Allied in War, Divided in Peace The Future of Ethnic Unity in Burma

Briefing Paper No.12
February 2013

On 20 February 2013, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) an 11 member ethnic alliance[i] met with the Burmese Government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) at the Holiday Inn, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The meeting, supported by the Nippon Foundation, was an attempt by Government negotiators to include all relevant actors in the peace process. The UNFC is seen as one of the lastremaining actors to represent the various armed ethnic groups in the country (for more information see BP No.6 Establishing a Common Framework) and has frequently sought to negotiate terms as an inclusive ethnic alliance.

 

The alliance was formed at a time of serious concern amongst ethnic ceasefire groups in relation to the Border Guard Force issue which many believed threatened their existence. Consequently, two former ceasefire groups the KIO and the NMSP allied with non-ceasefire groups like the Karen National Union to form an all-inclusive bulwark against the Governmentwhich was to includethe formation of a single federal army.

 

After the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army – South (RCSS/SSA) held its first meeting with the Burmese government on the 19 November 2011 and agreed to a nominal ceasefire, a number of other armed ethnic groups followed suit. While the RCSS/SSA had not been a member of the UNFC other groups that had been founding members, including the Karen National Union (KNU), Chin National Front (CNF), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP), soon made individual agreements with the Government.

 

While the UNFC had agreed, albeit begrudgingly, individual members could negotiate as single entities, the various peace processes began to fracture the unity of the organisation as individual members have been unable to find a truly common consensus in relation to negotiations with the Government. While the UNFC could have assumed the mantle of consolidation and promoting ethnic unity, it has primarily relied on issuing statements supportive of ethnic unity but has failed to act to cement it.

 

Perhaps one ofits most important actions, in relation to unity, was its participation at a conference of armed ethnic movements held from the 26-28 February 2012. The conference, attended by members of the KNU, KIO, KNPP, CNF, RCSS, NMSP, and PNLO, agreed to a common framework to guide members in the negotiation process.[ii] The participants agreed a three stage peace plan:

1.       Ceasefire,

2.       Implementation of agreements

3.       Political Dialogue

It was also agreed that a working group would be formed to further develop a common set of principles and plans for the peaceprocess. As a result, the Working Group on Ethnic Consultation (WGEC) was formed in June 2012. The WGEC consists of representatives from the 7 states plus advisers and, following an EthnicNationalities Conference in September 2012, representatives from Civil Society Organizations (2each from youth, women and issue-based CBOs).[iii] The group, which is supported financially by the Euro-Burma Office, meets monthly to update members and discuss the peace process.[iv]

 

As a result of the various WGEC meetings, UNFC members ostensibly agreed, at a September 2012 ethnic conference, that the following six points would need to be addressed for the peace process to move forward:

1.       Meeting of armed and civil society organizations to lay down points to be included in the Framework for Political Dialogue.

2.       Meeting between the Union government and the armed movements’ representatives to establish the Framework for Political Dialogue

3.       Conferences of the ethnic people in state and regions

4.       A national conference of the ethnic nationalities

5.       A Union conference held in the Panglong Spirit and participated by equal number of representatives from the ethnic forces, democratic forces and the government, to agree and sign the Union Accord

6.       A Precise timeframe for the peace process

The UNFC finally met with Government negotiator U Aung Min on 9 November 2012 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. At this meeting an informal agreement was reached that stated:

1.       Resolve political issues by political means

2.       Government should hold political dialogue with armed groups collectively and not separately

3.       Discuss the following topics during the upcoming formal meeting in the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in Yangon: framework for political dialogue, “talking points” or agenda, timeline, technical assistance and logistics

According to peace negotiatorNyoOhnMyint , discussingthe most recent meeting, in February 2013:

Primarily they will discuss framework for starting the peace process, beginning with: addressing ways to advance political dialogue; the division of revenue and resources between the central government and the ethnic states; and how to maintain communication channels for further talks.[v]

 

KhunOkker, who attended the meeting, suggested that the February meeting was primarily a trust building exercise for the UNFC and the Government. While individual armed groups had spoken to U Aung Min throughout their negotiation processes and some had already built up trust with the negotiation team. He believed that the UNFC would be more cautious in its approach in relation to the peace process, especially considering the continuing clashes with UNFC members including the KIO and SSPP/SSA

Divisions within the Armed Ethnic Resistance Movement

While all armed ethnic groups have participated in the WGEC meetings and generally agree with UNFC policy, many are unwilling to risk their own separate peace agreements in the name of ethnic unity.  Since it’s signing of agreements with the government, the Chin National Front has gradually moved away from the UNFC. According to UNFC Joint General Secretary 2, KhunOkker, the CNF agreement was designed to be a model for all ethnic groups, and, had the agreement failed, the CNF’s strength politically and militarily would not have been a serious issue for the Government. However, he notes, that realistically the model is not suitable for much larger groups.[vi] Regardless, the CNF have seen their agreement with the Government as relatively successful, and, unlike other groups, the emphasis for the CNF is primarily the need for development as the state has seen only limited armed engagement with the Burma Army over the past decade.[vii]In fact, no representatives of the Chin National Front were present at the February meeting due to the celebration, for the first time, of Chin National Day.

 

The UNFC, and perceived ethnic unity as a whole, was alsodealt a major blow at the end of December 2012 at the KNU’s 15th Congress. Hard-line leaders who had been supportive of UNFC policies were replaced by more moderate leaders who would shift their position away from the alliance. The UNFC’s Vice Chairman 2, David Thackerbaw, who had previously been Vice President of the Karen National Union, lost his position in thecongress, and, while still holding the portfolio of alliance affairs, has no real political mandate within the KNU. General Mutu Say Po, the newly elected KNU Chairman, is seen by some as being too close to the Government, and, it has been suggested, that the Government might try and use him to sway other ethnic leaders and therefore further decrease the influence of the UNFC.[viii] According to a Government statement, General Mutu had after meeting with the Government in January 2013:

. . . expressed KNU’s strong desire to build peace on ceasefire and negotiation, guaranteeing that KNU has no plan to reverse.[ix]

 

In addition, the new Karen leadership have acted as mediators between the Government and the KIO. On 4 February 2013, a meeting was held in Ruili, China, attended by both KNU Chairman Mutu and General Secretary KweHtoo Win. In addition, the meeting was also attended by Brig. Sai Lu of the Restoration Council of Shan State and, HarnYawnghwe and U Victor Biak Lian of the Euro Burma Office. While no solution has been found to the on-going conflict, there is strong evidence that armed ethnic groups already within the peace process will act outside of the UNFC to persuade the KIO and SSPP to find an accommodation with the government.

 

Perhaps one of the biggest threats to unity however, is the inability and inexperience of UNFC leaders to be able to adapt to negotiations. After decades of conflict and military rule in the country, leaders have failed to recalibrate to the current situation, and consequently have failed to implement new strategies in relation to working with the Government. While the UNFC has consistently been able to put forward a veneer of unity, individual members are now beginning to distance themselves. For the UNFC to remain relevant and to ensure that ethnic unity is maintained, the UNFC leadership has to reassess its position. As UNFC Joint Secretary 2, KhunOkker, explains,

It’s always the same, whenever the Government talks peace; we [ethnic groups] begin to separate.[x]

Backgroundto Armed Ethnic Alliances in Burma

 

In November 1952 the Zin-Zan Agreement for a ceasefire was reached between the CPB and the KNU and the first substantive alliance formed by the armed ethnic groups was the National Democratic United Front (NDUF) which was created on 16 May 1959. The NDUF united the Kawthoolei Nationalities United Party, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and, much to a numberof right-leaning KNU leaders’ consternation,who refused to have any part in the alliance, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB).

In May 1970, the National United Liberation Front (NULF) was formed comprising U Nu’s People’s Democracy Party (PDP and its armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army), the KNU, and the New Mon State Party. Thailand allowed the NULF to set up covert bases on its side of the border at Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang and Mae Sot. However, one major stumbling block was the fact thatthe NULF was demanding a ‘Federal Union Republic.’ Many ethnic leaders saw this as counter to what they were, at that time, demanding which were their own autonomous states. In 1972, after Karen and Mon requests to have the right of secession were finally agreed to by U Nu,he resigned and went into retirement, leaving the PLA to fend for itself.

 

In May 1973,realising that there was still a need for a committed ethnic nationalities resistance the Revolutionary National Alliance (RNA) was formed by the KNU, Shan State Progress Party, KayanNew Land Party and the KarenniNational Progressive Party at Kawmoora, Karen State, Its aim was ‘to establish a genuine federal union of independent national states based on the principles of equality and national self-determination.’ By the end of 1973, it also included the Arakanese resistance movement, the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) which based representatives in Karen areas. The KNU began training the new forces at Kawmoora where they would join another joint nationalities organisation, the Federal Nationalities Democratic Front (FNDF). This superseded the RNA in 1975 and was an organisation which specifically promoted separate nationality states and refused any ‘Burman membership.’

 

10May 1976, saw the formation of the longest surviving combined ethnic force – the National Democratic Front (NDF), formed at Manerplaw, the KNU’s new headquarters on the Moei River. The front initially consisted of the KNU, the NMSP, the KNPP, the ALP, the KIO, the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) and a number of other smaller organizations. Mahn Ba Zan was elected president while other KNU members of the NDF’s EC included Padoh Baw Yu Paw, Secretary, Lt. Gen. Tamla Baw and Bo San Line. The main objective of the NDF was ‘to establish a Federal Union based on the right of determination for all nationalities.’[xi]November 1988, saw the formation of the Democratic Alliance of Burma comprising the National Democratic Front (NDF), and several pro-democracy groups that supported the armed struggle or had taken up arms (chiefly the All Burma Student Democratic Front).

 

 


[i] The UNFC consists of 11 armed groups: Chin National Front (CNF), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Karen National Union (KNU), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) PaO National Liberation Organization (PNLO) Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Arakan National Council (ANC), Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), Lahu Democratic Front (LDU) and Wa National Organization (WNO)

[ii]Present were Gen Mutu Say Poe, KNU, ZipporalSein, KNU,NerdahMya, KNU, KweHtoo Win, KNU, KhuOoReh, KNPP, Gen N. Banla, KIO, Dr Laja, KIO,ZinCung, CNF, Dr Sui Kha, CNF, HkunOkker, PNLO, Nai Han Tha, NMSP,and Gen YawdSerk, RCSS/SSA,see ‘Answering questions on WGEC’, SHAN, 9 January 2013. In addition, also present as observers were representatives from the KloHtoo Baw Battalion, the KNU/KNLAPC, the non-BGF faction of the MNDAA (PengDaxun, son of ousted leader PengJiasheng), the KNLP and the KNPLF (BGF) see ‘Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process’, BNI, January 2013

[iii]Resource Persons are KhuensaiJaiyen (SHAN), Daw Shirley Seng (KWAT), Saw HtooHtoo Lay (Karen), SalaiLian H. Sakhong (ENC), Col. KhunOkker (PNLO), CBO representatives, Women: Daw Moon Nay Li (KWAT and WLB), Saw San Nyein Thu (Rakhine Women Union and WLB); Youth: NawSeng (SYCB – Student and Youth Congress of Burma), Kya Yi Shay (Nationalities Youth Forum); Environment: KoShwe (KESAN – Karen Environmental and Social Action Network), KoSaiSai (Burma River Network). State Representatives:Saw MyaRaza Lin (Rakhine), Sin Wah (Kachin), NawZipporahSein (Karen), Nai Han Tha (Mon), KhuOoReh (Kayah), Dr. Sui Kha (Chin), Solomon (Shan), Col. PengFa (Shan North)

[iv]‘Answering questions on WGEC’, SHAN, 9 January 2013

[v]‘Myanmar govt wants ethnics to agree three-step plan’, Phanida, Mizzima,19 February 2013

[vi]Personal conversation with KhunOkker, 27 February, 2013

[vii]Personal Conversation with LianSakhong, CNF Supreme Council Member, 12 February 2013

[viii]Personal conversation with KhunOkker, 27 February, 2013

[ix]‘TheinSein meets new KNU leadership’, Mizzima,7 January 2013

[x]Personal conversation with KhunOkker, 27 February, 2013

[xi]KhaingSoeNaing Aung, ‘National Democratic Movement of Ethnic Nationalities.’

http://burmaethnicstudies.net/pdf/BCES-BP-12.pdf

 


Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies
PO Box 49
Chiang Mai University
Chiang Mai, 50202
Thailand