Representatives of 21 ethnic groups from Burma’s Shan and Kayah states held landmark talks Wednesday to discuss prospects for ending armed conflict with the government, with nearly all demanding a revamp to the country’s constitution to give greater powers to ethnic states.
The three-day forum is organized by the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and involves representatives from both armed ethnic groups and political parties.
The focus is on “trust building” between the different groups, all of which are in various stages of talks with Burmese President Thein Sein’s administration about greater political representation.
Groups which have not forged a cease-fire with the government are not participating in the forum, which is also being attended by senior government officials as observers.
Sai Lake, secretary of the SNLD, told RFA’s Burmese Service that nearly all of the 21 groups represented at the forum criticized the country’s 2008 constitution, pushed through by the then-ruling military junta, for not giving Burma’s ethnic groups sufficient representation in the government.
“Almost every organization or party said that we can’t have long-lasting peace because of the weakness of the constitution,” he said. “We all have the same opinion on it.”
Sai Lake quoted a government official at the meeting as saying that it would “take a very long time” to amend “all the weak points” of the constitution and that it would be best, if possible, to create a new one entirely. He did not specify which official had made the suggestion.
He said that while some of the ethnic groups had wanted their own independent state in the past, the majority would consent to remaining part of the union if provided with greater power within Burmese politics.
“If they are given equal rights and if they are allowed to create their own laws, long-lasting peace could become a reality. They said that they even expect to [back] a union military.”
Sai Lake said that he believes the ideas discussed so far at the forum represent the attitudes of the majority of people in Shan and Kayah states, and that resolutions based on these issues could form the basis for peace in Burma’s ethnic regions.
“I expect that we will produce worthwhile results, even if we don’t produce perfect results, and we will have some starting points from which to build a real federal union,” he said.
He said that organizers had traveled through Shan and Kayah states meeting with every ethnic group over the last two months in preparation for the event, which contributed to the strong turnout for the forum.
Vice-chairman of the government’s Peace Delegation Aung Min, who is an observer at the forum, said he believes the first day of talks had yielded good progress towards building national unity.
“I believe that, from the trust building we did today, we can take the next step toward the long-lasting peace that we all want,” he said.
“What we have to do is stop the conflicts based on the cease-fires we currently have and sign peace treaties with basic political points … From these agreements, we can form the national unity that our society so desperately needs.”
‘First of its kind’
Earlier, Sai Lake had called the forum “the first of its kind” among such a variety of ethnic groups and said it would serve as an important stepping stone for national talks.
“The main topic is about what the armed groups in Shan and Kayah states can do to establish lasting peace. The top priority for this meeting is to discuss how to support a transition to a genuine union,” Sai Lake told RFA ahead of the meeting.
“The first time we met was for a discussion only among Shan groups. This meeting includes all ethnic groups in Shan and Kayah states. We can say that this meeting is broader because we can hear the voices of [nearly] all ethnic groups in the two regions.”
Some ethnic groups, such as those which are still in negotiations with the government about a cease-fire, did not attend Wednesday’s forum.
“We can’t attend this meeting because our discussion with the government about a cease-fire has not concluded yet,” said Khu Daniel, a central committee member of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).
“We also have to meet with the government side later this month.”
The Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) also sat out of the forum.
Hla Maung Shwe of the government’s Peace Delegation had said Tuesday that discussions like the Lashio forum must first be held to stop armed conflict at the state level before talks can be held on a national level, according to Thein Sein’s road map to national reconciliation.
He said such discussions were the right step towards “building trust and development” among the different peoples of Burma.
“We are preparing to move toward political dialogue in which all ethnic groups could participate,” he said.
“The government’s peacemaking committee is opening its door for political dialogue. This dialogue can take place group by group or state by state.”
Burma’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 Burmese army and holdout groups like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has overshadowed democratic change in the country.
Thein Sein had ordered a halt to military offensives against ethnic rebels last year, and since he came to office, Burma has signed peace agreements with 10 armed ethnic groups.
Reported by Kyaw Thu and Win Naing for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.