Myanmar government negotiators and armed ethnic groups have “agreed on nearly every point” of an elusive nationwide cease-fire agreement, the leader of a rebel coalition said Monday, adding that a fourth draft of the pact could be signed within 24 hours.
Naing Han Thar, head of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), said his coalition and the government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) would approve the draft “tomorrow,” after briefing the central committees of the NCCT’s 16 armed ethnic groups.
“We all have agreed to nearly every point that is included in the nationwide cease-fire agreement as a first step between UPWC and NCCT,” the coalition leader told reporters, after talks resumed at the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in Yangon on Monday following a one-week break.
“The agreement is confirmed from the government side, as they are constantly in touch with their leaders, but the ethnic representatives still need to confirm the agreement with their leaders. We will sign the [draft] agreement tomorrow” on the last day of negotiations, he said.
Naing Han Thar said the NCCT was “satisfied” with the results of the seventh round of talks in more than two years—a peace process he described as having been fraught with “difficulties.”
While UPWC officials did not comment on the results of Monday’s talks, senior MPC advisor Hla Maung Shwe told reporters that government negotiators were ready to sign off on the draft text of the agreement, and expressed hope that a final pact could be approved by “late April.”
The latest negotiations began March 17 with the aim of ironing out the few remaining points of the fourth agreement drafted during talks in September 2014, which were stymied by disagreements over military and other issues.
Monday’s draft omits several key points that the government, army and the NCCT differed on in the past, meaning they would need to be addressed in political dialogue after the signing of an agreement.
Naing Han Thar stressed that the fourth draft of the cease-fire pact “is not the final agreement.”
“We have some different views about the framework and when we will hold political dialogue,” he said.
“As we have agreed [in principle] on the nationwide cease-fire agreement, we will work on reducing the fighting, and then ending it.”
He said the two sides would have to hold “further discussions” before a final cease-fire agreement could be signed.
The government refuses to recognize some of the NCCT members as signatories to an accord—including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng, which launched a bid to retake Shan state’s Kokang region on Feb. 9.
But Naing Han Thar said Kokang, where fierce fighting and reported abuses and killings of civilians have displaced tens of thousands of refugees across the border into neighboring China, would be next on the table.
"We didn't discuss Kokang, but we have to discuss it and we will discuss it,” he said.
The ongoing fighting has heightened tensions with Beijing after a cross-border bombing incident killed five Chinese farmers in Yunnan province, and prompted a show of force by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the border region.
The PLA has been holding military training exercises in Yunnan province after the clashes between Myanmar government forces and ethnic rebels spilled into China's territory, the official Chinese Reference News digest reported.
A brigade of the 14th Field Army held a large-scale live fire exercise to boost its night-combat capability after fighting between Myanmar troops and Kokang forces spilled over the border, state broadcaster CCTV reported last week.
The Myanmar-Chinese border in Yunnan has long been porous, with China's renminbi currency and cell phone networks in frequent use by Chinese-speaking residents of Kokang, local sources have said.
The MNDAA has repeatedly denied reports from the region that it has actively recruited mercenaries and volunteers from China.
but on Sunday, Myanmar state television reported that eight Chinese nationals had been handed lengthy jail terms by a court in the Shan town of Lashio for manslaughter and for taking part in "illegal military training" in Myanmar.
The Lashio court on March 26 sentenced the eight Chinese passport holders to 25 years' imprisonment, naming them as: Zhang Zheng, 17, Zhang Ren, 17, and Yang Xiaohong, 19, from the southwestern province of Sichuan; Pan Xingcheng, 21, from Guangxi; Liu Liang, 21, from Hubei; Liu Yuequan, 19, from Guizhou; and Li Tie, 22, and Han Lulu, 25, from the eastern province of Anhui.
The group crossed the border from Yunnan into Mengla in February 2013, joined the Kokang militia, and took part in "illegal military training," the court found.
They were convicted of the manslaughter of a military training officer after an angry quarrel over their pay, after which they absconded with a large quantity of guns and ammunition, Myanmar Radio and TV reported.
While some Kokang residents said they didn't believe the report, a source close to the MNDAA command said it was accurate.
"Yes, this is true," the source said. "This happened more than six months ago now, when a group of Chinese nationals came to Mengla to take part in alliance training."
"They stole assault weapons and drove away in a vehicle after killing their instructor," he said. "They were later caught by the Myanmar government."
He said the ethnic army had sworn off taking Chinese recruits in the wake of the incident.
"It's because of those guys that none of the armed groups in northern Myanmar will accept Chinese volunteers now," the source said.
A Kokang resident and aid worker said many of the Chinese nationals who had previously arrived in northern Myanmar weren't actively recruited.
"They came as a result of personal connections, or because they were curious and wanted to fire some guns," the aid worker said.
"They had dubious motives, anyway."
He said reports that Chinese nationals are fighting with Kokang armed groups were now very hard to verify.
"There are so many factions within the alliance, that we don't know which faction is being referred to, so it's impossible to confirm anything," he said.
Shortage of supplies
Meanwhile, aid workers and charities are still struggling to ensure adequate food, clean water, and medical supplies for the tens of thousands of displaced civilians in camps on both sides of the China-Myanmar border.
A volunteer relief worker in Yunnan surnamed Chen said they were awaiting a shipment of donated medical supplies from Taiwan, which has longstanding historical ties with Shan state.
Workers in the camps say there is a shortage of day-to-day medical supplies, meaning that any infections spread easily within the makeshift camps, where refugees are already vulnerable to diarrhea from dirty water supplies.
"Just one piece of gauze can be used to bind a wound, apply ointment, cover the eyes or any open wound, or as a face-mask to prevent cross-infections with the cold or flu," Chen said.
Yang Hsien-hung, head of the Taiwan-based China Human Rights Alliance group, said the plight of refugees from the Kokang conflict has sparked concern on the island, which has been ruled separately from China since 1949.
"People who lack access to medical resources are really in a terrible state," Yang said. "It's possible to change a person's life with just a few tablets."
"If they recover from an illness that they may have had before, they are able to go out and work for their families. Then they have hope," he said.
Reported by Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service, and Qiao Long and Eva Hsieh for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Joshua Lipes.