The Myanmar government’s demand to ethnic groups to disband their armies without providing assurances on any ethnic composition of a federal army is obstructing talks to forge a nationwide ceasefire deal, the head of a negotiating team of armed ethnic groups said Monday.
Doubts over the proposed formation of a federal union that should give ethnic states greater powers are also hindering the talks, said Naing Han Tha of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents nearly all members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a key coalition of 12 ethnic rebel groups.
“We can’t accept a ceasefire with unfair requests from the government,” Naing Han Tha told RFA’s Myanmar Service as he led the latest round of talks among NCCT representatives in Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai city.
The new hurdles raised by the NCCT, which is negotiating the ceasefire on behalf of 16 ethnic groups, coupled with the latest fighting between government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels could result in the postponement of talks between the government and ethnic groups scheduled for next month, some reports have suggested.
Naing Han Tha said it was “unfair” for the government to demand that ethnic armies completely surrender to the military and to propose a federal army that ethnic groups fear will not represent their interests and a federal union the groups say is unlikely to guarantee their rights.
He said that there has been little progress in finalizing the draft of a ceasefire agreement since the ethnic groups met with government representatives in Yangon earlier this month but added that efforts must continue to break the deadlock.
“Our compromise with the government side hasn’t seen much development,” Naing Han Tha said.
“We still have different stances. We have to find a way to continue working on our future agenda” through greater understanding of the differing positions, he said.
During April 5-9 peace talks in Yangon, the NCCT and the government’s Central Peace Making Work Committee said they had agreed on the first draft of the nationwide ceasefire agreement and would meet again in the second week of May to try to complete it.
But Naing Han Tha said that the government had since made “unfair requests” of the ethnic coalition and that those conditions would have to be taken off of the table in order to get a final version of the ceasefire signed by the ethnic groups.
“We [the NCCT] want our country’s problem to be solved and we want our country to develop. If we all want development and peace in our country, we need to hold political discussions. But to get these discussions, we need a nationwide ceasefire agreement first,” he said.
“We need to talk [to one another] from an equal position—we won’t figure things out by setting unfair conditions. We need to continue fighting against unfair requests and conditions, and [the government] trying to take advantage, through international pressure and through our stance.”
Naing Han Tha said that the Chiang Mai talks would largely focus on issues that the group had disagreed on with government negotiators as the two sides prepared a draft of the ceasefire pact.
If the NCCT and the government are unable to come to terms on a ceasefire agreement when they next meet, the NCCT will hold a meeting with the top leaders from the armed ethnic groups to decide how to proceed, he said.
He said the group also needs to discuss how to address recent clashes between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Myanmar’s Kachin state that have left more than 30 soldiers killed or wounded and have threatened to derail peace talks.
According to the Myanmar Times, fighting has slowed since April 20, with the exception of a skirmish on April 23, but the situation in southern Kachin state remains tense, with Kachin spokesperson Lah Nan warning that fresh clashes could break out “at any time” because the military had strengthened its troop numbers near KIA-controlled areas.
The KIA is the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which is represented by the NCCT, and Naing Han Tha told the Times that the recent fighting had made it unclear whether the coalition would meet with government negotiators in May.
“We need to review the situation because [government troops] attacked one of our members,” he said.
“Because of that we are considering postponing the meeting planned for May. Some members have expressed new doubts over the peace process.”
The Times reported that government negotiators had not received any official indication the May talks would be postponed.
Last week, the UNFC warned that military incursions in Kachin and northern Shan states could jeopardize ceasefire negotiations.
The warning was issued by the UNFC on April 23 from Chiang Mai, where it had convened an urgent meeting of its central executive committee on April 21 and 22.
“The offensives from the government side are putting pressure on us and if they continue the peace negotiations can be damaged,” the Mizzima news agency quoted UNFC secretary Naing Han Tha as saying.
“Negotiations will continue but they have been hampered,” he said. “Suspicion grows larger and if the fighting continues, the negotiations may end in failure.”
The latest clashes have prompted more than 5,000 people to flee their homes. More than 100,000 people have been displaced as a result of the Kachin conflict, which erupted in June 2011, ending a 17-year ceasefire agreement.
KIA deputy commander-in-chief General Gwan Maw has said that the KIA will not sign a nationwide ceasefire accord if the government tries to force it to the table through “military means.”
The KIO is considering leaving the NCCT and in the meantime has asked the team to stand strong in its discussions with the government.
Reported by Aung Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.