Nine delegates from Myanmar’s most powerful armed ethnic group walked out of peace negotiations on Thursday because of an apparent mix-up regarding badges, causing a minor glitch in the government’s efforts to forge national reconciliation.
The nine members from the United Wa State Army (UWSA)—Myanmar’s largest nonstate militia—who are attending the conference left after they were informed that they had been accredited only as observers and not as speakers.
“They gave me only observer cards,” said USWA leader Nyi Yan. “They said they will change the card, but not yet. We have been told that we can’t go to this place or that room. There are many restrictions for us. That’s why [we left].”
Former Lieutenant General Khin Zaw Oo, joint secretary of the Panglong Conference’s central committee, called the situation a “misunderstanding” and said he informed the UWSA representatives that they would temporarily have observer cards to enter the conference on the first day and make sure they get the other cards.
The five-day conference began on Wednesday in the capital Naypyidaw. This week’s meetings are expected to be the first of many rounds of talks aimed at ending decades of war in multiethnic Myanmar, a former British colony also known as Burma.
“I saw them in the evening on the first day, and they asked me if they could speak during the conference because they only had observer cards,” he said. “I told them that they can speak because they have been officially invited and are not observers. We gave them observer cards because that’s what we had at the time.”
Salai Lian Mong Sakong, a member of the Panglong Conference’s central committee, said that organizers have given the UWSA representatives the equal rights that they had requested during the conference.
“When we went to the conference, we took name cards for all the ethnic groups, including them,” he said. “But, they came in late and asked government officials for these cards so they could enter. The government officials didn’t know about this because that is not one of their duties. We had to distribute the cards.”
Wa Special Region
The 20,000-25,000-strong USWA is led by ethnic Chinese commanders and controls the Wa Special Region in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state. It has previously received support and weapons from China, though the militia has not been involved in any clashes with government troops in recent years.
The UWSA, which has been accused of producing and selling methamphetamines and heroin in the region it controls, was one of the armed ethnic groups that refused to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) brokered by the former government last October.
The militia agreed in July to participate in the Panglong Conference, an initiative spearheaded by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to bring peace and national reconciliation to Myanmar after decades of ethnic separatist civil wars.
In late July, leaders from the group met with Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto national leader, and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to try to build trust prior to the peace conference.
Policy of inclusion
In a related development, Arakan National Party (ANP) chairman Aye Maung on Thursday urged delegates at the Panglong Conference to review the policy excluding three armed ethnic groups from the summit so they can join the summit.
He also asked them to set a date for the nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) to be signed with ethnic militias who did not ink the original accord with the previous government last October.
The Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) were not invited to participate because they had refused to lay down their arms against the government military before the talks.
“I want to urge here that we review the inclusion of the AA, TNLA, and MNDAA in the conference so we can have national reconciliation and real federal union,” Aye Maung said. “I want all of you to try to invite them.”
“The ANP wishes to have a set date for the NCA after this conference ends,” he said.
Federal democratic union
Meanwhile, some of the participants at the conference butted heads over the creation of a federal democratic union in Myanmar that would grant a degree of autonomy to various ethnic groups.
Most of the country’s armed ethnic groups want a constitution based on a federal democratic political system that grants them federal autonomy. The groups do not want to write up a new constitution from scratch, but rather want to add to or amend basic draft constitution policies that were agreed to by the Federal Constitution Drafting and Coordinating Committee (FCDCC) in 2008. They also want to amend points that were added in 2015 by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of armed ethnic groups that did not sign the NCA.
“The 2008 constitution is one that is very difficult to amend and causes more confusion for ethnic issues,” said Sai Tun Aye, a researcher from the San Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP). “This constitution gives the military special power, so the military protects it.”
“That’s why ethnic people’s issues, such as having equal rights and rights to have their own governance, are influenced by ethnic armed groups,” he said.
But Myint Soe, a lawmaker from the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), said the current constitution allows for equal power sharing.
“We can also see in it that we have a good foundation to create a federal union by discussing the details of power sharing once we have a common agreement from the ethnic groups’ peace talks,” he said.
The Panglong Conference, also known as the Union Peace Conference, is being held in a bid to bring lasting peace to Myanmar after decades of ethnic separatist civil wars following its independence from British colonial rule in 1948.
Reported by Myo Thant Khine, Wai Mar Tun, Win Ko Ko Latt and Win Naung Toe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.