Burma President Thein Sein has declared that recent talks with the country’s ethnic armed groups have brought peace closer, despite rebel leaders citing a continued lack of agreement on key points in a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement.
In his monthly radio speech to the nation, first broadcast Thursday, Thein Sein said the long-awaited agreement would be signed “soon,” and lauded the “positive results of negotiations” between government representatives and ethnic leaders.
In April, the two sides agreed in principle upon a single draft text of the nationwide ceasefire agreement, but major differences of opinion remained over the final wording and ethnic leaders say no agreement has been reached on a number of important points.
Fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups in Kachin State and northern Shan State over the Burmese New Year period have also cast doubt on the likelihood of a nationwide ceasefire being signed soon. The clashes, involving the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Front and the Shan State Army-North displaced thousands more people in northern Burma.
The most recent formal talks “can be viewed as bringing peace one step closer,” said the president, who has been labeled a reformist since his quasi-civilian government took over from Burma’s military junta in 2011.
The Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT)—negotiators representing 16 ethnic armed groups—has reportedly been told the government wants to sign the ceasefire agreement before August.
However, the ethnic leaders canceled a meeting planned for early May, over frustration with the government’s demands.
NCCT leader Nai Hong Sar said the ethnic leaders met this week and decided to reschedule the meeting with the government’s Union Peace-making Work Committee (UPWC) in late May. The NCCT wants to continue meeting with the government in order to maintain the momentum of the peace process, he said.
“It is not as easy as the government thinks because the military demands to incorporate [the agreement] into a single text,” said Nai Hong Sar. “Our views and the military’s attitude are too different.”
He noted that the government side in the negotiations is divided into the UPWC, which is led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min, and representatives of the military, which has unilaterally put forward a six-point list of terms for the ceasefire agreement.
“We don’t know yet what will be the government’s response to our proposals of ethnic equality, autonomy and the federal union. [We also don’t know] the executive’s views on the Tatmadaw’s six-point demands,” Nai Hong Sar said.
Nai Hong Sar is also secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)—an alliance of ethnic armed groups—which on Wednesday wrote to the UPWC expressing concerns that the Tatmadaw, the Burmese armed forces, was launching significant attacks on armed groups in northern Burma as nationwide ceasefire talks are ongoing.
“The military’s stance and the resumed fighting are not good signs for the peace talks process,” said Nai Hong Sar.
Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong, the leader of the Chin National Front and a member of the NCCT, said he welcomed Thein Sein’s speech.
“It [the president’s vow] is a welcome act,” he said, explaining that every part of society was behind the peace process. “The government, the ethnics and the ordinary public want peace desperately.”
He also agreed that while disagreements remain, having a single text of the ceasefire agreement to work on was “a positive step.”
“Although we are aware that there are many problems to overcome in order to keep our talks possible, we are moving forward to find solutions for those problems,” said Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong.
Gen. Gun Maw, the KIA’s deputy chief of staff, the told The Irrawaddy this week that the ethnic armed groups want a guarantee of genuine political dialogue before they sign a nationwide ceasefire.
In his radio address, the president said, “As I have promised the ethnic groups, we will then resolve armed conflict by political means. We continue to make necessary preparations for political dialogue.”
“Peace building is difficult,” Thein Sein said. “It is to be expected that efforts at solving decades-old problems will encounter many problems.”
“I will continue to strive to achieve the peace that our citizens steadfastly desire,” he added.