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Myanmar Government Calls Ethnic Armed Groups To Attend Collective Peace Discussions For The First Time

“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."

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Representatives from the Myanmar Peace Commission hold an informal meeting with delegates from the Northern Alliance in Kunming, southwestern China's Yunnan Province, Feb. 25, 2019. RFA

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.

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The invitations also said that Myanmar’s military would discuss the temporary unilateral cease. Pixabay

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.”

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar's armed forces, attends a ceremony commemorating Martyrs' Day in Yangon, July 19, 2018.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, attends a ceremony commemorating Martyrs’ Day in Yangon, July 19, 2018. Credit: AFP (RFA)

 

‘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.

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RFA could not reach a Myanmar military spokesman for comment.

The Myanmar military has been engaged in deadly clashes with the AA in several Rakhine townships, including Mrauk-U, since hostilities between the two sides reignited in late 2018.

The hostilities have left an undetermined number of people dead and displaced more than 12,000, according to estimates by local and official sources in Rakhine state. (RFA)

Next Story

More And More Women Join The Arakan Army’s Fight Against Myanmar’s Central Government

“Only after we pass that step will we be able to achieve the goal of a federal union that guarantees equality among all ethnic groups,” she said

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Female Arakan Army recruits train with their male counterparts in northern Myanmar's Kachin state in an undated photo. RFA

The Arakan Army, which is battling the Myanmar military for autonomy in turbulent Rakhine state, has grown in both force strength and firepower since its formation in 2009 to the level that the rebel group can now launch successful offensives on police or military outposts. And its message is drawing as many young female recruits as men.

After hundreds of Arakan fighters carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine in early January, striking on Myanmar’s Independence Day, hostilities between the two sides escalated, prompting the government to brand the Arakan Army, commonly referred to as the AA, a terrorist group and to order its troops to eliminate it.

So far this year, the AA and Myanmar forces have engaged in more than 100 battles in Rakhine state.

The AA, which draws most of its recruits from ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who support its mission, has trained with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another ethnic armed group that has fought government forces in Kachin and northern Shan states, at KIA headquarters in the remote mountainous town of Laiza, with AA soldiers playing a supporting role in those regions.

The AA engaged in its first real clash with Myanmar Army troops in March 2015 near Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township. It was one of three ethnic armies excluded from the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), which eight ethnic organizations signed, later that year.

Ethnic armies are known to exaggerate their member numbers, and AA leaders have refused to divulge the exact number of soldiers in its ranks. A January report on women in ethnic armies by the Norway-based Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), however, put the total number of both male and female AA troops at 1,000, while another report published the same month by the online journal The Irrawaddy put it at 7,000.

Like the national military and other ethnic armies in Myanmar, the AA is focusing its recruitment efforts on signing up young women to fortify its ranks and prepare them for future combat to fulfill the AA’s mission of self-determination for ethnic Rakhine people in Rakhine state.

There are now as many young women as there are male recruits training at a military facility in Laiza in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state near the border with China, signaling growing support for the rebel army among Rakhine civilians as the conflict intensifies.

Most of the young women training there are about 20 years old. RFA’s Myanmar Service has given them aliases because they declined to be identified by name while speaking on the record during a recent reporting trip to Kachin state, citing security and other reasons.

‘We want self-governance’

The female soldiers say they have been motivated to join the AA by the rebel force’s credo that armed revolution is the only way to achieve ethnic Rakhines’ goals of self-governance, self-determination, and equality in their state.

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“In the battles, they will not be spared because they are female,” he said. “They will be treated as enemies.” Pixabay

“We want self-governance,” said female recruit Hla Hla Kwye. “We can address our problems and decide what we need only when we have self-governance and self-determination. Now, it is all messed up since we are governed by others. We are discriminated against as if we are parented by a stepfather or a stepmother.”

She said she wants to deliver the “gift of independence” to her fellow ethnic Rakhines before 2020, so that they will no longer be “oppressed.”

“They will no longer be a second-class ethnic group,” Hla Hla Kwye said.

Others said they decided to join the AA to fight the ethnic-based discrimination and unfairness they face from the ethnic Bamar majority that dominates the national military and the country’s ruling, civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Myo Myo Thet, a female recruit who has been stationed at AA headquarters since 2018, said this unfairness has been evident in the extraction of natural resources in Rakhine state.

“When we interacted with the environment, we came to realize that we only got unfair shares of profits from natural resources extracted from our own state,” she said. “So, I learned that an armed revolution is unavoidable in order to achieve a Rakhine Nation. I then pledged to become a female Rakhine soldier.”

Many ethnic Rakhines believe they have been sold short on benefits they should have received as part of the central government’s natural resources and infrastructure deals with Myanmar’s larger neighbors China and India — namely, dual pipelines that export their state’s oil and natural gas to China and a massive transportation corridor to ship cargo from India to Rakhine’s Sittwe seaport and then on to northeast India via river and highway routes.

Other female recruits said they have been motivated to join the AA by more practical reasons, namely lack of employment opportunities — especially for women — in the impoverished and underdeveloped state.

“Before, I liked to make myself look beautiful,” said recruit Soe Soe. “I liked to eat a lot and sleep a lot. I didn’t have any employment either. We had to go to Yangon to get a job. There are no job opportunities in Rakhine state. We only have chores like cooking and carrying water.”

After she joined the AA, Moe Moe found a job and learned how to make better use of her free time.

“I’ve learned how to spend time wisely — how to spend leisure time wisely,” she said. “I’ve been able to read books. Only here, I’ve learned that I should read books.”

Training female soldiers takes two months, during which time they are also required to learn skills such as office administration, management, accounting, and sewing.

Though she’s proud of her work with the AA, Soe Soe said she is ready to return home to be with her family.

“I want to go home,” she said. “But although I’m separated from my whole family, I’m proud that I’m now working for the sake of the entire Rakhine state.”

Female Arakan Army recruits exercise as part of their training regimen in northern Myanmar's Kachin state in an undated photo.
Female Arakan Army recruits exercise as part of their training regimen in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state in an undated photo. RFA

Political negotiations

Some political analysts in Myanmar questioned why female soldiers want to get involved in armed conflict.

Retired military officer Aung Myo said Rakhine state’s problems do not stem from inequality between the Bamar majority and ethnic minorities or from racism, but have been created by the centralized administrative system practiced by successive governments.

“The ethnic minorities think they are being discriminated against, [and] they feel that they are victims of racial supremacy,” he said.

“I don’t want to judge whether their narrative is right or wrong because it is so broad,” he said. “But what we can’t disagree on is that the problems stem from the resistance to decentralization and suppression of the ethnic states’ autonomy, which have not changed up to today.”

Author Mi Sue Pwint, a member of the Women’s League of Burma, a community-based organization promoting women’s rights and participation in Myanmar politics and its peace process, said that although female soldiers are receiving necessary combat training, they may not be getting training in negotiation skills that members of armed groups need to participate in political discussions.

“They are all using the women to showcase their strength, but the real question here is how well the women are prepared and trained for political engagement,” she said, adding that the success of a democratic society, such as the one Myanmar is striving to build, will be judged in part by the extent of women’s political power.

Myanmar’s peace process, in which the national military and ethnic armed organizations are key stakeholders, is a fundamental part of the country’s transition to democracy that began in 2011. Both sides must be able to engage constructively in talks to address political problems that are the root causes of the country’s warfare in an effort to end decades of armed conflict and forge peace and stability.

“Political negotiations are the next step we need to go through,” said Mi Su Pwint, a former soldier with the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), an opposition group founded in 1988 after a series of nationwide popular pro-democracy protests and civil unrest.

“Only after we pass that step will we be able to achieve the goal of a federal union that guarantees equality among all ethnic groups,” she said.

Those involved in the peace process have an agreed-on target that women should account for 30 percent of representatives, though the actual number of female negotiators is much lower. Because women are not well represented in ethnic armed organizations, they are not offered attractive leadership positions, and the roles available to them are marginal, PRIO said it its report.

Propaganda purposes

The current trend of recruiting female soldiers primarily serves propaganda purposes rather than practical ones, Mi Su Pwint said, noting that ethnic Karen, Kachin, and Wa armed groups as well as the Myanmar military have been recruiting more women in recent years.

“In military parades such as the one on Armed Forces Day, female troops are shown as the highlight, Mi Su Pwint said. “Thus, the ethnic armed groups are doing the same thing, showcasing their own women troops at their anniversary occasions.”

“The AA has been trying to grow its base, [and] it has its own political ambitions, so I have no doubt that the AA’s public campaign policy would focus on recruiting young females because their target is within the Rakhine population,” she said.

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“Once young, educated, female Rakhines join them, it will be easier for them to persuade more people,” she said.

Aung Myo pointed to a downside of the AA’s efforts to recruit young women, saying that their involvement with the rebel force bodes ill for civilian women in Rakhine state.

“In the battles, they will not be spared because they are female,” he said. “They will be treated as enemies.”

“But the impact goes beyond the realm of real female soldiers,” he said. “Now, all women in Rakhine state will be viewed with suspicion as potential informers, AA members, or [AA] supporters. This is a completely wrong move because it drags the entire population of Rakhine women into the armed conflict.” (RFA)