Representatives from Myanmar’s ruling and opposition parties will meet with armed ethnic rebel leaders this week to help lay the framework for an elusive nationwide cease-fire agreement that the government wants to get signed by the end of the year.
Ahead of three-day talks in Thailand beginning Friday, a senior member of Myanmar’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and a Kachin rebel army leader indicated that issues over lucrative business interests in conflict zones could mar negotiations to end decades of military conflict.
USDP central committee member Hla Swe questioned whether ethnic rebel leaders were “really representing the interests of their people” in the negotiations.
“Some leaders from ethnic armed groups are mostly working based on business [interests]. I don’t think they are working enough for ethnic rights,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service ahead of the talks in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai.
He warned the government against giving in to rebel demands, saying President Thein Sein’s negotiating team led by Minister Aung Min had been too patient already.
“I think the government has acceded more than it should,” he said.
General Gwan Maw, chief of staff of the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), accused other prominent rebel groups of signing ceasefire agreements with the government in exchange for lucrative car import permits.
“To those making efforts for peace, I urge them not to exchange peace for car permits,” the Kachin News Group quoted him as saying in a speech to hundreds of ethnic Kachins in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon on Tuesday before heading to Chiang Mai for the talks.
The KIO, the only major rebel group without an active individual cease-fire agreement with the government, is a key member of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) rebel alliance, which is based in Chiang Mai.
Talks with a dozen political parties
UNFC leaders will meet Friday with representatives from a dozen Myanmar political parties, comprising, among other groups, the USDP, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and ethnic-based parties, including those not represented in parliament.
In talks organized by the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center, the political party representatives will also meet with the Nationwide Cease-fire Coalition Team, the Restoration Council of Shan State, the Working Group for Ethnic Coordination, and the Women's League of Burma.
The meetings are aimed at narrowing differences between the government and the rebel groups ahead of the next round of nationwide cease-fire talks scheduled to take place next month in the Kayin (Karen) state capital Hpa-An.
After the talks in Thailand, the Nationwide Cease-fire Coalition Team is expected to draw up a draft nationwide cease-fire pact that will be sent to the government next week.
Government negotiators have said they want to get all of the rebel groups to sign the nationwide cease-fire together at a ceremony in Naypyidaw by the end of the year.
But the peace process has hit stumbling blocks as the rebel groups demand a federal military and amendments to the constitution to create a federal political system allowing ethnic states greater autonomy, as well as political and social reforms.
This week’s meetings will be an opportunity for political parties to weigh in on the peace process spearheaded by President Thein Sein’s government, which is racing to end conflict with the rebels to speed up reforms after decades of military rule.
Aside from the cease-fire, they are also expected to discuss amendments to the country’s 2008 constitution, the creation of a federal political system, and women’s roles in national reform.
Myanmar has a number of small ethnic-based parties, many of which have called for amending the constitution to allow for more autonomy for ethnic states.
This week’s talks will include representatives from the ethnic-based Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD), the Chin Progressive Party, the Karen People’s Party, as well as the National Democratic Force and the Peace and Diversity Party, among others.
Preparing for political dialogue
Myanmar Peace Center representative Nyo Ohn Myint said the government welcomed input from other political parties since they are expected to participate in political dialogue the government and rebels have agreed to hold after signing a nationwide cease-fire.
“When we hold political dialogue, political parties and ethnic parties that are not armed groups will be in the dialogue. It is good to have their opinion in advance before the political dialogue,” he told RFA.
The Myanmar Peace Center had arranged for the parties to join the discussions at their request, he said.
SNLD general secretary Sia Nyunt Lwin said the talks would focus “mainly” on the nationwide cease-fire and that as an ethnic-based party, the SNDP could help mediate discussions between ethnic leaders and the government.
“Although the SNLD is familiar with the ethnic armed groups, other political parties are not. We will all be dialogue partners, and that’s why these talks were arranged—for us to meet each other and share opinions,” he told RFA.
UNFC secretary Naing Han Tha said rebel groups welcomed the chance to talk with political party representatives.
“Having the discussions here with all groups will be helpful to solving problems such as how to proceed based on what the people want and how to amend 2008 constitution,” he told RFA.
Reported by Sai Tun Aung Lwin, Yadanar Oo, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.