Unity Falters as Ethnic Groups Mull Peace Prospects

By Lawi Weng 21 August 2015

Ethnic armed groups negotiating a nationwide ceasefire with Burma’s government since 2013 have worked hard to present a unified front.

But that unity was tested in August after some groups—the majority of whom are represented in the ethnics’ newly reconstituted negotiating bloc, known as the Senior Delegation—expressed their intention to sign the long-awaited nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), apparently breaking from the bloc’s collective position.

Four ethnic armed groups—the Karen National Union, the Restoration Council of Shan State, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council—released a joint statement this week indicating they would sign the accord. At least one other armed group, the All Burma Students Democratic Front, has also backed the pact.

However, other groups remain hesitant, sticking to a demand that the ceasefire should not be signed until it is inclusive of all members, thus ensuring it lives up to the “nationwide” label.

Divisions between ethnic groups in Burma over goals and approaches are of course nothing new.

The Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) was an alliance formed in 2001 to foster solidarity between Burma’s ethnic nationalities. Supported by the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office, the alliance began to splinter, however, over questions of whether, or how closely, to engage the military junta.

Disagreements led to several withdrawals and in 2011, a new coalition emerged as the latest body representing ethnic interests, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), backed by a new funding source in the Nippon Foundation.

In November 2013, ethnic armed groups, including UNFC members, gathered in the Kachin Independence Organization stronghold of Laiza where yet another body was established, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), to lead negotiations with the government.

At the time, the new body’s formation reportedly faced resistance from the Shan leader Harn Yawnghwe, head of the Euro-Burma office, backed by the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).

The latter never acceded to NCCT membership, while still supporting many of its aims, and the KNU has often proven to be a restless member, riven by internal conflict over its approach to ceasefire negotiations.

Current KNU chairman Mutu Sae Poe is regarded as having a good relationship with government negotiators and favors the swift signing of a ceasefire deal. His deputy, Naw Zipporah Sein, who is also head of the Senior Delegation, is exceedingly more cautious.

Lawi Weng is a senior reporter for The Irrawaddy English edition.
Lawi Weng is a senior reporter for The Irrawaddy English edition.
Lawi Weng is a senior reporter for The Irrawaddy English edition.

Leaders of the Senior Delegation and its forerunner, the NCCT, including Naw Zipporah Sein, have counseled the need for unity in negotiations. By maintaining a collective position, they argue, the government will be more likely to consider their demands, particularly in the crucial political dialogue that would follow the inking of a ceasefire.

Without such collective pressure, some ethnic leaders fear that robust political dialogue, during which some groups are seeking amendments to the country’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, will not transpire.

However, the recent joint statement by four ethnic armed groups, including the KNU, expressing their intention to sign the NCA was a blow to advocates of a united stance.

“This is not good. But we could not stop them doing it,” said Nai Hong Sar of the New Mon State Party. “They have agreed with the government already.”

Negotiators have said that the main obstacle to a deal at present surrounds the inclusion of several armed groups that are not recognized by the government and currently ineligible to sign the pact.

Three groups— the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army—lack bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government.

The government has classed three others—the Lahu Democratic Union, the Wa National Organization and the Arakan National Council—as not fitting the designation of combatants.

Until now, Burma’s main ethnic alliance, the UNFC, has called for all these groups to be included in a final NCA—a position apparently undermined by those ethnic organizations who announced their readiness to finalize the deal.

Tar Bong Kyaw, general secretary of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, has also criticized the latter groups’ position, adding to concerns expressed by ethnic leaders such as Nai Hong Sar and Naw Zipporah Sein.

“We do not like their stand,” he said. “And we don’t trust their approach will work with the current government.”