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Several ethnic armed groups that are not signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) have decided they will not sign the accord and instead are looking to engage in alternative-track peace talks under the leadership of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), throwing Burma’s flagging peace process into further disarray.
About 40 representatives from seven NCA non-signatory groups including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA); Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA); Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA); and Arakan Army met at the UWSA’s Panghsang headquarters in northern Shan State last week ahead of the government-led Union peace summit, scheduled to take place in March.
At the end of their meeting on 24 February, the groups issued a joint statement announcing their intention not sign the NCA — a prerequisite for taking part in the so-called 21st Century Panglong Conference — but rather to engage in a political dialogue with the government under the UWSA’s leadership. The groups also called on China and the United Nations to take roles as mediators in that dialogue.
Zaw Htay, the deputy director of the President’s Office, said the non-signatories were heading in a direction “completely opposite” from the government’s peace process roadmap, which envisions a Union-level political dialogue undergirded by the NCA as the means to ending Burma’s decades-long civil war.
“We take it that the [statement] meant they decided to not follow the 21st Century Panglong roadmap and to go in a completely opposite direction,” he said. “The agreement everyone had is to hold a tripartite dialogue between the [non-state armed groups]; the Tatmadaw and political stakeholders.”
“That dialogue may even lead to the amendment of the constitution if necessary,” Zaw Htay added.
For ethnic armed groups, changes to the controversial charter are essentially viewed as a requirement if a durable peace is to be forged.
In their 24 February statement, the non-signatories said they will form a delegation, led by the UWSA, to engage in a political dialogue with the government outside of the NCA framework.
The general secretary of a prominent ethnic political party, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy’s Sai Nyunt Lwin, said the government must explore ways to facilitate a dialogue with the groups.
“Basically, [the NCA non-signatories] are looking for a new means to have a political dialogue [rather than through signing the NCA] and I don’t see why the government wouldn’t want to accept it. But on the other hand, there is no way the Tatmadaw will accept it,” said Sai Nyunt Lwin.
“I think it is a good thing that the armed groups are still on the path for a dialogue — or at least they are not ruling that option out — so the government should find a way to facilitate that. But I do suspect there maybe Chinese influence on the [NCA non-signatories’] decision.”
The ethnic armed groups meeting in Panghsang last week included some members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of NCA non-signatories, as well as some non-members that were shut out of negotiations on — and the subsequent signing of — the NCA, such as the TNLA. The TNLA and the KIA, the latter a prominent UNFC member, are among a handful of ethnic armed groups that have continued to clash with the Tatmadaw in recent months.
Only eight out of about 20 non-state armed groups signed the NCA in October 2015. The National League for Democracy (NLD) government hopes to convene a second iteration of what it calls the 21st Century Panglong Conference later this month, after a 28 February target date was pushed back.