Myanmar's political parties met with exile ethnic rebel groups for the first time on Friday, with participants saying the talks have boosted trust in efforts to forge national reconciliation after decades of military conflict.
Representatives from President Thein Sein’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party did not attend the talks, held in neighboring Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai city, despite being invited.
Both sides agreed to work toward creating a federal political system in Myanmar, attendees said after the meeting between leaders of the umbrella United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) rebel group and representatives from 11 opposition and ethnic-based political parties.
The meeting was organized by the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center as part of three days of talks aimed at narrowing differences ahead of negotiations between the rebel groups and the government on a nationwide cease-fire next month.
Attendees said the talks had set the pace for future meetings between political parties and exile ethnic organizations.
“We were able to build trust and unity between the groups inside and outside the country,” UNFC deputy secretary Khun Okka told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the meeting.
“All the organizations have the same aim of forming a federal union. So we expect that our collaboration among all organizations will be stronger than before to work on peace,” he said.
Shan Nationalities Development Party representative Sai Eike Poung said future meetings between the two sides could help “build trust.”
“All ethnic armed groups, ethnic parties, and [opposition] political parties believe in the federal union,” he said.
Political party representatives met separately with members of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), a rebel group that is not part of the UNFC, as well as the Thailand-based Women’s League of Burma and the Nationwide Cease-Fire Coalition Team.
On Saturday, the group will meet with Shan communities based in Chiang Mai.
The series of meetings are an opportunity for political parties to weigh in on the peace process spearheaded by President Thein Sein’s government, which is racing to end conflict with the rebels to speed up reforms after decades of military rule.
After talks in Thailand, the Nationwide Cease-fire Coalition Team is expected to draw up a draft nationwide cease-fire pact that will be sent to the government next week ahead of the next round of negotiations in the Kayin (Karen) state capital Hpa-An.
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.
But the peace process has hit stumbling blocks as the rebel groups demand a federal military and amendments to the constitution to create a federal political system allowing ethnic states greater autonomy, as well as political and social reforms.
Rebel militias have insisted their forces should be incorporated into the current national military, military officials have said that a plan allowing ethnic armed leaders granted a degree of operational autonomy in ethnic regions would cause the collapse of the current national army.
Many of Myanmar’s opposition and ethnic-based parties have called for amending the constitution and for greater autonomy for ethnic states.
National Democratic Force chairman Khin Maung Swe called on President Thein Sein to clarify what the government’s position will be on the structure of a federal army.
“The only person who can clear these doubts is the president. The president must explain his promises about the army to ethnic armed groups,” Khin Maung Swe said.
“That’s why we domestic political parties came here, to create pressure for building trust,” he said.
Reported by Thin Thiri and Aung Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.