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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)

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“We Fled From Our Village Because We Are Afraid of Government Soldiers,” Weekend Fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine Drives 400 Villagers Homeless

“The armed conflicts have affected our efforts for World Heritage Site preservation,” said Than Htike. “They have deterred the management work for the preservation of the heritage monuments.”

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Villagers who fled their homes when the Myanmar Army fired into their communities seek refuge in a monastery in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, March 18, 2018. RFA

More than 400 villagers fled their homes in the hills east of volatile Rakhine state’s Mrauk-U township on Sunday when the Myanmar Army fired into their communities amid an increase in the number of government troops in the area, local residents said.

Altogether, 3,000-some people from Mrauk-U have fled to safety from armed conflict between Myanmar soldiers and the Arakan Army (AA), a Buddhist Rakhine army fighting for autonomy in the state, since Feb. 19, 2019. They are staying temporarily in 13 camps in the township, according to locals providing assistance for the displaced residents.

“We fled from our village because we are afraid of government soldiers,” said Win Maung, the head of Maw village who is now living in a displacement camp. “They make arrests and abduct villagers.”

Rakhine state’s Disaster Management Department said it has provided rice, clothing and household goods to internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Mrauk-U, but camp leaders said only locals have been helping them.

“Only locals are helping these IDPs, but they have received almost nothing from the government,” said Maung Thar Khin, leader of the Shitthaung Monastery IDP camp where more than 250 IDP are living.

Some others IDPs expressed concern about having to live in the midst of ongoing armed conflict.

Mya Thaung Shwe, an IDP at the camp, said, “We had no worries in the past, but we have a lot of anxiety now as we are caught in a warzone.”

“We want peace,” said IDP Khin Maung Kyi. “The government hasn’t done anything [about the fighting]. It seems we are going to lose all our belongings and even our lives soon because we have to flee whenever fighting occurs around us.”

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Afterwards, Myanmar soldiers also nabbed a 63-year-old man named Sein Hla Maung who had some explosives and mine-related equipment, he said. Pixabay

‘Staging fake battles’

An uptick in fighting between Myanmar forces and the AA since late 2018 has left an undetermined number of people dead and has caused about 20,000 to seek shelter in safe places, according to estimates by locals in Rakhine state, though the state government outs the number of IDPs at about 7,800.

Earlier this month, the AA said that the Myanmar Army has sent more than 8,000 troops to northern Rakhine state since the beginning of the year.

AA spokesman Khine Thukha said there has been no fighting between government army and Arakan soldiers in Mrauk-U since March 15, and called Myanmar military reports about clashes untrue.

“There was no fighting involving us in these areas,” he said. “The government army has been staging fake battles. They’ve been firing artillery into residential areas at night.”

Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman of the Myanmar military’s Western Command which is responsible for Rakhine state, also said that no fighting had occurred in Mrauk-U township since mid-month, but added that the AA attacked military security guards with improvised explosive devices on March 17 near Waithali village.

Afterwards, Myanmar soldiers also nabbed a 63-year-old man named Sein Hla Maung who had some explosives and mine-related equipment, he said.

Hostilities continue to take place in other Rakhine townships, Win Zaw Oo said.

“Even yesterday, our troops from Sittwe went to Ponnagyun township for road security and about 30 AA troops attacked them near Ponnagyun, and a clash ensued,” he said, adding that Myanmar soldiers used heavy weaponry in the attack and killed one AA soldier

“Sometimes the AA tries to provoke a clash in towns, and we think that the AA does it intentionally,” he added.

Flood-affected Myanmar villagers eat a meal while taking shelter inside a pagoda in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Aug. 5, 2015.
Flood-affected Myanmar villagers eat a meal while taking shelter inside a pagoda in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Aug. 5, 2015. Credit: AFP (RFA)

Archaeologists decry damage

Not only residents of Mrauk-U, but also archaeologists are concerned about the effects of the ongoing hostilities in their ancient township.

Battles between Myanmar and Arakan forces damaged some of the township archeological heritage buildings and have become an obstacle to efforts to include the monuments on the UNESCO World Heritage list, residents and archaeologists said.

Hundreds of ancient but well-preserved temples and pagodas that dot the area’s hills are remnants of a powerful empire that existed there from the 15th century to the late 18th century.

“The damage inside the archaeological heritage areas caused by the ongoing fighting could be irreparable,” said Khin Than, chairwoman of the group Mrauk-U Heritage Trust.

“I am concerned that these irreplaceable archaeological treasures won’t be able to survive if there is heavy artillery firing and bombing by airstrikes,” she said. “Locals who live inside the archaeological zone also want peace and stability. Nobody wants war.”

The A-Naut-Myae-Htae pagoda was hit by fallen mortar shells during a night of shooting and shelling in Mrauk-U on March 15, said Than Htike, director of Mrauk-U’s Archaeological Department.

A security tent near the Shite-Thaung pagoda, an iconic monument among Rakhine’s archeological sites, was hit by heavy artillery, while bullets fell in the vicinity, which is designated as an archaeological zone, he said.

“These sites are located deep inside the zone,” he said. “It definitely impacts the preservation work. We can only make progress in our efforts in archaeological preservation if both sides of the conflict stop fighting.”

The Myanmar government is preparing to nominate the Mrauk-U archeological zone to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in September. The process will be finalized by February 2020.

“The armed conflicts have affected our efforts for World Heritage Site preservation,” said Than Htike. “They have deterred the management work for the preservation of the heritage monuments.”

The archeologists said they are concerned that the cultural and historical heritage monuments might not survive the ongoing fighting.

Tourists stay away

Visits by international tourists to the archeological sites have dropped markedly since early 2019, and local tourists also stopped coming since the fighting erupted in Mrauk-U township, local hoteliers said.

“The archeological sites and ancient monuments are the primary draw for tourism,” said Hla Myint, owner of Mrauk-U Princess Hotel. “Now the armed conflicts have stopped tourist arrivals.”

Other hotels, guesthouses, and transportation and tourism-related business in the region have practically come to a standstill as well, local entrepreneurs said.

“There are some hotels, guesthouses, and transportation companies that all relied on this small number of tourists,” Hla Myint said. “Now they all have come to a halt.”

AA spokesman Khine Thukha accused the government army of damaging ancient monuments and temples in Mrauk-U.

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“They are the ones walking with shoes inside Buddhist temples, though they call themselves Buddhists,” he said. “Some government troops even camp inside the archaeological zone. They are ruining our archaeological heritage.”

But Colonel Win Zaw Oo denied the accusation, blaming AA troops for the damage instead.

“They are fabricating the damage of archaeological sites and artillery firing by us,” he said. “Actually, many trenches have been dug up by AA troops inside the archaeological zone. They are pretty hypocritical.” (RFA)