Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups may not be able to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement this month as anticipated by the government, a representative said Monday as the two sides kicked off two days of peace talks in northern Kachin state.
Naing Han Tha, the leader of representatives from 17 ethnic armed groups meeting with government officials in the Kachin capital Myitkyina, said an umbrella peace deal by the end of November is "impossible" as both sides have not fully responded to the deluge of proposals on the table.
“[A cease-fire agreement this month] is impossible because we and the government representatives each have to make our comments on each proposal and decide how to respond,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
But he said he believed the two sides’ “points of view are not very different.”
Naing Han Tha, who is general secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), said that the first day of talks had “made progress” and that government representatives “generally agreed” to points put forth by the ethnic groups during three days of meetings they held amongst themselves last week.
The main points of the so-called “Laiza Agreement” include political dialogue with the government, a move toward a federal union in Myanmar when dialogue begins, and an agreement to form a federal army.
“They have generally agreed to them, although we haven’t discussed the details yet … We have to continue our discussion,” he said.
Naing Han Tha said that one of the main sticking points is the possibility of forming a federal army, which government representatives have said should not be a prerequisite to building a federal union.
“It seems they will consider this point, although we have to continue our discussion on the details … for forming a federal army,” he said.
“If we want to create a federal union, we need to have a federal army. If the army is controlled by a small group of people, it is not proper for a federal union and it can’t guarantee [inclusion] for ethnic minorities.”
The ethnic groups, many of which have signed individual peace pacts with the military, will address proposals from the government side on Tuesday, he said.
The two sides did not discuss the possibility of amending Myanmar’s constitution, which was adopted in 2008 under the former military junta, and which ethnic groups say must be rewritten to provide their states with greater autonomy.
The Myitkyina meeting was attended by international observers, including United Nations special envoy Vijay Nambiar and Chinese special envoy Wang Ying Fan.
Government representatives remained hopeful that a cease-fire agreement could be reached within the month, though they admitted this was unlikely to take place within this round of talks.
Lt. Gen. Myint Soe, commander of the government’s bureau of special operations, told reporters, “It is not impossible to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement in November,” adding that it was “difficult to say” when it might be done.
“The government has written a framework to work together with ethnic armed groups [to achieve peace]. The armed ethnic groups have written up their framework as well,” he said.
“After we all sign the cease-fire agreement, we will have real peace and everything will be done.”
Hla Maung Shwe, an adviser from the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center, said it is natural to encounter “challenges” when dealing with several ethnic groups at once, as Naypyidaw had experienced “difficulties” in individual talks with each group in the past.
But he said that each side must be flexible in its position “to get what we want … peace.”
“We need to prepare to sign a nationwide cease-fire, to make frameworks and then to hold political dialogue. We are now at the first door to move on all of these,” he said.
“Aung Min [a minister in President Thein Sein’s office] said that it is impossible to achieve a 100 percent agreement within two days of talks, so we will simply have to continue the discussion.”
Hla Maung Shwe called the first day of talks “historical” with both sides holding “open” dialogue and actively negotiating to advance their positions.
He said that while the government was in agreement with the ethnic groups on many issues, the two sides were opposed on whether to begin holding political dialogue before or after signing a cease-fire agreement.
The ethnic armed groups would prefer to forge ahead with policies that would guarantee them a greater voice in Myanmar’s rapidly democratizing political system, while the government believes that an overarching cease-fire agreement is imperative to speed up the country’s political and economic reforms.
“Not only in Myanmar, but in all other countries, cease-fire agreements are signed between the government and armed ethnic groups."
"All relevant organizations and stakeholders, such as members of parliament, political parties, and ethnic leaders need to be involved in the political dialogue,” he said.
“If only the government and armed ethnic groups hold political dialogue first, it would mean other stakeholders are less important. We don’t want things to be like this.”
The government has inked peace deals with 10 out of 11 major armed groups in Myanmar since Thein Sein extended an olive branch in August 2011.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is the only one of Myanmar’s major ethnic rebel groups that has not signed its own individual cease-fire with the government, which is racing to put an end to the fighting with rebels in a bid to further the country’s reform process.
Reported by Sai Tun Aung Lwin, Win Naing and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.