RANGOON — The major alliance of ethnic armed groups in Burma, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), has opened an office for its “Federal Union Army,” an organization it hopes will pave the way for the involvement of ethnic fighters in the national armed forces.
The office in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)-controlled border town of Mai Ja Yang has apparently been open for some months. But the existence of the office, named the Federal Union Army (Northern Command) War Office, has only just come to light.
Khun Okkar, joint secretary 2 of the UNFC, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that a delegation had been working at the office since February, but that the alliance—which comprises 12 ethnic armed groups across Burma—did not publicly announce it so as not to disturb the peace process.
Drawn-out negotiations toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement are ongoing, but new clashes in northern Burma in recent weeks have seen thousands more civilians displaced by violence.
“We opened a war office in the north in February. We let [KIA Chief of Staff] General Gam Shawng lead the northern command. The federal army and our UNFC are twins. Since we formed UNFC [in 2011], we decided to form it, but we kept it low profile.” said Khun Okkar.
He said the UNFC would open two more offices for the organization in Karenni State and either Karen or Mon state.
Khun Okkar said the purpose of the UNFC’s new organization was to prepare troops to be part of an army for all of Burma that would include ethnic soldiers. The proposal for Burma to have a federal army, incorporating ethnic armed groups, has been a key part of ethnic leaders’ proposals for ending decades of civil conflict.
“When there is a federal system in our country, we need to have federal defense army. To do this, we need to form it. This is our preparation. This army will stay under control federal union government,” said Khun Okkar.
He declined to share details of the ethnic armed groups’ vision for how the posited federal army would work. Some have suggested that a federal army would include ethnic units.
“We are working to have nationwide peace agreement. We have to be very careful when we talk about the federal army issue in order not to disturb the peace process,” said Khun Okkar.
At present, nearly all of the country’s major ethnic armed groups have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government, with the exceptions of the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Shan State Army-North, all of whom have clashed with government troops since attacks on villages were reported over Burmese New Year last month.
The nationwide ceasefire talks have faced significant hurdles, with ethnic leaders complaining that the Burmese military’s demands are too large, and several meetings have failed to produce agreement on a single text for the agreement.
One of army’s demands is that ethnic armed groups must come under its command, and the military appears unsympathetic to calls for an armed forces reflecting a federal system.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief, has insisted change is not necessary, since ethnic people already participate in the Burma Army. Although all ethnic groups can sign up, the leadership of the army is almost exclusively from the Burman ethnic group.