The leaders of two key armed ethnic groups in Myanmar said Tuesday that the formation of an all-inclusive army is central to any talks of forming a federal union which could follow the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement, possibly next month.
Under the federal system of governance, heads of ethnic armies should also stand a chance of becoming the chief of a federal army, Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) leader Khun Htun Oo said as he attended the first day of a three-day meeting of ethnic rebel groups in preparation for December peace talks with the government.
“[The proposed ethnic army is] actually the same as the current army—people are just afraid of the name ‘federal army’,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, addressing concerns by the government about adopting a federal union military that would involve all ethnic groups.
“Only one ethnic group [Burmans] can’t control the entire country. A federal union or federal army should include all ethnic groups so that ethnic people can become generals or even commander-in-chief.”
Following talks in recent months, the government and the rebel groups have agreed in principle to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement as a first step towards permanent peace after decades of fighting between government troops and ethnic armies. They also agreed to hold a dialogue to devise an enduring political settlement.
General Gwan Maw, chief of staff of the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), said that one of the goals during talks in Chiang Mai was to convince the government that a federal army was essential to political discussions.
In addition to forming a federal union, ethnic rebels hope that political dialogue with the government will provide their groups with greater autonomy in rapidly reforming Myanmar as the country embraces democratic reform after shaking its decades-long yoke of a repressive military regime.
“Our mandate for this meeting is to work on what we need to do for a cease-fire agreement … and how to move to political dialogue after signing such an agreement,” he said.
“We will continue our discussion on forming a federal union later, because both sides must take part in discussions on how to form an army. We have to form this [army] according to the nation’s constitution. The ethnic groups want to include this topic when both sides discuss the military issue.”
Gwan Maw said that the working group in Chiang Mai, overseen by the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which was formed during a peace conference of ethnic armed groups held earlier this month in the town of Laiza in Kachin state, is “still in the process of deciding how to form such an army.”
“We just have an idea that we should form a federal army, as Myanmar is a country in which many ethnic groups live [and should be represented].”
Mizzima News Agency on Monday quoted head of the NCCT Nai Han Thar as saying that a proposal for a federal army at talks between leaders of the umbrella United Nationalities Federal Alliance (UNFC) rebel group and representatives from 11 opposition and ethnic-based political parties in Chiang Mai over the weekend had been opposed by the government.
“They do not want to accept our proposal to establish a federal army; they don’t want their army to be reformed and reconstituted,” he said, adding that the government wanted its authority and power to be “untouchable.”
On Tuesday, members of the NCCT held discussions that focused largely on policies for signing a nationwide cease-fire agreement.
“We are making our comments on our draft agreement for the nationwide cease-fire and a draft for holding political dialogue today,” UNFC deputy secretary Khun Okka, who is also a member of the NCCT, told RFA.
“We have discussed how to collaborate and implement these drafts and we will write our final policy on these issues tomorrow.”
P'doh Saw Kwe Htoo Win, general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) and an NCCT secretary, said that the policies agreed upon at the Laiza talks would remain in play ahead of a round of cease-fire talks with the government, scheduled for December in the Kayin (Karen) state capital, Hpa-An.
The main points of the so-called “Laiza Agreement” include political dialogue with the government, a move toward a federal union in Myanmar when dialogue begins, and an agreement to form a federal army.
“We won’t amend the … basic policies that all ethnic leaders agreed on at the Laiza talks, but we are willing to add terms or clarify the existing ones to avoid misunderstandings,” he said.
“If we agree to sign a cease-fire, we will [also] have to discuss replacing troops from both [the military and the rebel groups].”
Representatives from several ethnic armed groups told Mizzima news agency on Tuesday that the senior leaders of the UNFC have concluded that Myanmar’s armed groups are not yet in the tactical or political position to be able to disarm confidently and voluntarily.
President Thein Sein’s government has signed cease-fire agreements with several rebel groups since being elected to power in 2011, and is racing to forge a standard pact covering all groups as part of a bid to speed up reforms after decades of military rule.
Government negotiators have said they want to get all of the rebel groups to sign the nationwide cease-fire together at a ceremony in Naypyidaw by the end of the year.
On Monday, Aung Min, a minister in Thein Sein’s office and the chief government negotiator in peace talks with the ethnic groups, told RFA that the two sides will determine a date to sign the cease-fire agreement at the December meeting in Hpa-An and would hold political talks in April next year.
Aung Min had earlier met in Yangon with Nai Han Thar, who is also UNFC General Secretary, and UNFC vice presidents Abel Twet and David Thakapaw, who made his first visit to the former capital in 35 years.
The trio was given safe passage during their three-day visit to the commercial capital. They also met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday to discuss issues of peace and democracy.
Nai Han Thar said following the group’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi that Myanmar could only be called a real democracy when every citizen has the right to be president,” according to a report by the Myanmar Eleven Media group.
“Every citizen has the right to be the president. That is real democracy. We are real citizens. It's not right if we don’t have that right. We need to amend this,” the report quoted him as saying.
Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from assuming the presidency under the current constitution, which says that any Myanmar national whose relatives are foreign citizens or hold foreign citizenship is not qualified to serve as president or vice-president.
The three leaders also called for Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to join in talks in pursuit of the nation-wide ceasefire agreement, saying that the army’s participation would ensure that any pact with the government would be more trustworthy.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Myo Zaw Ko, Aung Myo Min and Myo Zaw Ko for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.