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Federalism debate fractures Burma’s armed ethnic groups

Burma’s armed ethnic groups have fallen out over how to develop a federal union in the former military dictatorship, resulting in two rival conferences to discuss plans to end decades of civil conflict.

Inside sources say that a split has emerged between “hard-liners” and those who favour compromising with the government to amend the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which currently grants Naypyidaw control over ethnic minority territories.

The dispute has contributed to a major rift in Burma’s ethnic movement, culminating in Burma’s leading ethnic umbrella group, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), severing ties with the multi-ethnic Working Group for Ethnic Coordination (WGEC), which was set up to coordinate negotiations with Naypyidaw, in June.

The UNFC is currently hosting an ethnic nationalities conference in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, to discuss federalism and strategies for political dialogue. Meanwhile, the WGEC is planning a similar event in mid-August, which analysts say might “cause confusion” among the ethnic populations.

Some ethnic representatives are reportedly concerned that the working group’s donor, the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office (EBO), which coordinates with the controversial Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, wants them to join the government under the current constitution. UNFC spokesperson, Hkun Okker, confirmed to DVB that they were “cautious” about the EBO’s agenda.

“We haven’t heard of the EBO directly pressuring ethnic groups – the EBO has no political mandate – however, they can indirectly pressure them … such as by discreetly advising them to work within the government’s framework to change the constitution,” he said.

The UNFC has consistently called for the 2008 constitution to be re-written outside of parliament and for the government to agree on a timeframe for political dialogue. But the government has demanded that ethnic groups make amendments within Burma’s existing legal framework, which would require the support of 75 percent of the military-dominated legislature.

“It is our challenge, but we must struggle to change the 2008 constitution,” the UNFC’s technical team leader, Mahn Mahn, told DVB. “If you go inside the parliament you cannot change or establish a new constitution.”

But Harn Yawnghwe, Director of the EBO, insists that ethnic groups have to take a more pragmatic approach. “Everybody wants a federal union, but if you look at it realistically this government has a mandate only until 2015,” he said. “There is no way you can get agreement on a complete federal union before 2015, but there are steps you can begin to take in that direction.”

“You are negotiating with a government, which is in power because of this constitution. So there’s no way of getting around accepting this government if you want to talk to them, and there’s no way of getting around accepting this constitution if you want to talk to them.”

The WGEC and the UNFC fell out in recent months over who should lead political negotiations with the government. The former wanted to establish a multi-ethnic negotiating team, while the latter says it already has one. Both groups say the other has no mandate to lead discussions.

There is also growing internal discord within ethnic groups, including the Karen, Kachin and Chins. According to Yawnghwe, exiled political activists have largely sided with the UNFC, while members inside Burma have backed the working group.

But he attributed the rift to “rumours” and “confusion” over the negotiating process. He added that ethnic groups should press the government to agree to “transitional measures” before 2015 and obtain guarantees that talks will continue after the next general election.

“As a bargaining power, armed groups can say – and I agree with them – that there’s no way they’ll give up their arms until 2015, because there’s no guarantee that anything will happen, but after 2015 they can start thinking about how to demobilise and integrate into the army.”

Both the WGEC, which first met in February 2012, and the UNFC have worked together to develop a common framework for negotiating the peace process. It includes plans to hold a second Panglong conference in 2014, where mechanisms for constitutional reform and self-determination will be discussed.

However, no definitive timeframe has been decided between the two groups, or the government, and Hkun Okker insists that constitutional change must be formally agreed upon before the next general election.

“It would be a loss for us if the current government only adopted the framework, but never reached a decision – we cannot let that happen,” said Hkun Okker. “So we must have a decision that favours our approach before 2015.”

The first Panglong agreement – negotiated in 1947 by Burma’s nationalist hero, Aung San – guaranteed ethnic minorities political autonomy and paved the way for the country’s independence. Its provisions are largely seen as prerequisites to ending Burma’s myriad ethnic conflicts, which have plagued the country for decades.

“We believe that without any political agreement, even if we sign a nationwide ceasefire it will have no meaning,” said Mahn Mahn.

President Thein Sein recently reiterated his commitment to signing a national peace accord within “a matter of weeks”. Some representatives from the government’s negotiating team, including its leader Aung Min, have said that constitutional change and federalism are not completely off the agenda.

“Everything will be open for discussion at the national dialogue,” said the chairperson of the government-backed Myanmar Peace Centre, Min Zaw Oo.

But many have questioned the government’s sincerity, amid reports that land grabs and mass displacement are on the rise in Burma’s border regions. The Burmese army has yet to withdraw troops from minority areas and ethnic leaders say most of the government’s promises remain unfulfilled.


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