Myanmar’s largest non-state army has called for ethnic armed organizations that have not signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire accord to be included in a meeting next week with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the military commander-in-chief to discuss barriers to the country’s peace process.
Leaders from the 10 ethnic armies that have signed the nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) have agreed to attend the event on Oct. 15 in Poppa of Kyaukpadaung township in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region.
The meeting will be the first time that the armies have met with both the state counselor and military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at the same time since the peace process began in 2011 under former President Thein Sein. The parties plan to discuss basic principles for a future federal system of governance and unresolved issues that continue to hinder the peace process.
But the United Wa State Army (UWSA), one of several armed groups that have not signed the pact, wants non-signatories to participate as well. The 30,000-strong Wa army leads the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), a grouping of ethnic armies that have not signed the NCA, in its discussions of peace-building issues with the government.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government are spearheading a series of nationwide peace talks in a bid to end seven decades of civil war in Myanmar.
Nyi Yan, a spokesman at the UWSA’s office in Lashio in Shan state, said it will be "dangerous" if the meeting excludes NCA non-signatories, many of whom believe that the national military and government have organized the Mandalay meeting to reduce international pressure on Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state.
“We welcome anything that supports having peace in the country, but it would be better and more effective if the meetings are all-inclusive when we’re working on peace,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We shouldn’t ignore any group when we’re working for peace. If we do, then it will be dangerous.”
Government spokesman Zaw Htay said invitations to the meeting have been sent to the 10 NCA signatory groups but that non-signatories will not be invited.
“We haven’t invited the non-NCA groups because of limited time and space,” he told RFA. “Furthermore, we are going to discuss the difficulties and barriers facing the peace process that are still outstanding from previous talks with the NCA signatory groups.”
Some said the non-signatories see the meeting as a propaganda tactic to try to change the international community’s critical view of Myanmar, whose reputation has been damaged by the military campaign that last year drove 720,000 Muslim Rohingyas into neighboring Bangladesh, prompting calls from the United Nations for generals to be prosecuted for war crimes.
Tun Zaw, secretary of the Arakan National Council and a member of the central executive committee of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the umbrella organization for ethnic militias that have not signed the NCA, said the meeting is just for show.
“It’s not easy for the government to try to forge peace by trying to end 70 years of civil war, and it will take time because it’s a huge problem that cannot be resolved in a day,” he said. “So then holding this summit just to show the world that it is working on peace and that the process is getting better won’t work.”
Khaine Thukha, a spokesman for the non-signatory Arakan Army (AA), said the current government will face much more hardship than did previous governments if it fails to advance its negotiations with the ethnic armed groups.
He noted that the U.N. and rights groups have called for the prosecution of Min Aung Hlaing and other top Myanmar commanders for atrocities committed against the Rohingya during the 2017 crackdown. Security forces are accused of conducting a campaign of widespread killings, rape, and arson that left thousands dead and created a refugee crisis with Bangladesh.
“The summit can be seen by the international community as an effort on behalf of the government to try to negotiate between the military and the ethnic groups to forge national reconciliation and peace,” he said.
Credible investigation needed
Aung San Suu Kyi intended to hold peace talks every six months under the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, the first session of which was held in August 2016. But the Rohingya crisis and ongoing clashes primarily in Shan and Kachin states have disrupted the plan, and only three rounds of negotiations have been held.
The state counselor, who is in Japan to attend the Mekong-Japan Summit, told Japanese business leaders on Monday that she would increase transparency over the government’s handling of the Rohingya crisis.
“I’m ready to acknowledge that we have challenges to face, particularly with regard to the Rakhine and with the struggles we have on the peace front,” she was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse during a speech to try to drum up foreign investment for Myanmar.
On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Aung San Suu Kyi that a credible investigation by an independent panel into alleged human rights violations against the Rohingya is crucial to working out tensions in Rakhine state, the Associated Press reported.
Abe also told a news conference that Tokyo will support Myanmar’s efforts to accommodate Rohingya who return to Rakhine from refugee camps in Bangladesh, the AP report said.
Myanmar has agreed to take back some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled the crackdown under a repatriation agreement with Bangladesh, though only a few have returned.
Meanwhile, a four-member inquiry commission set up by Myanmar in July has started investigating human rights violations in Rakhine state, though observers have low expectations for it.
Prior attempts by the country to investigate the military campaign against the Rohingya largely absolved the army and were dismissed as a whitewash by Muslim groups and human rights experts.
But on Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi defended the panel as free and effective, and called its two international and two Myanmar members experts on human rights issues, the AP said.
Holding Myanmar accountable
Myanmar previously prevented a U.N.-mandated panel from conducting an independent investigation into the atrocities, and stopped Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, from continuing her periodic visits to the country, which included stops in Rakhine state.
On Monday, Lee tweeted that a report she submitted on the situation in Myanmar to the U.N. General Assembly in August had been publicly posted.
In the report, she notes that although the Myanmar government previously said it would take action against perpetrators of human rights violations in Rakhine during the crackdown if allegations were backed by sufficient evidence, it has so far failed to do so.
“In spite of those pledges and the abundance of evidence that crimes in violation of international law have been committed in Rakhine state, perpetrators have not been held accountable, with the exception of seven unnamed soldiers reportedly convicted by a military court for the massacre at Inn Din village,” she wrote in the report, referring to troops who were tried and sentenced for the killing of 10 Rohingya civilians in northern Rakhine.
Lee also said that the new commission of inquiry appeared to not have a mandate to advance accountability on human rights abuses and called on the International Criminal Court or a comparable body to fill the void.
“The situation in Myanmar, where genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes may have been committed, warrants the attention of the International Criminal Court or another credible international judicial mechanism,” her report said.
“The international community should stand firm and promote accountability in Myanmar,” it said.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.