Hundreds of representatives from Myanmar’s ethnic groups and government officials wrapped up a landmark conference on “trust-building” Monday, stressing the need for a federal union ahead of a planned nationwide cease-fire agreement.
The Sept. 21-23 conference in the Shan state capital Taunggyi included more than 300 attendees from more than 50 different political parties and armed ethnic groups that have signed cease-fire agreements with the Myanmar government in Shan, Mon, and Kayah states.
The meeting aimed to promote trust-building between the many different ethnic groups, all of which are in various stages of talks with Myanmar President Thein Sein’s administration about greater political representation.
Attendees released a joint statement containing five goals agreed upon at the conclusion of the conference including pursuing a nationwide cease-fire, abolishing all “nondemocratic laws,” and creating a federal union with equal rights.
The statement also called for a new Panglong Conference, referring to an all-inclusive 1947 accord aimed at uniting ethnic groups and forging national reconciliation, and a rewriting of the former military junta’s 2008 constitution, which has received criticism for not giving the country’s ethnic groups sufficient representation in the government.
Sai Nyunt Lwin, Secretary of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, said he was “optimistic” about the progress made at the weekend conference and that the five-point statement had effectively summed up the “attitude of the conference.”
“This was the shared feeling from all [participating] ethnic groups—we all agreed on it,” Sai Nyunt Lwin told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
He said that some ethnic groups were in favor of amending the 2008 constitution while others wanted to completely rewrite the document and that both suggestions had been added to the statement.
Sai Nyunt Lwin said the Taunggyi conference had succeeded in bringing many more ethnic groups together, adding that a similar meeting in Shan state’s town of Lashio in March had been only half the size.
“We could invite only 25 groups at the Lashio talk, but we were able to invite more than 50 groups this time,” he said.
Sai Nyunt Lwin said conference organizers had invited to the talks as many political organizations and ethnic armed groups as possible that had made a cease-fire arrangement with the government, but that some groups had been left out of the process for logistical reasons.
“At least we have established connections between our organizations and have been able to discuss our opinions and feelings,” he said.
“I think this conference could have a beneficial effect on our country in some way.”
He said the Taunggyi conference had set the stage for “nationwide, all-inclusive talks” that would allow for firm “political agreements” between the ethnic groups, adding that future political transactions would become “smoother” in time.
But before they could move forward, participants in the weekend conference would have to wait to see the results of the government plan to sign a nationwide cease-fire in October and a report by the country’s Constitutional Review Committee which will be submitted to parliament for consideration on the last day of the year, he said.
“We can decide what we have to do after these two results.”
Colonel Saw Lwin, Joint Secretary of the Kayan New Land Party, said holding political discussions between ethnic groups and the government is key to implementing effective cease-fire agreements.
“In my opinion, many armed ethnic groups were established because of political problems. That’s why making cease-fire agreements without holding political discussions cannot be successful,” he said after the conference.
“We have been seeing those agreements fail with fighting in Kachin state and Shan state still ongoing. We need to hold political discussions whenever we plan to sign cease-fire agreements.”
Last week, Kachin rebel leaders agreed to meet with top government peace negotiators next month in a bid to forge a cease-fire agreement as the government scrambles to achieve its comprehensive peace agreement.
The two sides signed an agreement in May to reduce violence between their respective forces and create a framework for future negotiations, but the pact fell short of a full cease-fire and clashes between rebels and government troops have broken out sporadically.
Earlier this month, Myanmar's Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann held talks with government leaders and rebels in northeastern Shan state amid plans for the nationwide cease-fire agreement, but some Shan groups said they were more interested in a comprehensive political solution to the decades of war between the ethnic groups and the country’s military.
Goal of peace
Saw Lwin said he and other leaders in attendance were pleased with the results of the weekend conference and said that participation was better than expected.
“We can say [this] conference is a lead-up to the second [Panglong] Conference that we have been working towards,” he said.
“We are going to continue holding similar conferences until we finally achieve that goal.”
Myanmar’s peace negotiators say that after more than 60 years of conflict, ethnic groups have been calling for dialogue that was impossible under the former military junta, which stepped down two years ago to make way for a reformist administration under President Thein Sein.
But ongoing fighting between the Myanmar army and holdout groups like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has overshadowed democratic change in the country.
The Myanmar government had announced in June that it would organize a nationwide cease-fire accord in July, but the conference never took place.
Reported by Kyaw Myo Tun and Myo Zaw Ko for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.