Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s military chief met on Monday in Naypyidaw with armed ethnic organizations that have signed the government’s nationwide peace accord for a first-time tripartite summit in a bid to reignite the stalled peace process.
They met with leaders from the 10 ethnic armies that have signed the nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) to discuss obstacles to the peace process, which has been in motion since 2011, and basic principles for a future federal system of governance.
Among those stumbling blocks are the national military’s demand for a single federal army, non-secession and self-administration policies for ethnic groups, the inclusion of ethnic groups who have not signed the NCA in the peace process, and the timing and sequence of talks.
The ethnic groups want a federal democratic union in the country with constitutional guarantees for a degree of autonomy for ethnic minorities.
But Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said at the meeting that the ethnic groups have to pledge not to leave the union before reaching a future peace deal.
He cited Article 10 of the constitution, drafted by a military junta in 2008, which says, “No part of the territory constituted in the union such as regions, states, union territories and self-administered areas shall ever secede from the union.”
“The term ‘non-separation’ is a long-term guarantee and something that we really need for lasting peace,” Min Aung Hlaing said.
Aung San Suu Kyi echoed his sentiment, saying that it is “very important” to work for a union “where stakeholders neither wish nor want to secede.”
Representatives from the ethnic armies that attended the summit said the parties made a little headway, but still have a way to go to iron out all their differences.
Mya Yazar Lin, a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), said the parties discussed six issues, but still have yet to broach self-determination, non-separation, and having a single national army.
Mutu Say Poe, chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU) said that the discussants agreed on a timeline and sequence for political dialogue as well as simple policies for political discussions.
“So far, we are 60 percent pleased with this meeting.” said Colonel Khun Okka, leader of the Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLO).
But Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong from the Chin National Front expressed displeasure that Min Aung Hlaing and the deputy army chief left the summit in the afternoon.
“We are unhappy about it,” he said. “The chairmen of the ethnic armed groups are attending this meeting because we were told that the army chief would attend it. He came in and gave an opening speech, but we all want him to be in the important discussions. We would like to request that he come tomorrow and discuss the important points with us.”
‘Now is not the time to ask’
One political pundit, however, suggested that the ethnic armies may be asking for too much.
“What we see today is that ethnic groups have been asking for equality and self-determination,” said Myanmar political analyst Than Soe Naing. “They know it is not the time to ask about seceding from the union, although they have asked for it in the past.”
Sai Nyunt Lwin, general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) party, said the government should offer ethnic groups a deal for not seceding from the union.
“If it did, then they would think about it,” he said. “It is also important to see what the government is doing for ethnic groups that have no wish to secede.”
“The government just says ‘don’t secede from the union,’ but it needs to do something so that the ethnic groups don’t want to secede or don’t need to secede,” he said.
MP Pe Than, a lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) said that if Myanmar were to have a truly federal constitution, the ethnic groups would not want to leave the union.
“If it did, they wouldn’t secede even if you pushed them to,” he said. “But they will want to secede if the constitution or any agreements are just for show to [imply that] they are equal.”
Retired army Major Win Naing Kyaw said he wants to see ethnic armies that haven’t signed the NCA at the table during the talks.
“Only the top leaders can make decisions and policies to continue resolving existing matters,” he said.
“There are only NCA-signatory ethnic armed organizations in the meeting,” he said. “I want non-NCA groups in the meeting as well. It would be good and save time to make decisions together with the signatory and non-NCA groups.”
Last week the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest non-state army and an NCA non-signatory itself, called for all non-signatory groups to be included in the summit, but the government refused to invite them.
The 30,000-strong Wa army leads the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), a grouping of ethnic armies that have not signed the NCA, in its discussions of peace-building issues with the government.
Khine Thukha, spokesman of the Arakan Army (AA), an NCA non-signatory, said the peace process cannot move forward because the government and military have rejected calls for all-inclusive talks.
“If they want to start it even now, then it has to be welcomed,” he said. “It’s like Myanmar has two governments — and even though the government wants to move forward, it can’t move if the military doesn’t want to move. The government can’t control the military. We can’t even say which one is the real decision maker.”
Nandar Hla Myint, spokesman of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development (USDP) party, said that the stakeholders in the peace process should focus on stability.
“We can have development only if we have stability in the country,” he said. “To have stability, all leaders from the ethnic armed groups need to build trust and to negotiate [with the government and the military].”
“All stakeholders and institutions need to create stability by working only for the country and the people,” he said.
How go the peace talks?
Scheduled to commemorate the third anniversary of the signing of the NCA, the summit was originally to take place in Poppa, Kyaukpadaung township, in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region, but was moved to the capital Naypyidaw to be more accessible for government and military leaders.
Aung San Suu Kyi intended to hold peace talks every six months under the 21st-Century Panglong Conference when the first round of negotiations was held in August 2016. But only three sessions of talks have been held to date.
The military’s insistence on the non-secession issue in previous rounds, along with the crisis in Rakhine state and ongoing civil wars mainly in Kachin and Shan states, have hindered the process from advancing.
The government wants to hold three more sessions of the peace talks in 2018 and 2019 to reach its goal of laying out the basic principles of a peace accord.
To date, 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.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Kyaw Thu, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.