The Myanmar government agreed in talks Friday with armed ethnic groups to establish a federal system of government, an ethnic coalition leader said, in a move that will give ethnic states increased autonomy.
“The government has accepted the demand to establish a Federal Union, which ethnic armed groups have been asking after for a long time,” said
Naing Han Tha, leader of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team [NCCT] set up by 16 armed ethnic groups to negotiate a cease-fire deal with the government.
He was speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service after representatives of the NCCT met with the government’s Union Peacemaking Work Committee [UPWC] at the Myanmar Peace Center [MPC] for the fifth formal talks since negotiations began late last year.
Naing Han Tha said federalism was the biggest obstacle in efforts to frame a cease-fire agreement, but now that the government has agreed to it, the remaining talks should go smoothly.
“After the government agrees with that part, the rest is not difficult to discuss, I guess,” he said.
This is believed to be the first time the government has firmly agreed to a demand by ethnic groups for a federal union, according to reports.
The ethnic groups have also demanded an all-inclusive federal army under a federal union.
According to Hla Maung Shwe from the government-affiliated MPC, the next round of talks between the government, the NCCT, and political parties, including the opposition National League for Democracy [NLD], has been scheduled for Sept.18.
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 the rebel Kachin Independence Army [KIA] in northern Kachin state and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an ally of the KIA.
Both are members of the NCCT, which was set up to represent the United Nationalities Federal Council [UNFC], an alliance of ethnic armed groups, in negotiations with the authorities for a nationwide cease-fire agreement.
Aung Min, a minister in President Thein Sein’s office and leader of the UPWC, said it was natural for issues to crop up during the negotiations.
“Both sides have doubts about each other, but it is a normal situation when working through the peace process,” he said.
Cooperation by all parties is paramount, said Border Affairs Minister Thet Naing Win.
“I would like to urge both sides to collaborate in order to establish [long-lasting] peace.”
President Thein Sein has signed bilateral cease-fires with more than a dozen ethnic groups and began to actively pursue a nationwide cease-fire with ethnic groups last year.
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.
However, he was not certain whether the current round of talks ending on Saturday will result in a final ceasefire agreement, says Naing Han Tha.
“It is possible, though we have only discussed two chapters,” he said.
General Gwam Maw, a leader from the Kachin Independence Organization [KIO], the political arm of the Kachin Independence Army [KIA], was optimistic about a cease-fire deal.
“This nationwide cease-fire is the first step. We have to start with a good beginning to get a good ending.” he said.
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 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 Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition NLD and rights groups have criticized as “undemocratic.”
Reported by Myo Zaw Ko, Thiha Tun, and Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Di-Hoa Le.