Myanmar’s strongest rebel group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), appears to be in no rush to hold talks with other armed ethnic organizations or the government ahead of a proposed nationwide cease-fire agreement and political dialogue for a durable peace.
The UWSA will enter the negotiations “when the time is ripe,” Sai Paung Nap, a Wa Democratic Party representative in Myanmar’s parliament who has close links with the UWSA, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
He said the Wa rebels had different demands from the other ethnic groups, which have been meeting among themselves and with the government in recent months over a nationwide cease-fire pact which reformist President Thein Sein wants sealed early this year before grappling with negotiations on political demands by the groups.
“The ethnic groups can’t all have the same demands,” Sai Paung Nap said, suggesting that the UWSA would want to upgrade the administrative status of the six townships in eastern Myanmar’s Shan State currently designated as its special region.
“For example, the Wa people have requested, as an essential need, recognition of our region as its own state,” he said.
“The Wa people will only be able to submit requests for their needs when the time is ripe for discussion of all the political problems of ethnic people to take place openly and face-to-face.”
“They think that it would be a waste if they discuss their needs without all-inclusive [dialogue],” he said.
Absent at Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference
The UWSA was a notable absentee in the Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference attended by 17 armed ethnic groups in Laywa in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin (Karen) state last week.
In talks hosted by the Karen National Union that went three days beyond schedule, 16 of the groups signed on to a draft framework for a nationwide cease-fire, which is to be officially discussed with the government in February.
The UWSA is one of three rebel groups that has not signed on to the plan—the others being the National Democratic Alliance Army, which also did not attend the talks, and the Shan State Army-South.
But the UWSA has maintained a cease-fire agreement with the government since 1989—signing a fresh agreement in 2011—in what is believed to be one of the longest such deals in a country that has been wracked by ethnic revolts since independence from Britain in 1948.
While most of Myanmar’s armed rebel groups have signed individual cease-fire agreements with the government in recent years, Thein Sein is banking on a single nationwide agreement signed by all the groups to signal the end to decades of conflict.
Draft nationwide cease-fire agreement
On Wednesday, leaders who attended the Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference last week met with the government’s chief negotiator Minister Aung Min in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai and presented their draft of the nationwide cease-fire agreement, The Irrawaddy online journal reported.
The government negotiators were there to “receive the ethnic groups’ draft cease-fire agreement and listen to their explanations on each section of the draft,” he told the Irrawaddy.
Aung Min said the government was trying to bring the UWSA and other armed groups currently outside the discussions into the fold.
“We will try to make them part of the political dialogue, as we aim to be inclusive in the process.”
When asked about his view on the UWSA not being present at the cease-fire talks, Aung Min said, “We have asked them to attend the meetings before.”
“They replied to us that there is no need for them to have talks for the cease-fire as there is no engagement between Wa and the government troops.”
“But I am sure that they will attend the political dialogue meeting [and] when they do, they will raise issues concerning their people and own state. Based on their demands, we will see what we can agree on,” Aung Min said.
Pushing for greater acknowledgment
Observers say the UWSA, a formidable force with an estimated 30,000 troops and which has close links with neighboring China, is using political openings following the end of Myanmar’s military junta rule in 2011 to push for greater official acknowledgement.
Military analysts say China has long supplied weapons to the UWSA—despite Beijing’s official policy of noninterference in Myanmar’s border affairs—making it the best equipped of the country’s resistance forces.
The group is also reported to be a major player in the cross-border drug trade.
Last year, the UWSA demanded that its Wa Special Region 2, which is recognized in Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, be made into a state on par with the seven ethnic states currently existing in the country’s administrative structure, according to reports.
The group, which formed from members of the Communist Party of Burma following its collapse in 1989, uses Chinese as its working language.
UWSA leaders said they would not join last week’s Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference because of a “language barrier,” saying there had not been enough time to translate the materials into Chinese after they received their invitation, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma.
Upcoming Hpa-An meeting
The conference, held in the rebel Karen National Union-controlled territory, was held in advance of a meeting with government peace negotiators expected to be held in the Kayin state capital Hpa-An next month.
The Myanmar government had wanted all of the rebel groups to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement at a joint ceremony in Naypyidaw in July, but the event has been postponed several times.
Last week’s conference was a follow-up to a meeting held in Laiza in Kachin State in October and November last year, at which ethnic leaders reached an 11-point agreement on their goals for the nationwide ceasefire negotiations.
The UWSA, Shan State Army-South, and National Democratic Alliance Army are the same three groups that did not sign the Laiza agreement.
Reported by Myo Thant Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.