Myanmar’s government and armed ethnic groups are close to signing a nationwide cease-fire agreement, with only four paragraphs of the draft to be finalized, according to reports, as a senior minister said that talks so far have set the right tone for dialogue on providing greater autonomy to ethnic states.
Following weekend talks with the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) of armed ethnic groups, Minister in President Thein Sein’s office Aung Min said the majority of the draft of a seven-chapter accord has been approved by both sides.
“This could be the beginning of a process towards political dialogue,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, anticipating the next phase of talks between the government and armed ethnic groups after the cease-fire accord is signed.
“We must hold these kinds of discussions when the dialogue begins,” said Aung Min, who is the lead negotiator for the government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC), as disagreement between the two sides has narrowed down to only a few paragraphs.
“We have settled many sections [in the draft single text] left from the previous [May] meeting. There are only a few paragraphs left,” Aung Min told the Irrawaddy online journal after the three-day talks ending Sunday at the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in the former capital Yangon.
He said that the remaining issues in the draft would likely be resolved in another meeting between the UPWC and the NCCT tentatively scheduled for early next month.
“If we can agree on these paragraphs, we can set the date for the nationwide ceasefire accord,” he told the Irrawaddy.
The report cited other participants of the talks as saying “four paragraphs need further discussion,” and that detailed negotiations over a federal political system in which ethnic states are to be granted greater autonomy would be tackled during the political dialogue process.
On Monday, the UPWC and NCCT held a follow-up meeting with 34 of Myanmar’s political parties.
Aung Min said that Monday’s meeting had focused on bringing political parties up to speed on negotiations between the UPWC and NCCT after their fifth formal talks since negotiations began late last year.
“We explained the [government] and NCCT meeting to political parties today and they told us their opinion,” he said of the group which included representatives from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as ethnic Shan and Chin parties.
Last week, following a direct meeting with the UPWC, 66 political parties said that the government appeared to be pushing ahead with the cease-fire agreement without adequately addressing ethnic concerns.
The government expects to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement in September, and to begin a series of political dialogues with the ethnic groups within 60 days of the signing, officials have indicated.
Negotiations to nail down a cease-fire agreement have been difficult, especially due to fighting between government troops and holdout groups such as the rebel Kachin Independence Army [KIA] in northern Kachin state and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, both of which are NCCT members.
A proposed cease-fire agreement has already gone through two drafts and is the product of several rounds of formal and informal meetings between the NCCT and the UPWC.
The UPWC and NCCT made substantial progress over the weekend when Naypyidaw agreed to establish a federal system of government, which armed ethnic groups said had been the biggest obstacle in efforts to frame the peace deal.
Aung Min said Monday that there are “several kinds of federalist systems” and that political dialogue would determine the approach Myanmar would take.
“I said that we will build a union based on a federal system according to the results from political dialogue,” he said.
“We must first discuss what kind of federal system we are going to build in the political dialogue that we will be holding soon.”
NLD spokesman Nyan Win told RFA that stakeholders should not lose sight of the goals of political dialogue while working to finalize the cease-fire agreement.
“Currently, talks appear to be focusing primarily on peacemaking, but holding political dialogue is more important,” he said.
“The peace negotiators and ethnic groups must discuss what kind of federal union we want for the country’s future.”
Ethnic groups have sought a federal system since Myanmar won its independence after World War II, but the former military government, which handed over power to President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration in 2011, had seen local autonomy as tantamount to separatism.
Decentralizing power from areas of Myanmar that are home to some of the country’s largest minorities would likely require amending the 2008 junta-backed constitution, which the NLD and rights groups have criticized as “undemocratic.”
Amending the constitution would also be a part of upcoming political dialogue between the government and armed ethnic groups, Aung Min told RFA.
“We will have to make a decision on [whether to amend the constitution] based on results from the dialogue,” he said.
But he added that it was unnecessary to conclude political dialogue before deciding to amend the charter.
“We will proceed step by step during the political dialogue, meaning that we don’t have to wait to amend the constitution until the end of the talks,” he said.
A parliamentary committee is currently reviewing proposals to amend the charter, which include reducing the military’s role in politics and removing a restriction that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president in elections slated for next year because her sons are foreign nationals.
While some ethnic groups have backed a campaign by the NLD and democracy activists to push for amending the constitution, the topic has not been included in cease-fire negotiations.
Reported by Myo Zaw Ko and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.