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Ethnic Armies, Myanmar Military Make Headway in Preparatory Peace Talks

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The 10 ethnic armed groups that have signed a nationwide peace accord with the Myanmar government agreed in principle on Tuesday to a key military demand that they fold their militias into a single national army and to extend dialogue to ethnic armies outside the cease-fire agreement, participants said.

The unified army proposal and the scope of negotiations were among top issues discussed with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on the second day of Myanmar’s so-called tripartite summit to kick-start the country’s stalled peace process. The country’s military commander is the third party to the talks.

Leaders from the government, military, and ethnic armies are discussing obstacles to the advancement of peace talks that began in 2011 to end decades of civil war.

The ethnic groups want a federal democratic union in the country with constitutional guarantees for a degree of autonomy for ethnic minorities, while the national military is demanding a single federal army and the non-secession of ethnic groups from the union.

Khun Myint Htun, vice chairman of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), said that the parties on Tuesday — day two of the five-day conference in the capital Naypyidaw — agreed to the establishment of a single army in line with international practice.

The government and military also agreed to discuss self-determination issues short of secession with groups that have signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire accord (NCA) and those that have not, he said.

“We especially discussed the issue of not separating from the union,” Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, vice president of Chin National Front, one of the NCA signatories, told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Most ethnic groups said that it is an important issue, and it needs time.”

“Because it’s a matter that concerns the entire nation, we don’t want to discuss it only among the 10 cease-fire groups, so we’ve urged that non-cease-fire groups be consulted as well,” he said, adding that the parties will try to come up with a solution after both NCA signatories and non-signatories meet by the end of November.

“The good news is that the ethnic groups totally agreed to form a single army in the country,” Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong said. “But we need to discuss how to establish it.”

Prior to the summit, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest non-state army and an NCA non-signatory itself, called for all non-signatory groups to be included in the summit, but the government refused to invite them.

On Monday, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told the ethnic armies that they would have to pledge not leave the union before reaching a future peace deal.

Min Aung Hlaing did not attend the second day’s meeting because he was in Nyaung Shwe in Shan state to observe a religious ceremony and boat race, his office said. Vice Senior General Soe Win, who serves as deputy commander in chief, was present instead.

The summit is the first time that Aung San Suu Kyi and the military chief together have met the 10 NCA-signatory groups in a three-way summit.

The state counselor is spearheading the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, a series of peace talks that began in August 2016, four months after the civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) came into power.

‘We have tried so hard’

The government originally wanted to hold the negotiations twice a year, but the military’s insistence on the non-secession issue in previous rounds, along with the Muslim Rohingya expulsion crisis in Rakhine state and ongoing civil wars mainly in Kachin and Shan states, have hindered the process from advancing.

“We have tried so hard to maintain the talks, so that they don’t collapse,” Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong said about the current summit in Naypyidaw.

“Some of the leaders of the 10 ethnic armies have wanted to quit the summit, but under the current circumstances, we have been able to maintain the process and will successfully end the summit,” he said. “That means it will have produced an opportunity to continue the peace process.”

Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong denied that international pressure on Aung Sang Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing over the handling of the crisis in Rakhine, widely seen outside Myanmar as ethnic cleansing, had played a role in moving them to attend the summit.

“The ethnic armed groups have discussed [holding separate talks] at different levels since the last conference,” he said, referring to the third Panglong Conference session in July.

“But no decisions were made,” he said. “So, there was a request that top leaders sit down and discuss the issues face to face,” he said. “There’s a demand that top leaders themselves need to find a solution. It’s not about the Rakhine crisis.”

Min Ko Naing, a leader of Myanmar’s 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group, said that it will not be an easy task to reconcile differences of the various ethnic minority groups through discussions at the summit.

“Many countries have transformed from authoritarian rule to democracy, but for us, it’s not only a transition to democracy, but also a transition to a federal nation with multiethnic minorities and different historic backgrounds," he said. “It’s not easy to reconcile them all.”

“You can’t think only of military might,” he said. “You have to also think of historic strength and wisdom. All of that needs to be reconciled. In brief, our country cannot move forward to a democratic system without a federal system and vice versa. We have to make it balance out, so the outcome lies within the wisdom of the participants.”

Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt, Wai Mar Tun, and Nayrein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.