Talks between four ethnic armed groups and Myanmar peace officials about recent clashes in northern Shan state broke down on Friday in the latest blow to the civilian administration’s efforts to forge peace and national reconciliation.
Government peace envoy Tin Myo Win and representatives from the government’s Peace Commission were set to hold talks with officers from the Northern Alliance—the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—in Kunming, capital of southwestern China’s Yunnan province.
“The planned meeting has been cancelled because the negotiations were not successful,” Col. Ta Hpone Kyaw of the TNLA told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Tin Myo Win has returned home, and we’ll be going back too.”
China’s foreign ministry had arranged for the two sides to meet, he said.
The country had deployed more soldiers and weapons along its border with Myanmar’s Shan state after the current round of hostilities began on Nov. 22. China has provided shelter and health services to about 3,000 Myanmar citizens who have fled the clashes, which have continued.
But while the Chinese and the Northern Alliance wanted all four ethnic militias to participate, Tin Myo Win said government representatives would meet separately with the groups, because even if a multilateral meeting were held, the KIA could not be included, Ta Hpone Kyaw said.
“The Peace Commission has no plans to meet all four groups,” Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told RFA’s Myanmar Service earlier.
Representatives from the Mongla militia and United Wa State Army were also present, though they had met earlier with Tin Myo Win.
“We don’t know exactly why [we couldn’t all meet together],” Ta Hpone Kyaw said. “The Chinese side just told us there wouldn’t be any talks, and we were told that even if the talks were held, the Myanmar officials wanted to talk more about signing the [government’s] nationwide cease-fire agreement rather than the latest fighting in the border area.”
“I think they do not have enough authority to make any decisions,” he said.
The negotiating table
Myanmar’s civilian government, which came to power in April, has made peace and national reconciliation its primary goal so that the country can put decades of civil war behind it and move forward with its political and economic development.
Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is spearheading efforts to bring ethnic militias to the negotiating table and have them sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) that eight groups signed with the previous government in October 2015.
She held the 21st-Century Panglong Conference in late August to bring the parties to the negotiating table, though no agreement was reached.
The KIA has not signed the NCA, and the three other ethnic armies were excluded from the Oct. 2015 pact because of their ongoing hostilities with Myanmar’s armed forces. Leaders from the KIA’s political wing, however, joined the Panglong Conference in late August in what they called a show of goodwill.
The latest bout of hostilities in northern Shan state began when the Northern Alliance launched coordinated attacks on 10 government and military targets in the Muse township villages of Mong Ko and Pang Zai, the 105-mile border trade zone between Myanmar and China, and areas of Namkham and Kutkai townships.
The ethnic militias have said that they engaged in the limited war in response to offensives by national army soldiers in the long-restive area. More than 10 civilians have been killed and 40 have been injured, as the fighting continues.
On Friday, Defense Minister Lieutenant General Sein Win moved that the lower house of parliament consider naming the Northern Alliance a coalition a terrorist organization because of its killing and injuring civilians and damaging infrastructure and public property.
Lawmakers, however, rejected the motion.
So far, more than 10 civilians have been killed, 40 have been injured, and thousands have fled their homes for safer places.
Rakhine investigation commission formed
Northern Shan state meanwhile isn’t the only region posing a challenge to the administration’s goal of lasting peace.
Security forces in the northwestern part of Rakhine state are continuing their lockdown of the area following deadly attacks on three border guard posts in October that have been blamed on Rohingya Muslim militants.
Army soldiers have been accused of killing civilians, raping women and girls, burning down homes in Rohingya communities, and driving away tens of thousands of residents.
The office of President Htin Kyaw on Friday announced the formation of a 13-member investigative commission to examine the situation that led to the border guard station attacks and subsequent violence on Nov. 12-13 in Maungdaw as well as to verify the allegations of rights abuses during the security operations.
The commission, headed by Vice President Myint Swe, must submit a report of its investigation, including recommendations for the area’s stability, to the president by Jan. 31, 2017.
Meanwhile, former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, who is chairman of government-appointed commission looking into conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance, and development issues in the divided and impoverished state, faced protesters on Friday when he arrived in the state capital Sittwe for a visit.
He told reporters that the commission members will visit Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in northwestern Rakhine on Saturday to see for themselves what has occurred there.
“We have not had any indication that there will be restrictions on us,” he said in response to a question. “Obviously, we are not going to be there for a very long time, but we’re going to try to see as much as possible and to relate to as many people on the ground as we can.”
Annan also said that he expects progress to be made with allowing humanitarian assistance into the area. So far, only Myanmar groups providing food and other necessities have been allowed into the security zone, while other international aid organizations have been kept out.
“Security action should not impede humanitarian assistance to those in need,” he said.
About 70 members of the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interest of the ethnic Rakhine people in the state, lined the avenue from the airport into Sittwe on Friday to protest his visit, the second one he has made as head of the commission.
The ANC is demanding that the commission be dissolved, fearing that its three foreign members, including Annan, will automatically side with the Rohingya.
“The Rakhine state government has already said that it doesn’t recognize this commission, so why has it ignored their decision and is [now] moving forward?” Tun Hla of the ANP asked RFA. “That’s why we are protesting.”
Protest leader Aung Ko Moe noted that Annan used the term “Rohingya” at a news conference in Sittwe during his first visit to the state in September, which “encourages the Muslims and could lead to more problems.”
Most people in majority-Buddhist Myanmar refer to the stateless Rohingya as “Bengalis” because they consider them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and discriminate against them, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Annan and other members of his party met with state government officials and later held a closed-door meeting with town elders.
He plans to visit the conflict-ridden areas in Maungdaw township on Saturday. Almost 90 people have been killed in the crackdown and thousands of others have been forced to flee to Bangladesh.
‘Bigger fires of resentment’
Aung San Suu Kyi took the international community to task on Friday, accusing it of stirring up further animosity between Buddhists and Muslims in northwestern Rakhine.
“I would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us to maintain peace and stability, and to make progress in building better relations between the two communities, instead of always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment,” Aung San Suu Kyi told Singapore broadcaster Channel News Asia during her visit to the city-state.
“It doesn’t help if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation, in spite of the fact that there were attacks against police outposts,” she said.