CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Three days after Burma’s ethnic armed groups concluded a conference in a rebel-controlled area of Karen State, ethnic leaders met with the government’s chief negotiator, Minister Aung Min, on Wednesday.
At the meeting, held in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, the ethnic groups’ National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT)—which is representing 16 ethnic armed group’s in negotiations with the government—shared with Aung Min a draft of the awaited national ceasefire agreement.
While most of Burma’s armed groups have signed individual ceasefire agreements with the Burma government in recent years, Naypyidaw is pushing to have a single nationwide agreement signed by all groups. The next round of high-level talks on the matter, which have been delayed twice by ethnic groups, are set for Feb. 20 in the Karen State capital of Hpa-An.
Aung Min told The Irrawaddy that 16 of the ethnic groups had put together a new draft for the agreement during a meeting last week at Law Khee Lar, also known as Lay Wah, a base in an area near the Burmese-Thai border held by the Karen National Union (KNU).
“The peace team is here to receive the ethnic groups’ draft ceasefire agreement and listen to their explanations on each section of the draft,” he said.
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The leaders will have another similar meeting in mid-February in Rangoon, ahead of the Hpa-an talks, ethnic leaders said.
Hla Maung Shwe, a special adviser to the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center, said that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be invited to the Hpa-an peace talks, and that she was likely to attend.
The Hpa-an meeting was originally scheduled for December, but has twice been postponed.
Pado Kwe Htoo Win, the secretary of the KNU, said the postponement is “for good and it is not a bad sign.
“We have many different ethnic armed groups and every issue in the draft needs to be discussed widely.”
“It is a productive discussion towards our draft ceasefire agreement,” he said.
In Hpa-an, the government and ethnic leaders will set a date for a landmark nationwide ceasefire accord, which will be signed in Naypyidaw, according to Aung Min.
But there is speculation about whether the nationwide ceasefire and political dialogue will go ahead as soon as the government is hoping, since some of the ethnic groups—the ethnic Palaung militia, the Wa and the Restoration Council of Shan State, for instance—are not fully participating in the process.
But Aung Min insisted that the peace process is “ongoing,” and that mutual understanding is being built in the discussions.
“It is a development that they [ethnic leaders] agreed to sign the ceasefire first, and then move towards to the political dialogue, in their Lay Wah meeting,” said Aung Min.
Half of the NCCT’s 16 members attended the Wednesday meeting in Chiang Mai. The new draft has 11 sections and is about 28 pages long, but there are still disagreements over the wording of the draft. In particular, there is a debate over whether to use the term “revolution” to refer to armed groups, as a way of recognizing the political nature of their struggle.
Nai Hong Sar, the head of the NCCT, said, “We want to make clear the usage of the word, we want the word ‘revolution’ instead of just ‘armed groups,’ which could create a confusion between the ethnic armed group fighting for autonomy and some drug dealers who also hold guns.”
A previous point of disagreement was the demand for a federal army, but it was agreed that the issue would be discussed during political dialogue that will take place following a ceasefire agreement.
Aung Min said the government was trying to bring the armed groups currently outside of discussions into the fold.
“We will have more individual talks with the Palaung [the Ta-ang National Liberation Army]. We would have no restrictions for the remaining ethnic groups. 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 ethnic Wa—the most heavily armed group in the country—not being present at the ceasefire talks, U 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 ceasefire as there is no engagement between Wa and the government troops. They were fighting under the [now defunct] Burmese Communist Party.
“But I am sure that they will attend to the political dialogue meeting, 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.”
Those demands reportedly include that the area currently controlled by the Wa as a “special region” be recognized as a state within the Burmese union.
The NCCT leaders plan to talk to the Wa before they meet again in Hpa-an for the second ceasefire talks with the government.