New Delhi: As speculation continues that deported ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia will join the talks between the terror group and the central government, a senior member of the pro-talks group and the organisation’s “foreign secretary”, Sashadhar Choudhury, has said this will only legitimise the peace process and not necessarily bring about any qualitative change.
“Qualitatively I do not think there is going to be any change from the current status if Chetia joins the peace talks. However, if Chetia joins then the peace process will be legitimised more than the existing one,” Choudhury, whose real name is Sailen Choudhury, told IANS.
Chetia was deported to India on Nov 11 by Bangladesh, where he was arrested in 1997. He is currently in CBI custody.
Stressing that the existing pro-talks faction of ULFA, who entered into peace negotiations with the central government in 2010 after several top leaders were arrested, has submitted its agenda and debated on the points that can be agreed on, Choudhury said that it now depends on the government if it wants to resolve the Assam problem or not.
Recently, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju had said that the government is planning to soon wind up the talks. The proposed date for the next round of peace talks between ULFA’s pro-talk faction, the Centre and the Assam government is November 24 in New Delhi.
Choudhury, who along with other senior leaders of the pro-talks faction, including the organisation’s ex-chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, has been granted bail by the Guwahati High Court since 2010, said, “I do not think that the government is trying to intentionally delay the peace process but if it wants a quick solution, it needs to speed up.”
One of the reasons that are believed to have paralysed the talks is the demand for tribal status for six communities – Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutiya, Moran, Muttock and the Adivasi tea garden workers who are recognised as tribals in other states. The communities together account for 20 percent of the electorate in the state and play a decisive role in more than 40 of the 126 assembly constituencies in six districts of upper Assam.
Asked if the deportation of Chetia will isolate Paresh Baruah, the “commander-in-chief” of ULFA’s military wing, Choudhury said: “I am not the right person to speak on this. We have no relationship with him, but then, it should not be considered that there is any contradiction between us in terms of ideology.”
“The only point where we differ is on having talks with the government. Nobody from this group has any contact with him. It is the Government of India who can have relations with Paresh Baruah. So it’s up to the government and Paresh Baruah’s organisation to deal with, even if any confrontation may arise,” Choudhury said.
Sounding supportive of Chetia for showing willingness towards the peace process, the 50-year-old leader stated that the government has assured a solution on the tribal status issue by December.
Speaking to a news agency, Raju Baruah, the former “deputy Commander-in-chief” of the military wing, said, “Previously, we had contacted Anup Chetia and then many more letters have been sent to us by him showing his eagerness to join the peace process. We can finalise everything only after meeting Chetia.”
Asked if Paresh Barua would be backed if the negotiations fail, Raju, whose real name is Hitesh Kalita said, “We are the central body and we keep our commitment that we will involve ourselves with with the government only through negotiations.”
The Myanmar government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) has invited eight ethnic groups that have not signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement to attend collective peace discussions for the first time, officials whose organizations received invitations said Friday.
The political wings of ethnic armed groups that received invitation letters to the talks scheduled for March 21 include the United Wa State Party (UWSP), Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Mongla’s Eastern Shan State Peace and Solidarity Committee (PSC), Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), Kokang’s Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party (MNTJP), Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), United League of Arakan (ULA) and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).
Myanmar’s military negotiation team will meet separately with each of the groups on March 22, they said.
The letters, dated March 13 and signed by Zaw Htay, government spokesman and director general of President Win Myint’s office, requested that each organization send a team with a leader and a member from their respective ethnic armed groups to meet with government negotiators.
Colonel Naw Bu, spokesman of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed branch of the KIO and the leading group in the Northern Alliance collation of four ethnic armies that operate in northern Myanmar, said he could not yet confirm the Kachins’ participation in the talks because the members of the alliance must first discuss the invitation among themselves.
Khine Thukha, spokesman for the Arakan Army (AA), the armed wing of the ULA which is fighting the Myanmar Army in Rakhine state, said he could not confirm the attendance of AA delegates at the talks because the group’s leaders are still discussing the invitation.
The KNPP said it would participate in the negotiations and would discuss topics based on proposals from the government side.
The invitations also said that Myanmar’s military would discuss the temporary unilateral cease-fire that it declared in December 2018 in five of its command regions to try to kick-start the stalled peace process, when officers meet with delegates from the ethnic organizations.
The truce runs through April, but excludes the Western Command where government soldiers are battling the Arakan Army (AA). The Myanmar military is also engaged in ongoing conflicts with the KIA and the Shan State Army-North, the armed wing of the SSPP, in northern Shan state.
‘More talks coming out of this’
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government has held periodic peace conferences in a bid to get the remaining ethnic armies to sign the nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), which 10 ethnic militaries have already inked.
The civilian-led government under State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has made the NCA a prerequisite for ethnic armies to participate in periodic peace negotiations, known as the 21st-Century Panglong Conference and the Union Peace Conference, to try to end decades of armed conflict that have stymied the country’s transition to a democratic federal union.
About a dozen ethnic armies have yet to sign the NCA.
The NRPC, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, decided to schedule the talks after members of the official Myanmar Peace Commission (MPC) held informal discussions with the KIO, PSLF, MNTJP, and ULA in February in Kunming, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province. Government peace negotiators also met with the KNPP in northern Thailand in March.
The Myanmar military met with the SSPP in February and with the RCSS in March for separate talks.
Hla Maung Shwe, an advisor to the MPC, said the upcoming session will serve as the government’s orientation to the peace process for the NCA non-signatories.
“We have traveled to Kunming and explained the process to seven non-signatory groups from the north,” he said. “We mostly explained the processes for the peace talks after the signing of NCA.”
“We are planning to meet the KNPP in a few days, so the government has now invited all [NCA] non-signatory groups to clarify the situation,” Hla Maung Shwe said.
RFA could not reach Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun for comment.
One Myanmar political analyst said he welcomes the peace talks as a rekindling of negotiations that were put on hold after the third round of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in July 2018. But he cautioned people not to expect too much from next week’s discussions.
“It is good to see peace talks at a time of endless armed confrontations and miscommunications, but we shouldn’t be expecting too much out of these talks,” said political analyst Maung Maung Soe. “I expect, at most, there will be more talks coming out of this later.”
‘Tatmadaw not ready’
International rights groups did not have sanguine views about the new round of talks, noting that Myanmar’s military has not committed to ending violence in the country.
“Over the last several years, it’s been very disappointing to see how the peace process has essentially failed,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights.
“One of the things we’re most concerned about in the failure of the peace process is the fact that the military has continued to commit human rights violations against civilians while talking about trying to establish peace, and these two things obviously are inconsistent with each other,” he said.
Smith also called for more genuine dialogue among stakeholders for the peace process to have a chance to succeed.
“When the fighting continues, when the attacks continue, when human rights violations continue, that leads people that are involved in the process to think that it’s disingenuous, and that harms the overall process,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, also blamed the Myanmar military for the country’s foundering peace efforts.
“It appears that the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] is not ready to offer any meaningful concessions for the ethnic groups, nor is it prepared to allow for any degree of autonomy for ethnic organizations to operate their own affairs,” he said. “I don’t know why the Burmese government continues to follow the lead of the Burmese military, when it’s clear that the military often does not want peace.”
The military’s positions in terms of the NCA—the failure to deal with basic political issues during peace talks, its unwillingness to restrain its soldiers, its unwillingness to end attacks against civilians, and the way it operates in ethnic minority regions—are the reasons why the peace negotiations have gone nowhere, he said.
Robertson also said the government’s working in lockstep with the powerful armed forces has meant that the military’s positions have influenced the administration in a way that has been unhelpful.
“Unless the government is prepared to deal with the rights-abusing behavior of the Tatmadaw, it’s going to be very, very difficult to see any sort of peace,” he said.
Two injured in Rakhine skirmish
In violence ridden Rakhine state, meanwhile, a clash between the Myanmar Army and AA in Mrauk-U township on Thursday injured two villagers, one of whom was seriously wounded and had to be taken to a hospital in the state capital Sittwe for urgent treatment, said local volunteers who helped the men.
The two men—one from Bu Ywat Ma Hnyo village and the other from Mrauk-U town’s Aung Tat ward—were injured during a skirmish near Waitharli village situated on the Yangon-Sittwe Highway, they said.
“Twenty-five year-old Maung Soe Win is in critical condition because he was hit above his pubic bone and had to be taken to Sittwe Hospital to receive surgery,” said Mrauk-U resident Than Tun.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha confirmed that Arakan fighters attacked a government army column near Waitharli village.
Government troops responded by shooting to the direction of Bu Ywat Ma Hnyo village near the ambush site, wounding the two villagers and damaging some houses, area residents said.