Pulling Back the Curtain on Ethnic Groups’ Laiza Talks

By Saw Yan Naing 1 November 2013

LAIZA, Kachin State — As a conference of ethnic minority groups in Laiza enters day three, a debate is heating up among key participants.

It centers on two different priorities, with one camp favoring an emphasis on achieving a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” and the other more concerned with “political dialogue.”

The debate is as much about sequencing as anything: Some insist that that the signing of a nationwide ceasefire accord should come only after a political dialogue has been convened; others say a ceasefire signing should come before political dialogue, but only if the government guarantees that political talks will follow. A third line of thinking proposes that a ceasefire agreement should come first, with no preconditions attached, but with the aim of ultimately moving toward political dialogue.

At day two of the conference on Thursday, some ethnic leaders said they wanted to form a technical committee to respond to a draft document that was sent by the government-associated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) to ethnic armed groups. That document laid out 15 points on matters including the rules and principles of a prospective nationwide ceasefire accord, trust-building between stakeholders, and how to go about implementing the peace process.

According to inside sources, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an ethnic alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups, has said the formation of a new technical committee is unnecessary, and that the UNFC can serve as the committee tasked with responding to the government’s draft document.

Those sources, however, said that the Working Group for Ethnic Coordination (WGEC), another ethnic alliance controlled by a controversial ethnic Shan leader, does not agree with the UNFC proposal. The Shan leader, Harn Yawnghwe, who heads the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office, is said to have won the backing of delegations from the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) in his opposition to the UNFC proposition.

Facing division within the ethnic ranks, the two camps finally agreed to form a new committee involving representatives of all ethnic armed groups to respond the government-written draft accord. The committee will lay out their common agreements, but critics of the plan say ethnic leaders are wasting time debating trivial matters, with the aim of taking credit and scoring political points on a final peace deal, if in fact one should ever be achieved.

Following day two of the ethnic groups’ meeting, Khun Okkar, general secretary 2 of the UNFC, said the ethnic groups “had not yet reached a common point. But we are almost there. We are trying to negotiate the differences.”

He said three different ceasefire accord draft documents have been put forward. One was written by the WGEC, another was drafted by the UNFC and the third comes from the MPC.

The differing visions of the parties were only laid bare once it was learned that the trio of ceasefire proposals was being circulated, and the Laiza conference participants agreed to form a committee to merge and finalize the three draft documents into one.

“Each of us has our own policy, but we will try to reach a common agreement. We cannot split apart and go separately. We have to move forward together,” Khun Okkar said.

Inside sources, however, said the KNU has expressed a willingness to move forward separately over the peace process if need be.

The KNU’s chairman, Saw Mutu Say Poe, said in a speech opening the conference that ethnic nationalities had differences based on both geography and political ideology, and that those differences would make it difficult to speak with the same voice in some cases.

Sources say the MPC’s draft document states that the peace process will be proceed in accordance with a “federal spirit,” but that details regarding that federal spirit are lacking.

Some ethnic leaders say the government’s definition of federalism may differ from the ethnic minorities’ conception, the latter of which envisions a federal Burma that grants autonomous governance to states in which the ethnic nationalities reside.

Another sticking point with the MPC document concerns parliamentary involvement in the peace process, which would see that all results and agreements between the government and the ethnic armed groups must ultimately be approved by the Union Parliament. That would give Parliament—composed of 25 percent military representatives and another 51 percent under the military-backed United Nationalities Development Party (USDP) members—influence over whatever peace deal is reached between ethnic groups and the government peace delegation.

Ultimately though, the biggest different to come out of the Laiza conference appears to be about which of two elements, both crucial to the peace process, should be prioritized. While elements siding with the WGEC want to first focus on a nationwide ceasefire accord, the UNFC, chaired by the KIO’s vice chairman, N’Ban La, want to prioritize a comprehensive political dialogue. It is believed that the KIO’s position concerning a nationwide ceasefire is in line with the UNFC.

Some observers say this is the very reason that the KIO is hosting the Laiza meeting ahead of a conference focused on a nationwide ceasefire agreement, which the government hopes to convene later this month.