UPDATED at 10:25 A.M. EDT on 2018-07-17
Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi met on Thursday with the leaders of a northern coalition of ethnic armed groups that have not signed the government’s nationwide peace accord on the sidelines of the third round of the government’s key peace conference.
The country's de facto leader met with representatives from the Northern Alliance of ethnic armed groups, which includes the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The ethnic militias have not signed the government's nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA).
She also met with leaders from the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA-Mongla group) to discuss reducing conflicts, signing the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), and participating in political discussions.
In April 2017, the seven military organizations and their respective political wings, formed the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), led by the UWSA — Myanmar’s largest non-state army — to hold political negotiations and discuss peace-building.
During the opening ceremony of the conference on Wednesday, Aung San Suu Kyi reassured the NCA non-signatories that “the peace door” remains open for them.
General Gwan Maw, vice chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the KIA which has been engaged in skirmishes with Myanmar forces in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, said the groups indicated that they want to continue talks with the government through the FPNCC.
The FPNCC submitted a policy paper to the government during the second round of the 21st-Century Panglong Conference in May 2017.
Tête-à-tête with military chief
Delegates from the Northern Alliance met with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s defense services, on Wednesday, though they did not discuss the ongoing fighting in Kachin state between the KIA and Myanmar forces, Gwan Maw said.
More than 100,000 people have been displaced by hostilities in Kachin state since 2011 when a 17-year bilateral cease-fire between the KIA and the Myanmar army broke down.
The conflict between Myanmar forces and the KIA have escalated in several areas of the state since the beginning of this year, including Sumprabum, Tanaing, Waingmaw, Hpakant, and Injangyang townships.
Other top-ranking military officers attended the meeting, including Lieutenant-General Mya Tun Oo, chief of the general staff; Lieutenant-General Tun Tun Naung; senior military officers from the Office of the Commander-in-Chief (Army); and retired Lieutenant-General Khin Zaw Oo.
Min Aung Hlaing also said that all stakeholders should act in accordance with democratic practices and work in concert with each other as Myanmar transitions to a democracy.
He likened the state to a parent and the government forces and ethnic armed groups to its children, and said that as “brethren” they must hold discussions and work together “with a brotherly spirit,” according to a report by the military news service Myawady.
He also emphasized they all must work together “through thick and thin” to build a union based on democracy and federalism.
Vice-Senior General Soe Win, deputy commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Army, also met with delegates from the ethnic militias on Wednesday to discuss NCA-related matters, trust building, and peacemaking.
Gwan Maw said that though the military chief and Aung San Suu Kyi met with Northern Alliance members on the sidelines of the peace conference, it did not mean that they now recognize or accept the coalition.
“It is still too early to say whether the Northern Alliance will sign the NCA or not,” Gwan Maw said. “We are attending this conference because we appreciate the government’s invitation.”
“We need to discuss whether to sign the NCA at a separate meeting, not at these Panglong meeting sessions,” he said. “We will decide whether we will sign the NCA or not after this discussion.”
Though only NCA signatories are allowed to attend the event in accordance with the conference framework, the government invited members of the Northern Alliance to attend discussions but not to speak.
Khin Zaw Oo, who also serves as secretary of Myanmar’s Peace Commission, was upbeat about the Northern Alliance’s meeting with Min Aung Hlaing and said the parties would meet with him again because the Military has urged the coalition to participate in the peace process.
Several delegates from ethnic groups continued to take issue with Min Aung Hlaing’s opening remarks earlier in the day, and especially a comment that the country’s armed forces represent all Myanmar nationals.
“Our Tatmadaw, being the people’s Tatmadaw born of ethnic people, is an organization representing the state and the people,” the general said, using the Burmese name for the military.
During his meeting with the groups, Min Aung Hlaing expressed his pleasure in exchanging views but called it unacceptable that some ethnic armies have continued to strengthen themselves after they signed the NCA — a comment that baffled some of the delegates from these groups
“General Min Aung Hlaing said twice that he doesn’t accept that some groups are strengthening themselves and organizing people,” said Colonel Khun Okka, leader of the Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLO). “I don’t know which group he was referring to.”
Hundreds of delegates from the government, ethnic armed groups, political parties, members of parliament, and civil society organizations are attending the six-day conference in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw which aims to end decades of civil war and forge a democratic federal union through negotiations.
Aung San Suu Kyi has made peace and national reconciliation between Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups and government forces a priority of her civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
She held the first round of the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, also known as the Union Peace Conference, in late August 2016, five months after the NLD came to power.
The second round of talks was held in May 2016, when delegates adopted 37 of 41 principles proposed by the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) that had resulted from political talks at the state and regional levels. The principles addressed politics, economics, land and the environment, and social issues.
Aung San Suu Kyi chairs the UPDJC, which comprises representatives from the government, the armed forces, members of political parties, and NCA signatories.
The government had intended to hold the talks every six months, but hostilities primarily in Kachin and Shan states and the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Rakhine state, have stalled the process.
Reported by Thiha Htun and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
Correction: An earlier version of the article misidentified the members of the Northern Alliance. The coalition comprises the AA, KIA, MNDAA, and TNLA.