Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pro-China factions in doubt over signing ceasefire

The ceasefire signing clock is ticking down with expectations that the government will seal a long-awaited accord with various armed ethnic factions in early October. But two powerful groups with close ties to China have yet to show their hand.

Ethnic armed leaders meet in Wa stronghold Pangkham on May 1, to discuss a ceasefire pact with the government and hear UWSA demands for an autonomous state. Photo: EPAEthnic armed leaders meet in Wa stronghold Pangkham on May 1, to discuss a ceasefire pact with the government and hear UWSA demands for an autonomous state. Photo: EPA

Their border stronghold protected by an estimated 20,000 fighters, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the allied Mongla faction with 3000 troops signed their own bilateral ceasefire deals back in 1989 and have carved out prosperous, quasi-independent enclaves beyond Myanmar’s direct control. The Wa in particular are reluctant to change the status quo.

Neither faction in eastern Shan State belongs to the 16-member ethnic Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team which has been negotiating with the government for nearly 20 months, although they occasionally joined as observers. After the last rounds of talks in July and August, both said they were not happy with progress.

But the government has said that only those groups signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) would be allowed to join the next stage of political dialogue. Non-signatories could only take part as observers.

This hardline position threatens the UWSA’s aspirations to achieve their goal of negotiating an upgrading of their status from self-administered area to an autonomous state.

U Aung Min, chief government negotiator, went to Kengtung in Shan State on September 12 to urge the UWSA and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), as the Mongla group is formally known, to sign the ceasefire pact. According to reports, Lt-Gen Yar Pyae, speaking for the military, warned the groups they risked being excluded from the political dialogue.

A key factor weighing on the UWSA and NDAA is the government’s exclusion from the “nationwide” ceasefire of six other groups, including its allies among ethnic Chinese rebels fighting in Kokang and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. Both groups also enjoy close ties to China.

The NDAA has said it would sign the NCA if the other groups were also allowed to sign. A UWSA statement on September 4 questioned the government over the “inclusiveness” of the NCA and raised its objections to military aspects of the proposed ceasefire.

The Wa, who are reported to possess anti-aircraft missiles and flaunt their military prowess on Facebook, said the scope of the NCA was too broad and could lead to “unexpected conflicts in implementation”. It criticised how ceasefire zones would be set, the assignment of troops and joint monitoring of military activities.

China, a regular observer to the negotiations, has publically urged Myanmar’s various ethnic groups to sign up to the deal. But the statement released by the UWSA – whose territory uses Chinese currency and telecom networks – suggests a more nuanced approach from their giant neighbour.

The statement said that according to a pledge made by the UWSA to China’s Yunnan province, the armed group would not sign the ceasefire accord “if the process involves such western countries as European Union, US, and Japan”. It appeared to be referring to the possible role of outsiders as witnesses to the signing and as observers to its implementation.

Political commentator U Than Soe Naing said the two armed groups are seen to be heavily under the influence of the central government in Beijing.

“If Beijing says something, then Yunnan will voice the same. I think this is related to Chinese concerns over its interests in our country by expressing a desire to keep Western groups away from the process,” he said.

Quoting sources involved in the Kengtung meeting, U Than Soe Naing said the UWSA and the NDAA were told by the government that their demands would be considered if they signed the NCA.

“I think they are likely to sign the NCA if government stakeholders at the decision-making level, like top-ranked military, would be involved in persuading them to sign,” U Than Soe Naing said.

Neither group was available for comment yesterday.

U Khuensai, managing director of the Pyidaungsu Institute, a peace process research group, commented, “I think the Wa and the Mongla groups are being put in a tough situation that they have got to decide something.”