Myanmar’s President Thein Sein assured armed ethnic groups on Friday that his government is committed to addressing their concerns through political dialogue following a nationwide cease-fire agreement he hopes to secure during talks in Kachin state this weekend.
But some ethnic parties expressed skepticism that Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government is willing to meet their demands for greater autonomy.
Speaking in a radio address to the nation, Thein Sein said that the three-day Ethnic Armed Organizations' Conference, which kicked off Wednesday among 17 rebel groups in the Kachin stronghold of Laiza, would pave the way for successful talks between ethnic parties and the government.
Government representatives are set to meet with the rebel groups on Sunday and Monday in the state capital Myitkyina in talks which will focus on a national cease-fire agreement with the ethnic armies, many of which have signed individual peace pacts with the military.
The Myitkyina meeting will be attended by international observers, including United Nations special envoy Vijay Nambiar and Chinese special envoy Wang Ying Fan, according to reports.
Thein Sein said that the real goal of the nationwide cease-fire agreement is to provide a stepping stone to negotiations that would grant the ethnic groups a greater voice in Myanmar’s ongoing political reforms and transition to democracy after five decades of military rule.
“The aim of signing a nationwide cease-fire agreement is to comply with the demands of the ethnic armed groups, to reaffirm all existing agreements, and to undertake the tasks needed to inaugurate the peace dialogue process immediately after the signing,” Thein Sein said.
“The offer of the government to make peace will not end with the process of signing a cease-fire agreement. We are trying to step up a move to political dialogue, using the cease-fire agreement as a basis.”
Thein Sein emphasized the need to be “practical” in any efforts to amend Myanmar’s constitution, which was adopted in 2008 under the former military junta, saying that calls for reforms of the charter should take into account “possible consequences for the nation’s future.”
A 109-member parliamentary review committee was set up in July to examine amendment proposals, including calls to allow ethnic states greater autonomy.
Thein Sein also said that the government would welcome all armed ethnic groups to attend the signing ceremony for a nationwide cease-fire agreement sometime this month.
Wooing ethnic groups
Not all of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups are on board with the government’s plan for a nationwide cease-fire plan, and at least two major rebel armies—the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army—were absent from this week’s talks.
Some reports have suggested that the United Wa State Army backed out following pressure from China.
On Wednesday, as the three-day conference began, ethnic rebel groups called for caution over the proposed cease-fire plan, saying previous pacts to end fighting had collapsed due to a failure to resolve political problems.
Representatives from the groups said the government must hold “genuine” political dialogue and respect ethnic rights for any successful implementation of the planned national cease-fire agreement.
At least two groups, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State/ Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), have demanded that the government agree to hold political dialogue with ethnic rebels within four months of any nationwide cease-fire.
On Friday, Than Kae, chairman of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF)—which had been fighting in Myanmar’s border areas alongside armed ethnic groups—told rebel representatives and political groups that Thein Sein’s reforms had done little to alleviate his organization’s concerns.
“The reforms that the government has been implementing are not the ones we want,” Than Kae told groups attending the ABSDF’s Silver Jubilee ceremony held at its northern headquarter near Laiza.
“The 2008 constitution was written without our [people’s] opinions and ideas. The government that is running the nation today was elected by itself, without our votes. Today’s parliament is not the one that can solve our problems.”
Than Kae said the ABSDF would collaborate with all groups fighting for democracy and human rights.
The government has inked peace deals with 10 out of 11 major armed groups in Myanmar since Thein Sein extended an olive branch in August 2011.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is the only one of Myanmar’s major ethnic rebel groups that has not signed its own individual cease-fire with the government, which is racing to end decades of fighting with rebels in a bid to speed up political and economic reforms.
Reported by Zin Mar Win and Sai Tun Aung Lwin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.