Eighteen of Myanmar's ethnic armed groups recently gathered in the rebel-controlled Kachin capital of Laiza to draft guidelines for government negotiations, and to strengthen their collective position on what would become the country’s first national ceasefire agreement.
“All the groups have agreed to go to the nationwide ceasefire proposed by the government together. Without agreement of all of the ethnic [armed] organizations then we will not be successful,” Kachin Independence Army’s (KIA) Gun Maw - a “general” - told IRIN following the groups’ recent gathering in the rebel-controlled Kachin State capital of Laiza.
Eighteen groups agreed to sign on the understanding that political dialogue will begin within a few months of inking the landmark deal.
However, one of the best-armed ethnic groups, the United Wa State Army, which has pushed for an autonomous region in eastern Shan State in eastern Myanmar, declined to attend.
International media reported on 5 November that two days of peace talks with the government in the Kachin capital of Myitkyina (under government control) when the rebels presented their draft, ended without agreement.
Rebels reportedly rejected government edits, which they said were not done in consultation with them. Both sides have postponed talks until an unspecified date in December, according to the report.
“If one group is pressured by the government to sign, we shouldn't allow it because it's unacceptable. Our agreement is, if we are going to sign a ceasefire agreement we should all be on the same side,” said Nai Hong Sar, general-secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), shortly before presenting the common peace deal draft to the government.
UNFC is a coalition of 11 ethnic groups, including the Kachin Independence Organization (the political arm of KIA), seeking political dialogue ahead of a permanent cease-fire.
Peace without political dialogue?
The government has already signed separate cease-fire deals with 14 major non-state armed groups, but none included political dialogue. KIA is the only major armed rebellion that has not agreed to a peace deal without political negotiations.
Decades of fighting between the major ethnic armies and former military rulers (in addition to tensions among the groups) have, thus far, prevented a united ethnic front in peace negotiations with the government.
Since the 2011 election of the country’s first nominally civilian government, pressure has mounted against armed groups to sign cease-fire agreements.
U Cho, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy party from Myitkyina who attended (as an observer) the recent ethnic army meeting that ended on 2 November, stressed the importance of the government sharing resources with communities for sustainable development.
In addition to having one of the world's largest reserves of jade, Kachin State is also the site of a proposed controversial Myitsone dam hydro-electric power project.
Construction was suspended in September 2011 following protests over predicted massive flooding and the displacement of thousands of people by the dam’s construction.
Observers have noted that villagers have not been allowed back to their homes.
Government peace mediators’ initial reaction to the draft deal was encouraging, said Nyo Ohn Myint, associate director of peace dialogue for the Myanmar Peace Council, a local NGO mediating peace talks between the government and ethnic armed groups.
“The president [of Myanmar] has confirmed that he is also committed to the political dialogue. He and the government believe that table talk is [the] only option rather than armed conflict to the violence,” he told IRIN.
Meanwhile, at an IDP camp with an estimated 8,200 people on the outskirts of Laiza (Je Yang), some were recently busy unloading plywood sheets donated by local NGOs to repair nearby shelters.
Many have sought refuge here since June 2011 when a 17-year ceasefire between the Burmese government and KIA collapsed.
For mother of five Labang Roi Ji, news of the rebels’ unprecedented meeting, and their subsequent negotiations with the government, interested her little.
“We've heard of these talks again and again but we are still suffering in the camps,” Roi Ji, said as she helped stack the wood in a storage shed.
“The KIA orders us not to return to our homes, and for those who do, even for just a few days to take care of their property, the Burmese troops accuse us of being KIA soldiers and they never stop harassing us.”
Despite ceasefires in place, sporadic fighting continues in several areas, including Shan, Karen and Kachin states.
The ethnic army conference included representatives of almost all the major ethnic armies as well as a number of smaller ones not listed here: Shan State Army South, the Shan State Army North, the Karen National Union, the New Mon State Party, Lahu Democratic Union, Arakan National Council, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, the Chin National Front, Ta'ang National Liberation Army, the Karenni National Progressive Party, Pao National Liberation Organization, Wa National Organization and the host Kachin Independence Army.
Talks are reportedly scheduled to continue in Hpa-an, the capital of southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin State.