Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi met on Friday with an alliance of seven ethnic armed groups from the country’s northeast on the sidelines of a key peace conference to discuss the changes the militias want to make to a controversial cease-fire agreement, an official from the country's remote ethnic Wa region who attended the meeting said.
During the Pangkham Allies’ meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also Myanmar’s state counselor and foreign affairs minister, at her house in the capital Naypyidaw, representatives from the group gave her a book outlining their political stance, said Zhao Guo An, head of the foreign affairs office of the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
The book details agreements reached by the ethnic militias at a conference they held in February in Pangkham, the administrative capital of the UWSA-controlled territory in Myanmar, and most of its content is similar to that of the nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) that eight other ethnic armies signed with the government in October 2015, he said.
Neither the UWSA nor the other six groups have signed the NCA.
The book praises the current 21st Century Panglong Conference, also called the Union Peace Conference, as “smooth and good,” according to a report in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.
After the meeting, Zhao Guo An said the influential and powerful UWSA, which leads the Pangkham Alliance, has rejected the NCA, which the government wants all remaining ethnic militias to sign.
He told reporters that the UWSA will not sign the NCA because it is “no solution” to ongoing ethnic separatist conflicts with the national military. Instead, the group will forge its own “new path to peace.”
When a reporter asked Zhao if Aung San Suu Kyi urged the UWSA to sign the NCA, he responded in Chinese through an interpreter, saying that she would like the militia to sign the peace pact.
“She hopes that we will sign the NCA, but the new way for peace that we have prepared is different from the NCA’s way,” he said. “We will not sign the current NCA.”
Zhao did not spell out how his group’s plan differs from the one offered by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Backed by China
The China-backed ethnic Wa militia has emerged as a key player in Myanmar’s peace process, a development seen as boosting Beijing’s influence over its violence-ridden neighbor.
The other members of the Pangkham Allies are the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA-N), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
Aung San Suu Kyi has met the groups separately, with the KIA, UWSA, SSPP, and NDAA invited to one meeting, and the TNLA, AA, and MNDAA to another.
Their meetings with her comes a day after a delegation of representatives from the groups had a two-hour closed-door discussion with negotiators from the government’s Peace Commission.
China, which wants to see ethnic separatist civil wars end in Myanmar’s war-torn north, convinced the ethnic groups to go to the peace conference in Naypyidaw, even though they have been designated as “guests,” or observers, rather than full participants.
Beijing has sent a delegate to the Panglong Conference because it is eager for stability in Myanmar’s volatile border areas, so it can push ahead with its “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative that will link Asia to Europe and Africa via northern Myanmar.
The Pangkham Allies issued a statement on May 17 indicating they were willing to attend the peace conference only if they were represented by a new joint committee they had formed, called the Union Political Negotiation Dialogue Committee (UPNDC), to hold collective talks with the government.
In the statement, they also urged immediate negotiations among the UPNDC, the government, and the national armed forces as well as an end to fighting between ethnic militias and government troops in northern Myanmar.
The ethnic militias will leave Naypyidaw on Saturday, while the ethnic armed organizations that have signed the NCA will remain at the conference until it ends on May 28, Eleven Myanmar media group reported.
Only one army
Meanwhile, Tin Myo, chairman of the government’s Peace Commission, met on Friday with four ethnic militias comprising the Northern Alliance, which includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
The four militias teamed up last November to carry out coordinated attacks on government and military targets in northern Shan state.
“There needs to be a peace conference held with ethnic armed groups in Naypyidaw, and the army needs to stop attacking ethnic armed groups,” said Ta Panla, general secretary of the TNLA.
During the third day of the five-day conference, several hundreds of representatives held discussions and debates on politics, the economy, social and land issues, the environment, and security matters.
One sticking point in the discussions on Friday was the concept of a single, federal army in Myanmar, which would require all ethnic militias to disband.
“Because this conference is the one we have now after seven inadequate rounds of peace talks, the security issue is the major theme,” said Aye Maung, chairman of the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people.
“We have been discussing ways to accept the policy of having only one army in the country,” he said.
Colonel Khun Okka of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) confirmed that the parties involved in the conference are still discussing the principle of having only one army under a democratic government that can guarantee federalism.
“We will continue talking about the results from this conference on this matter over next six months until the next conference,” he said.
The 21st Century Panglong Conference is Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s key initiative to try to end decades of civil war in Myanmar by fostering national reconciliation and peace among the country’s various armed ethnic groups and the government military.
The first session of the conference was held in late August and early September 2016, with the expectation that follow-up meetings would be held every six months.
Reported by Win Naung Toe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.