An alliance of ethnic armed groups has expressed in informal talks a willingness to sign bilateral peace pacts with the Myanmar military before holding discussions on whether to join the government’s nationwide cease-fire accord to end decades of hostilities.
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army (AA), Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), known collectively as the Northern Alliance, proposed the plan during an unofficial meeting with Myanmar peace negotiators in southwestern China’s Kunming on Feb. 25-26, said TNLA spokesman Colonel Tar Aik Kyaw.
The ethnic armies have not signed truces with the government and continue to engage in sporadic fighting with Myanmar forces in their quest for greater autonomy and ethnic minority rights within a federal system.
The meeting participants did not sign any agreements at the informal gathering, but decided to meet again in the near future, Tar Aik Kyaw said.
Ten ethnic armed groups have already signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA).
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government has held periodic peace conferences in a bid to get the remaining ethnic armies to sign the NCA and end more than 70 years of conflict in the country.
“We told them that all four groups want to sign bilateral agreements,” Tar Aik Kyaw told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We want to sign a bilateral agreement, but individually.”
But because the meeting was an informal one, neither side could make any decisions, he added.
“On their side, they want all ethnic groups to join the NCA so that a political dialogue can start soon, so they expressed their position, and we expressed ours, but no decision was made,” Tar Aik Kyaw said.
Nevertheless, both sides plan to discuss the outcome of the meeting with their superiors and have agreed to continue their talks, he said.
The Northern Alliance will handle the discussions on a bilateral cease-fire, while the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, a grouping of ethnic armies that have not signed the NCA, will handle the political talks, the online journal The Irrawaddy said, citing Tar Aik Kyaw.
Focus on signing the NCA
Hla Maung Shwe, an advisor to the government’s peace team, told RFA on Tuesday that his delegation mainly discussed how the members of the Northern Alliance could join the NCA.
“The discussion from our side primarily focuses on signing the NCA,” he said.
“We have elaborated upon the forthcoming processes to be implemented by our side to the ethnic leaders,” he said.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha declined to comment on the discussions because he had not yet received information from the delegates who were attending the meeting.
KIA spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Naw Bu told RFA on Tuesday that the Kachin army would discuss continuing the political negotiations between the government and the ethnic armies as well as returning Kachin civilians displaced by armed conflict in the northern state to their homes.
In the past, government peace representatives have only met with ethnic groups individually despite a request to sit down with them as a coalition.
During an informal meeting in January between delegates from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, and Myanmar's peace commission, the KIO’s General Gwan Maw asked the representatives to meet with the Northern Alliance. The government later agreed to his request.
The process also has received a boost from the Myanmar military which in December declared a four-month cease-fire in five command zones, excluding Rakhine state where it is fighting the AA, in an effort to open talks to armed rebel groups, including both signatories and non-signatories of the NCA.
Military talks with SSPP
On Monday, the military held its first meeting with leaders from the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), a Shan rebel group that has not signed the NCA, to urge them to work along the lines of the nationwide peace accord and to attend future peace conferences.
But the Shan representatives said they first want an agreement that all ethnic armed organizations will be able to participate in cease-fire negotiations, said SSPP spokesman Major Sai Phone Han.
Some groups have been excluded from the peace process because of ongoing hostilities with Myanmar forces,
The military’s negotiation team, led by Lieutenant General Yar Pyae, told the Shan delegation that it wants the peace process to be inclusive and not leave any armed groups behind, but that it must wait for a certain amount of time to pass before that can be achieved, Sai Phone Han said.
“The discussion focused on continuing the bilateral talks,” said Brigadier General Zaw Min Htun from the Myanmar military’s information committee.
“We also talked about minimizing armed conflict and clashes in northern Shan state,” he added, referring to ongoing fighting between SSPP forces and those of the Restoration Council of Shan State/ Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S), another ethnic armed group.
“They both know the situation on the ground,” Zaw Min Htun told RFA. “I think the bilateral talks will reduce the clashes in future.”
During the discussion, SSPP representatives said it has been regrettable to see the recent armed conflict between its soldiers and those of the RCSS, and that SSPP troops had engaged in the hostilities because it was unavoidable.
The SSPP previously said that it engaged in fighting the RCSS, which is based in southern Shan state, when RCSS soldiers along with government troops occupied the SSPP's temporary posts in the northern part of the state.
The RCSS, an NCA signatory, has denied that it has conducted offensives on other ethnic armed organizations, saying that its soldiers have fought back when the groups attacked them after entering RCSS-controlled territory.
In the meantime, the SSPP will wait and see how the military will implement the all-inclusive peace agreement on the ground, Sai Phone Han said.
“The military delegates proposed holding monthly meetings with the SSPP,” he said. “We will reply to them after reporting to the SSPP head office.”
Reported by Kyaw Tun Naing and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Ye Khaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.