The Myanmar government plans to hold a dialogue with ethnic rebel groups in April next year in a bid to seek an enduring political settlement to decades of armed conflict, a minister in President Thein Sein’s office said Monday.
The political dialogue will be held possibly after the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement that could be finalized in talks next month.
“The ethnic groups are asking for political dialogue, so we will have it started,” Minister Aung Min, the chief government negotiator in peace talks with the ethnic groups, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“I would like to start the political dialogue in April 2014 because we only have a one year period [before the 2015 elections].”
Aung Min explained that the peace process with rebel groups is “just beginning” and that the two sides would seek to lay down the foundation for a nationwide ceasefire agreement next month during a new round of talks in the Kayin (Karen) state capital, Hpa-An.
“After the meeting in December in Hpa-An, we will determine a date to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement,” he said.
President Thein Sein’s government has signed cease-fire agreements with several rebel groups since being elected to power in 2011, and is racing to forge a standard pact covering all groups as part of a bid to speed up reforms after decades of military rule.
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.
At the weekend, Myanmar's political parties and ethnic armed rebel groups wrapped up their first meeting as part of the peace process, with participants saying it had boosted trust in efforts to forge national reconciliation.
The meeting between leaders of the umbrella United Nationalities Federal Alliance (UNFC) rebel group and representatives from 11 opposition and ethnic-based political parties held their talks in neighboring Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai city.
Aung Min on Monday met three officials from the UNFC alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups—UNFC General Secretary Nai Han Thar, and vice presidents Abel Twet and David Thakapaw, who is making his first visit to Yangon in 35 years.
The trio was given safe passage during their three-day visit to the commercial capital. They also met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday to discuss issues of peace and democracy.
Call to military
On Sunday, the three leaders called for Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to join in talks in pursuit of the nation-wide ceasefire agreement, saying that the army’s participation would ensure that any pact with the government would be more trustworthy.
“The Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services needs to sign the accord along with the President, two Vice-Presidents, speakers of both parliaments and the Chief Justice,” The Irrawaddy online journal quoted Nai Han Thar as saying.
“Including all of their signatures will help to ensure that a ceasefire is durable,” he said.
Nai Han Thar added that the successful implementation of a ceasefire would also require government forces to withdraw from areas controlled by armed ethnic groups, for both sides to agree to a code of conduct and for monitoring teams to be set up to observe the truce.
He said that fresh fighting between government troops and rebels in Kachin state since Oct. 16—even as the two sides negotiate a ceasefire agreement—is undermining trust between armed ethnic groups and Myanmar peace negotiators.
“We are having conversations only with the government,” The Irrawaddy quoted Nai Han Thar as saying.
“The fighting is continuing despite the discussions, and we have no idea whether there is [an] agreement between the government and the military regarding the recent fighting.”
Nai Han Thar, who is also head of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), formed during a peace conference of ethnic armed groups held earlier this month in the town of Laiza in Kachin state, said a nationwide cease-fire agreement was a prerequisite to political talks with the government.
“We want political talks. But we need one thing first, which is [a] nationwide ceasefire agreement from the government,” the Myanmar Eleven Media group reported him as saying.
“The government used to sign ceasefire agreements with some ethnic armed groups while attacking the rest which didn’t sign.”
Chiang Mai meetings
While representatives from Thein Sein’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party did not attend the talks in Chiang Mai despite being invited, UNFC leaders and representatives from the opposition and ethnic-based political parties agreed to work toward creating a federal political system in Myanmar.
Mizzima News Agency on Monday quoted Nai Han Thar as saying that a proposal for a federal army at the talks had been opposed by the government.
“They do not want to accept our proposal to establish a federal army; they don’t want their army to be reformed and reconstituted,” he said, adding that the government wanted its authority and power to be “untouchable.”
UNFC deputy secretary Khun Okka told RFA that the NCCT would hold an internal meeting in Chiang Mai on Tuesday to discuss a follow up to the weekend negotiations.
“The main responsibility of the NCCT is to work towards the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement,” he said of Tuesday’s agenda.
Khun Okka, who is also a member of the NCCT, said that the coordination team has yet to fully review a draft proposal for a nationwide cease-fire submitted by Aung Min during the last round of negotiations with the government earlier this month in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin state.
Additionally, the NCCT will work to draft its own proposal for a cease-fire agreement after holding discussions with all of the ethnic armed groups that met in Laiza, a Kachin rebel stronghold, and ironing out its own internal administrative details.
He said that rebel groups have expressed several concerns over Aung Min’s draft that will need to be addressed in upcoming negotiations before the peace process could move forward.
“There are many disagreements—including language usage—from ethnic armed groups on the government's draft,” he said.
“We saw similar language to a former [proposal] used in 1990 and 1991, but we didn’t see anything clearly spelling out the forming of a federal union, which is what all ethnic groups want.”
“I think that we will have real peace when we are in agreement on running the nation through a federal union system. Only when both sides travel together on the same journey with a real wish to build a better nation, will we have peace.”
Reported by Kyaw Thu, Myo Zaw Ko and Zin Mar Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.