Myanmar reaches a crucial stage for national peace
From Nov 4-5, the Myanmar government peace negotiation team and representatives of ethnic armed groups met in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state. The meeting took place after a four-day (Oct 30 to Nov 2) conference of 17 ethnic armed groups in Laiza, also in Kachin state.
Residents of Myitkyina wave ethnic rebel flags as they welcome the arrival of representatives of ethnic rebel groups for talks with the Myanmar government peace team. AP/KHIN MAUNG WIN
The meeting was significant for two reasons. First, it was the only large and inclusive gathering of ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar government since the country's independence. The two sides came together in an attempt to address protracted minority problems.
The meeting, which was attended by over 50 leaders of different ethnic armed groups and several representatives from the government, can be termed a more inclusive one than the Panglong conference of 1947, which was signed by 23 representatives from Chin, Kachin, Shan and Bama or Burman.
Second, the meeting was attended by international observers _ Vijay Nambiar, Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Wang Yin Fan, the Chinese government's representative.
During the two-day meeting, the ethnic armed groups presented an 11-point proposal they had devised during the Laiza conference to the government, which included the establishment of a federal army.
Naing Han Thar, general secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of ethnic armed groups, said "If we want to create a federal union, we need to have a federal army. If the army is controlled by a small group of people, it is not appropriate for a federal union and it can't guarantee inclusion for ethnic minorities".
On the other hand, the Union government presented a 10-point proposal to the ethnic armed groups, including non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, perpetuation of sovereignty and democratic principles according to the 2008 constitution.
At the end of the two-day meeting, the two sides agreed to work together towards a nationwide ceasefire and establish a framework for political dialogue, and to hold meetings for political negotiation. They also agreed to meet again in Hpa-An, the capital of Karen state.
Initially, the government was hopeful of signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement before the end of November. But it is now certain that the ceasefire will not happen in November as the next meeting is scheduled for December.
Can recent developments resolve the decades-old political problems in the country? Though it is still too early to give a definitive answer, there is potential for a solution as long as both sides are willing to compromise and cooperate.
One setback of the Myitkyina meeting was the absence of the United Wa State Army, one of the most powerful non-state armed groups in the country. Other armed groups such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang and the Kuki National Organisation also did not participate. All these armed groups also did not attend the Laiza conference.
For a nationwide ceasefire to be effective and successful, all ethnic armed groups in the country need to participate and cooperate in the peace-building process. Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of both the Union government and leaders of the participating armed groups to convince and invite the non-participating groups.
As has been the case for the past several decades, the greatest challenge in the reconciliation process is likely to be the question of withdrawing the Union army from ethnic minority territories and granting autonomy to the minorities.
And another challenge will be how the Union government will deal with the armed groups after a nationwide ceasefire is signed. Will the government be willing to integrate the armed groups into the federal army, or transform them into other state forces?
If the government decides to integrate them, will the armed groups accept such a proposal as a long-term solution? And if the government decides to transform them into other state forces, will the government sanction adequate funding to support them?
Moreover, the 2008 constitution needs to be either rewritten or amended in order to accommodate the demands of ethnic armed groups.
In any case, the armed groups are unlikely to surrender their arms if they are not fully convinced that the Union government is sincere in its commitment to addressing the longstanding demands of ethnic minorities, such as equality of rights and self-determination in their own territories.
Because of the historical lack of trust between the minorities and the successive central governments, building mutual trust is going to take time.
While the unprecedented nature of the Myitkyina meeting brings hope, one must be cautiously optimistic about the end-result. Nevertheless, recent developments are crucial for the success of national reconciliation, and should be encouraged.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Myanmar.