Friday, September 22, 2017

Peace process snags as UNFC sits out framework meeting

In a snub to the government’s peace process, the largest alliance of ethnic armed groups is sitting out a two-day meeting that will lay the groundwork for the upcoming political dialogue.

The United Nationalities Federal Council confirmed yesterday that it would not attend the meeting, which will start tomorrow, due to a “busy schedule”.

“We already have meetings on those days. That’s why we will not be able to attend,” said Khu Oo Reh, leader of the UNFC’s Delegation for Political Negotiation.

But analysts suggested the bloc’s absence has more to do with a stalemate. The government has yet to commit to eight points previously outlined by the powerful alliance of seven armed ethnic groups.

The UNCF’s demands, which were laid out in meetings with government negotiators in June and August, include the bilateral declaration of a truly nationwide ceasefire by the government and armed ethnic organisations, the commitment to including all armed ethnic organisations in the peace processes, and the inclusion of international observers in the joint-monitoring mechanism.

The government did not respond to the demands prior to last month’s 21st-century Panglong Conference, but the UNFC decided to attend the landmark gathering in the capital anyway as a show of support for the new democratically elected government, bloc members said.

U Than Soe Naing, a political commentator, said the government should take the UNFC’s points into account if it expects a smooth continuation of the peace and national reconciliation process.

“I think the UNFC want to first sort out the points they demanded in previous meetings [before agreeing to further talks]. Addressing these points will ease other negotiations,” he said.

In the last week of August, government negotiators, political parties and delegates representating both signatories and non-signatories to last year’s ceasefire agreement hit a major stumbling block at a review meeting for the political dialogue. The points of contention concerned who would be represented and who would retain decision-making power. The meeting concluded without a resolution to the disagreement.

Sai Kyaw Nyunt of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy said the government will need the UNFC behind it if it expects to press ahead in solving a decades-old civil war.

“The purpose of the review meeting is to include the UNFC in the aftermath of the 21st-century Panglong Conference. I don’t know how the government will deal with the matter,” he said.

The Panglong Conference, the government’s first major foray into the peace process, was also riddled with problems of inclusivity and major absences. Though hailed by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a landmark event, the conference produced no agreements, and largely followed in the shadow of the previous administration’s peace process.

Three major groups currently engaged in fighting the Tatmadaw in northern Shan State, the Northern Alliance – the Kokang, Ta’ang and Arakan armed ethnic groups – were notably missing from Panglong after they failed to reach an agreement with the government over preconditions.

After a meeting last week in Chiang Mai, the UNFC released a statement congratulating the government for successfully holding the 21st- century Panglong Conference, but also noted that the government still has more work to do, and must include all armed ethnic groups” in the peace process.

“During the 21st-century Panglong Conference, we observed that the government cannot seem to manage the peace process independently of the Tatmadaw,” said Khu Oo Reh.

And little progress appears to have been made since then on the inclusivity front.

Tar Aik Kyaw, a communications officer for the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, said despite his group’s desire to resume peace negotiations, he and his allies have yet to receive an official invite.

When asked what the government’s peace commission is doing to resume negotiations with the three groups comprising the Northern Alliance, U Aung Kyi, leader of the advisory team, said he had no knowledge of the matter.

“Since the peace process is a long-term task, I hope these groups will be able to join in the future,” he said.