Armed ethnic groups have agreed to meet with the Myanmar government next month for peace talks despite reservations over a number of conditions imposed under a proposed nationwide cease-fire agreement.
The talks will be held “in the third week of May” in Yangon, 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.
Next month’s talks will center on resolving disagreements with the government that are hindering progress on signing a cease-fire agreement, Naing Han Tha told RFA’s Myanmar Service, speaking at the end of a two-day meeting among NCCT representatives in Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai city.
Last month, the NCCT and the government’s Central Peace Making Work Committee said they had agreed on the first draft of the nationwide cease-fire agreement and would meet again in the second week of May to try to complete it.
Naing Han Tha had warned on Monday that six conditions proposed by the military at the last meeting, including the need for ethnic groups to disband their armies, could scuttle the talks planned for next month.
The NCCT has also expressed doubts over the proposed formation of a federal union that should give ethnic states greater powers.
On Tuesday, Naing Han Tha said that the talks would go ahead as planned, but would focus on “what positions the government might be willing to change.”
“We plan to discuss including these points in the cease-fire agreement as a guarantee to enter into political dialogue” shortly after a completed cease-fire deal, he said.
Naing Han Tha said that the NCCT will not abide by a military condition that would force ethnic groups to adhere to laws set out by Myanmar’s 2008 junta-drafted constitution, which is currently being reviewed for amendment in the country’s parliament.
“We have fought with the government for a long time because we don’t like these laws. So, we see [this demand] as unfair,” he said.
“The government has said something like the 2008 constitution can’t be amended. We also can’t accept this. We want to find out why it is so difficult for us to achieve peace while the president, parliamentary speaker, and some MPs are currently discussing amendments to the constitution in parliament.”
The Irrawaddy online journal quoted Naing Han Tha as saying that the NCCT wants to meet with the government to learn its views, “as the military’s proposal [in the last meeting] is unacceptable.”
“We are not still clear on how the government views the military’s statement for the [first draft], and our proposal on federal policy and autonomy for our states to be included in the draft [nationwide cease-fire],” he told the journal.
Recent clashes between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—which is represented by the NCCT—in Myanmar’s Kachin and Northern Shan states during the past month that have left more than 30 soldiers killed or wounded have also threatened to derail peace talks.
Naing Han Tha told RFA that the clashes, which have prompted more than 5,000 people to flee their homes, demonstrate that the “government is taking advantage” of negotiations to try to gain control of strategically located ethnic-controlled territories.
“But we also are led to think about whether the government really wants to [sign the national cease-fire agreement] because some generals don’t want Myanmar to become a democratic country, which would reduce the military’s power.”
During the second day of meetings in Chiang Mai, the NCCT selected Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win, general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) as the deputy chief of the eight-member delegation team which will hold the May discussions with the government on a nationwide cease-fire.
KIA deputy commander-in-chief General Gwan Maw echoed concerns about the latest clashes and said the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) had sent the government a letter on Tuesday requesting bilateral talks scheduled for May 10 in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina.
“Because there have been several clashes with government soldiers in Kachin state and northern Shan state, it is likely to harm the bid for a nationwide cease-fire,” he said in Chiang Mai.
“We need to reconsider our participation [in this process]. We would like to hold a discussion with the government so as not to hamper the progress of the agreement.”
The Kachin rebels and government officials have not had such a meeting since October last year.
The KIO has also suggested that Vijay Nambiar, the Special Advisor on Myanmar for the U.N. Secretary-General, Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Wang Yingfan and central committee members of the NCCT should attend the May 10 meeting.
More than 100,000 people have been displaced as a result of the Kachin conflict, which erupted in June 2011, ending a 17-year cease-fire agreement.
The KIO and an ethnic Palaung group, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), are the only two armed groups that have not yet signed a bilateral cease-fire with the government.
Gwan Maw has said that the KIA will not sign a nationwide cease-fire accord if the government tries to force it to the table through “military means.”
Reported by Aung Moe Myint and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.