The first large meeting of ethnic minorities and the Myanmar government since the country’s independence has raised hopes of a peaceful resolution of contentious issues.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic-based political parties in Myanmar that participated in the 1990 general election may have boycotted the 2010 general election, but nevertheless it was a landmark in the process of the country’s democratic transition.

However, the transition process did not face a major challenge until a meeting at Majoi hall in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state, that was held from November 4 to 5. The meeting took place after a four-day conference of 17 ethnic armed groups in Laiza.

For a federal army

The meeting was significant for two reasons. It was the first such large meeting of ethnic minorities, formerly called the frontier people, and the Myanmar central government since the country’s independence that attempted to address the protracted problems of the minorities.

Second, the meeting was attended by the international observers, Vijay Nambiar, special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and Mr. Wang Ying Fan, China’s representative.

The ethnic armed organisations presented an 11-point proposal, that they had agreed upon during the Laiza conference, to the central government that included among other things the establishment of a federal army.

Naing Han Thar, general secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of ethnic armed groups, said, “If we want to create a federal union, we need to have a federal army. If the army is controlled by a small group of people, it is not proper for a federal union and it can’t guarantee inclusion for ethnic minorities.”

The union government presented its 10-point proposal to the ethnic armed groups, including non-disintegration of the union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, perpetuation of sovereignty and democratic principles, according to the 2008 Constitution.

In the end, the two sides agreed to work towards a nationwide ceasefire, establish a framework for political dialogue and hold meetings for political negotiation. They also agreed to meet again in December in Hpa-an, the capital of Karen state.

Initially, the government was hopeful of signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement before the end of November, but it now appears very unlikely as the next meeting has been scheduled. Both sides will now need to discuss the proposal/details.

Can recent developments resolve the decades-old political problems in the country? Though it is still premature to give a definitive answer, there is potential for a solution provided the sides are willing to make compromises and cooperate.

The Myitkyina meeting, which was attended by over 50 leaders of different ethnic armed organisations and several representatives from the government, can be termed a more inclusive one than the Panglong conference of 1947. The Panglong agreement was signed by representatives from Chin, Kachin, Shan and Bama or Burman.

A setback at the Laiza conference and the Myitkyina meeting was the absence of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest non-state armed group, the ethnic Kokang armed groups, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) and the Kuki National Organisation (KNO).

For a nationwide ceasefire to be effective and successful, all ethnic armed groups need to participate and cooperate. Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of both the union government and the leaders of the participating armed groups to convince and invite the non-participating groups.

Granting territorial autonomy

As has been the case for the past several decades, the greatest challenge is likely to emerge from the question of the withdrawal of the union army from ethnic minority territories and granting them autonomy.

Another challenge lies in how the union government will deal with the soldiers of ethnic armed groups. Will the government be willing to absorb these armed groups into the federal army or transform them as state armies? If so, can the armed groups accept such a proposal as a long-term solution? And if the government decides to make them state armies, will the state or federal government sanction adequate funding to support them?

In any case, the armed groups are unlikely to surrender their arms unless fully convinced that the union government is sincere in its commitment to address the long-standing demands of ethnic minorities — equality of rights and self-determination or autonomy in their own territories.

Because of the historicity of a lack of trust between the minorities and the successive central governments, building mutual trust will take time.

While the unprecedented nature of the Myitkyina meeting brings hope, one must be cautiously optimistic about the end-result. Nevertheless, recent developments are crucial for the success of national reconciliation.

(Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum.)

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