggested that others were too, including President Thein Sein and members of the international community.

After each meeting, journalists gathered around the KIO deputy chief of staff, Gen Sumlut Gun Maw, to ask questions. The general seemed eager to share good news, but he did not offer much solid information. He spoke diplomatically, saying he expected certain outcomes or held certain beliefs, but never making a critical comment or expressing any sense of dissatisfaction.

The talks in Myitkyina came after a meeting last month in the Thai city of Chiang Mai between Aung Min’s delegation and leaders of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella organization of ethnic armed groups. That meeting was not successful, at least from the government’s point of view. The UNFC indirectly rejected the minister’s invitation to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement in November, and some media reported that Aung Min responded by saying that his delegation would no longer hold talks with the UNFC, but would meet separately with individual ethnic armed groups in the future.

Earlier this month, Aung Min told The Irrawaddy that he did not intend to make these remarks, but that it was unfair for the government delegation to always travel to Thailand to meet with UNFC leaders. “At that time, I told them that this would be the last time we meet in Thailand,” he said. “We will meet in our country in the future.”

Ethnic sources say the minister’s delegation and the UNFC, which includes hardline factions of ethnic armed groups, are heading in opposing directions. The UNFC is writing a draft of an entirely new constitution, pushing for a federalist system that would offer more power to ethnic states, while the government delegation says there is no need to even amend the existing charter. Shaky peace deals between the two parties appear to be crumbling.

But ethnic armed groups, as well as their political wings, have become divided over the best strategy. While some want to move forward with a ceasefire, others worry that concessions to the government would benefit only select people—including some ethnic leaders, elites and businesspeople—while failing to help most local civilians. The peace deal has been initiated from the top-down, rather than from the grassroots, although communities on the ground will be affected most by whatever deal is reached.

Some ethnic factions have been criticized for failing to clearly demand what they want. Except for the ethnic Wa rebels, who administer an autonomous territory in east Burma, most ethnic groups have refrained from calling for secession during government negotiations. Even the idea of federalism has been floated carefully by leaders during peace talks.

It is often forgotten that secession was the goal when Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders signed the Panglong Agreement in 1947 with the central government, led by Gen Aung San. They did not want to coexist with the ethnic Burman-dominated central government. Indeed, it did not take long before some ethnic groups decided to form armed groups for civil war.

Over the decades, almost all armed groups have dealt with the government individually, signing a first round of ceasefire agreements in the 1980s and 1990s. Ethnic Karen, Shan, Mon, Kachin, Karenni and Chin groups all signed ceasefires.

But some of these ceasefires broke down in 2010 and 2011, after the former military regime tried to implement its plan for a Border Guard Force (BGF). The idea was to transfer soldiers from ethnic armed groups to BGF units that would be led by government commanders.

Kachin rebels rejected this plan, and about two years ago the KIO’s 1994 ceasefire broke down. Fighting resumed and escalated in January this year, although clashes have largely died down since peace talks began in February.

As the war in north Burma continued, Thein Sein’s government signed ceasefires with most major armed groups after coming to power in 2011. But even in recent months, fighting has been ongoing in Shan State, while the Wa rebels are far from satisfied.

The Wa rebels comprise the strongest armed group in the country, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with an estimated 25,000 troops and a solid stock of modern weapons. They have been the boldest with their claims, calling for an “autonomous region” within Shan State and indicating that they are ready to wage war any time if their demands are not realized.

Journalists who have visited the UWSA stronghold, including the army’s headquarters in Panghsang on the Sino-Burma border, have expressed the opinion that Wa rebels do not want to co-exist with Thein Sein’s administration. One journalist described the Wa region as appearing like another state, outside Burma, with its own administration, military, police and infrastructure.

Many ethnic armed groups have called for constitutional amendments, political dialogue and the withdrawal of government troops from their territory. To a large extent, these demands have been turned down—either directly or indirectly—by Naypyidaw, which continues to prioritize a nationwide ceasefire first. As a result, ethnic groups remain divided between soft factions, which will ignore political demands while engaging with the government on economic and social development, and hardline factions, such as the UNFC, which have been criticized for being strong in principle but weak in action.

It is not clear exactly which factions will be represented at the nationwide ceasefire meeting next month. Earlier this week, Aung Min held peace talks with the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in an apparent effort to convince that rebel group to join.

He reportedly met with KNPP vice chairman Khu Oo Ral on Tuesday and later informed the rebels of the government’s draft national ceasefire accord.

“It is very detailed and I cannot discuss all of it, but it widely covers the ethnics’ political expectations, equality, ceasefire and the way to proceed with the political dialogue,” KNPP joint secretary Shwe Myo Thant told The Irrawaddy. “I think if the government implements these steps exactly as in their draft, it would be really good for our country.

He added that Aung Min said the draft treaty had yet to be approved by Burma’s National Defense and Security Council.

If the government does achieves a nationwide ceasefire agreement next month, as planned, the international community will likely cheer and offer support for the country’s reforms. But the divided ethnic groups will remain at crossroads.

“The Kachin seem to be the last ethnic group resisting the government,” R Zung Nyaw, a Kachin woman at a church in Myitkyina, told The Irrawaddy recently. “Why are the Karen [rebels] engaging in such cold-blooded actions?”

The Karen National Union (KNU), a Karen rebel group, has been criticized for giving into the government’s demands and pushing forward a number of major development projects in resource-rich Karen State.

Another observer of the peace talks said, “It is time for ethnic armed groups to strongly demand what they really want, and to stop engaging with the government if their calls are not realized.”

She added, “Coexistence with the Burman-dominated government will never last long, unless the Burman-led government respects and realizes the demands of the armed non-Burman ethnicities. The ethnic armed groups should also initiate, rather than waiting for government-initiated programs.”

Additional reporting by Nyein Nyein.