Myanmar’s oldest insurgent group slammed the government’s peace process on Thursday, saying that is proceeding the “wrong way” in its aim to create a federal republic, one of the goals of numerous armed ethnic groups that have been engaged in civil war with national forces over the last seven decades.
The Karen National Union (KNU), a political organization that represents the interests of the minority Karen people and whose armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), operates in mountainous eastern Myanmar, made the comment in an announcement about Karen New Year’s Day being celebrated on Jan. 6.
The KNU’s central executive committee said it does not agree with the way in which the process is being handled by State Counselor’s Sung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government.
The KNU said it would find a solution through informal meetings with government and national military officials, and urged Karen civil society groups and the Karen people to work together to forge peace in the country.
The political group also urged the Karen people to promote their language, traditions, and culture. Karen state, also called Kayin state, lies in southeastern Myanmar, bordering Thailand.
RFA’s Myanmar Service was unable to reach the government military’s information team for a comment on the KNU’s statement.
The KNU is one of 10 armed ethnic groups that have signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), but it shelved its participation in ongoing peace negotiations in October, saying it needed to find time “for the creation of the unified participation of the whole organization,” according to a report in the online journal The Irrawaddy.
A KNU leader told the publication that the group decided to suspend talks because “the peace process is not going as well as expected.”
Eleven ethnic armed organizations have not signed the October 2015 NCA.
The peace process, restarted by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016 after the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power, has been deadlocked over the exclusion of non-NCA signatories in negotiations and different interpretations of the NCA.
Ethnic armies have balked at the government military’s insistence that all the groups accept non-secession along with self-determination and the formation of a single national army.
The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), commonly known as the Shan State Army-South, was the second NCA signatory to temporarily suspend its participation in the peace talks for the same reasons.
The NLD government has held only three rounds of peace talks among stakeholders, though Aung San Suu Kyi originally planned to hold discussions twice a year.
So far, the parties to the talks have agreed on 51 basic principles involving the political sector, the economy, and land matters, but they have yet to reach an accord on the security sector.
Displaced civilians in Namtu
Hostilities continued to rage meanwhile on Thursday between two rival ethnic armies in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state.
Fighting between the RCSS and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) forced 400 civilians to flee their homes on the first two days of the New Year.
Aung San Myint, a member of the IDP Assistance Committee of Namtu township, said about 40 displaced civilians are staying at the town’s Popayon Monastery, 15 others are being housed at a boarding school, and 310 are in a monastery in Mansan village.
Officials from Namtu’s Department of Disaster Management gave each displaced civilian 2,100 kyats (U.S. $1.35) along with blankets and warm clothing from international NGOs, he said.
This is the third time that recent fighting has forced villagers to flee their communities, and residents have requested that the RCSS and TNLA not engage in skirmishes near their villages, especially now during the harvest season when they have to work in their fields.
Neither the RCSS or TNLA have issued any statements about the clashes this week.
More than 8,500 people, of whom 77 percent are women and children, have been displaced by fighting and live in 31 camps or camp-like settings in the northern part of Shan state, according to a brief issued in September 2018 by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Those who are temporarily displaced usually return to their villages once hostilities die down.
Clashes between the TNLA and the RCSS intensified in 2018 following a joint effort by the Ta’ang army and another Shan insurgent group to try to push back RCSS soldiers expanding into northern Shan state, according to a November report on the Shan Herald Agency for News website.
The TNLA began fighting the RCSS for the same reason after the latter signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) in October 2015, though the RCSS has argued that its troops have been in the area for more than a dozen years, the report said. The TNLA has not signed the government's peace accord.
Food supplies blocked in Kyauktaw
Meanwhile, Myanmar forces have been blocking food supplies from reaching civilians in conflict zones in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where government soldiers are battling the Arakan Army in Kyauktaw township.
Villagers displaced by fighting in in the township’s War Taung village now number more than 900, as armed violence continues in the region, residents told RFA. Most of the villagers fled from Nga Sayaigai, Pyein Chaung, Tae Wa, Pyin Nyar Gyi, Kha Maung Taw, Lae Kwi, and Kin Bi villages.
Relief groups are providing internally displaced persons (IDPs) with temporary shelter, while humanitarian groups are providing basic food, though building material for shelters is lacking, said War Taung village head Thein Maung.
Local village officials said there has been no international relief from the United Nations or other groups, despite the growing number of IDPs now estimated to be at 2,000 across Kyauktaw township.
Villagers have been escaping hostilities between the two sides in recent months, but now more people have fled their communities after the military restricted food supplies in conflict areas, they said.
“We can’t transport rice,” said Hnin Thein Wai, a villager who fled his home. “It’s restricted, and we can’t buy rice. So, we fled because we can’t die of starvation with my little children.”
Displaced residents say the Myanmar Army began restricting food supplies in the region on Dec. 28 following clashes with AA troops.
Food supplies were previously allowed based on recommendations by local police, but now most communities affected by the restriction order must rely on other villages and townships for supplies of basic staples while the military screens and limits food, locals said.
Maung Hla from Pyein Chaung village said that after the Myanmar Army issued an order about food supplies, he and about 10 others from Pyein Chaung and Lae Kwi villages went to a military base and requested permission to transport food back to their homes.
“First, we were told we could carry a sack of rice for each household, but later we were told that a superior denied the request, so we had to leave empty-handed,” he said.
RFA could not reach either Colonel Win Zaw Oo, the designated spokesman for the Myanmar Army’s Western Command, or Major Phone Tint, Rakhine state’s minister for security and border affairs, for comment.
Some displaced civilians say they are hopeful that they will soon be able to return home.
A woman named Khin Lay New said she wants to return her village, but that the current restrictions on food supplies make it impossible to do so.
War Taung village administrator Sein Shwe Bu said people will be able to return to their communities when the military lifts the ban.
“We don’t want to stay here in difficult conditions,” he said. “We will return home once food supplies are allowed.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Kan Thar for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.