Ethnic activists have opened a study and research center in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, that will help ethnic armed groups, NGOs and political parties gain a better understanding of Burma’s ongoing peace process and support the ethnic groups as they negotiate with the government.
The center, called the Pyidaungsu Institute, was opened on Thursday and its director Khuensai Jaiyen said the project would help Burma’s ethnic groups come together and share ideas and resources, so that the groups can develop a common approach to the decades-old ethnic conflict.
“It is set up to create ‘a common voice’ for the [upcoming] political dialogue, instead of ethnic groups having different demands in the ceasefire process,” he said.
President Thein Sein reformist government has signed ceasefires with 14 armed groups in recent years and in the past few months Naypyidaw has been seeking a joint nationwide ceasefire agreement with the armed groups.
Such a ceasefire would be followed by a political dialogue between the Bamar-dominated central government and ethnic minority groups who are seeking greater political autonomy for their regions through the formation of a federal union.
Signing the nationwide ceasefire has, however, proven elusive so far. Meanwhile the Burma Army continues to engage in clashes with the Kachin and Palaung rebels groups in Kachin and Shan state, where about 100,000 civilians are displaced by conflict.
Khuensai Jaiyen, who also is an adviser to the Restoration Council of Shan State, a Shan rebel group, said the Pyidaungsu Institute would help provide the 14 ethnic armed groups develop a shared political vision and present political demands during their negotiations.
Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong, a board of directors’ member at the institute, said the role of Pyidaungsu Institute was in some ways similar to the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC). This group of advisors has been influential in shaping the government’s approach to the peace process and provides the government peace negotiations team of Minister Aung Min with information during peace talks.
“It seems the ethnics’ institute is similar to the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Centre, but they are distinctly different. While the MPC is the driving force for [only the] the government, this institute is not for just one group, we work for all different ethnic groups,” he said.
The Pyidaungsu Institute, which receives funding support from Norway and Sweden, also plans to open an office in Rangoon this year. Khuensai Jaiyen added that the MPC had officially recognized the Pyidaungsu Institute, although the centers will not share information at this stage of the peace process.
The new institute will initially focus on supporting Burma’s various ethnic armed groups with information that can be used during the peace process, but it will expand to provide research, training and discussion opportunities to all ethnic students, activists and anyone interested in the peace process.
“We work to build up ‘relevant and factual information and it is our task to become a service-oriented center,” said Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong.
Kristine Gould, an adviser for strategic communications at the institute, said, “It is a facility that is impartial and independent. And we welcome anyone who involved in the peace process to come here.”
“It shifts ownership of peace process. Having a facility that supports you helps legitimize what it is you are doing,” she said, adding that the institute would be “extremely helpful for ethnic leaders. I think, in the future, it would also be helpful for the Burma government.”
Cheery Zauhau, a Chin human rights activist, said the institute was “special” because it will bring together members of different ethnic groups, varying armed groups and political organizations and ethnic non-governmental organizations.