In a fresh sign of cooperation ahead of planned high-level talks, Myanmar government negotiators and ethnic rebel leaders have agreed to jointly frame a nationwide cease-fire agreement aimed at ending decades of fighting.
The ethnic groups’ Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and the government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) announced Monday that they would form a committee to write up the text of the cease-fire pact, which officials are anxious to sign as early as next month.
"The two sides have agreed to form a joint working committee acceptable to both sides to draw up a draft of, and later sign, a nationwide ceasefire pact,” the government’s top negotiator Aung Min said at the end of a two-day meeting in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon.
More than a dozen armed ethnic rebel groups set up the NCCT in November to coordinate discussions with the government on the cease-fire deal, which could lead to political dialogue on forming a federal union giving the groups greater powers in ethnic states.
“The group [joint working committee] will have equal numbers of leaders from both sides, the UPWC and the NCCT,” said Aung Min, a minister in President Thein Sein’s office.
Each side has already drawn up their own drafts, and the new panel is expected to put together a unified version ahead of negotiations planned in the coming weeks in Hpa-An in eastern Myanmar’s Kayin (Karen) state that have been postponed several times.
The committee will include three members each from Myanmar’s military, parliament, and the cabinet, as well as nine representatives chosen from among the 16 rebel groups in the NCCT.
NCCT chairman Nai Hong Sar told the Irrawaddy journal that the new committee will meet in late March to begin hammering out the text.
The high-level talks planned for Hpa-An can go forward after they complete that task, he said.
Both sides have said repeatedly that a nationwide cease-fire pact could be signed within weeks but have not set a firm date after previous plans for the Hpa-An meeting were cancelled over disagreements.
President Thein Sein’s government has been racing since last year to get all of the country’s rebel groups to sign on to the nationwide pact in a bid to speed up reforms after decades under military rule.
Ethnic leaders have demanded political dialogue be conducted before they sign it, while the government has said the pact should be a precondition for political talks.
The previous round of high-level talks were held in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina in November last year, in a landmark conference that was the first time in decades Myanmar government representatives had met with so many rebel groups within the country’s borders.
Ethnic leaders have said Thein Sein’s pledges to end the decades-old conflicts have been marred by the military’s behavior in recent clashes which have undermined trust in the peace process.
NCCT member Khun Okka, who leads the Pa-O National Liberation Organization and is joint secretary of a major coalition of rebel groups, welcomed the participation of military leaders in the new committee, saying members of the military have recently become more involved in peace talks.
"In the past, military leaders were not present at the talks and the cease-fires we reached were ineffective,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service at the Yangon meeting.
“But now it is encouraging to see them and we hope to achieve better pacts."
Most of the ethnic armed groups have reached individual cease-fire agreements with the government in recent years, except for the Kachin Independence Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.