Myanmar’s ruling party will begin meetings with various ethnic political parties on this week, making good on its stated plan to include ethnic minorities in its efforts to build a democratic federal union after winning national elections in November, party officials said Tuesday.
Two days after the Nov. 8 election victory with a new five-year mandate, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) issued statements calling on 48 ethnic political parties to join renewed talks about a federal union, held up as a way to end 70 years of ethnic wars.
Myanmar, a country of 54 million people the size of Texas or France, recognizes 135 official ethic groups, with majority Bamars (Burmese) accounting for about 68 percent of the population, far exceeding the next largest group, the Shan, which account for nine percent of the population.
The country’s seven states — China, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan — are populated mostly by ethnic minority groups, while Bamars are the overwhelming majority in seven central regions and the capital Naypyidaw Union Territory.
A dozen ethnic parties responded to the NLD’s call, while the others are waiting for official invitations to the meetings.
Most ethnic parties — which seek decentralized government control and the ability to manage their own affairs and benefit from natural resources — say they are willing to hold talks with the NLD, which previously had disagreed with many of their proposals after the party won the 2015 elections.
At a meeting in the capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday, the NLD’s central executive committee decided to begin meeting with the ethnic parties, starting with those representing the Mon, who live in eastern Myanmar near the border with Thailand, and the Kachin, who live near the northern border with China.
“We have planned to start the meetings with Kachin state because we have strong support there,” said committee member Zaw Myint Maung.
“We’ve got support from many groups, [so] we will go to all other regions,” he said, adding that the NLD would meet with both representatives from ethnic political parties and lawmakers who won seats in the recent elections.
“We are now sending an exploratory team,” Zaw Myint Maung said. “We will proceed depending on the observations.”
Panglong Agreement promises
On Dec. 12, the NLD’s central executive committee assigned Aung Moe Nyo, chief minister of Magwe region; Nang Khin Htwe Myint, chief minister of Kayin state; and Nhtung Hka Naw Sam, a lower house lawmaker from Kachin state to lead the team that will meet with the ethnic minority parties.
The trio will travel to Kachin state on Dec. 30, followed by Mon state in the southeast.
Representatives from Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) and the Mon Unity Party (MUP) said they have not yet set a date for the meeting with NLD delegates, however.
KSPP vice chairman and spokesman Kwan Gaung Aung Kham said his party will focus during the talks on implementing the promises of the Panglong Agreement, an abortive 1947 pact under which the Myanmar government under General Aung San granted Kachin, Shan, and Chin states full autonomy in internal administration in principle.
“For us, the KSPP will discuss mainly about realizing the promises of the 1947 Panglong treaty in the future,” said Kwan Gaung Aung Kham. “These promises need to be implemented in reality, regardless of what has been said in statements or speeches.”
The July 1947 assassination of Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, led to the unraveling of that pact, and many ethnic groups then took up arms against the central government in wars that have continued until the present day.
Only 10 of Myanmar’s 20-odd ethnic armies have signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), the basis of a fragile peace process since it was put forth in 2015. This year saw deadly fighting in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin states.
The KSPP, MUP, Kayan State Democratic Party, Karen National Democratic Party, Chin National League for Democracy, and Wa National Party have formed alliance to manage the talks with the NLD, said Kwan Gaung Aung Kham.
MUP general secretary Naing Layi Tama told RFA that he could not confirm what party officials will discuss with the NLD delegates.“We have prepared some agenda items to discuss with them, but we can confirm them only after we have had the discussions,” he said. “We still need to listen to what they want to discuss.”
The MUP won a dozen seats in the 2020 elections, including two in the lower house of the Union parliament and three in the upper chamber.
‘We want self-determination’
The Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interests of ethnic Rakhines in Rakhine state, and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which campaigns for the interests of ethnic Shan people, are two of the other parties that have not responded to the NLD.
“For us, the ethnic parties, we want inclusion in state governments, and if possible, the authority to nominate chief ministers of the state governments and the power to administer the state parliament,” said Pe Than, a Rakhine state lawmaker and member of the ANP’s policy committee.
“We want self-determination in our own ethnic states,” he added. “We don’t want a subordinate state government that will take orders from the central government.”
The stakes are particularly high in Rakhine, whose northern half has been ravaged by a two-year-old military conflict between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) that has killed about 300 civilians, injured more than 600 others, and driven about 230,000 people into internal displacement camps.
There has been a temporary, unofficial cease-fire in Rakhine since the elections, but tensions remain high because voting was cancelled in the conflict-zone townships.
SNLD vice chairman Sai Nyunt Lwin said officials from his party will meet NLD representatives once they receive the official letter.
“We have assigned some party members to respond if the NLD invites us, [but] we haven’t prepared anything in particular,” he said. “We might discuss the securing of political agreements.”
Some political analysts were upbeat about the prospects of the NLD meeting with ethnic parties, but said that concrete actions were necessary.
“The NLD has taken a very positive first step in reaching out to the ethnic minority parties, getting their input, and listening to their voices,” said Mya Aye, a leading member of the Federal Democratic Force and former student leader.
“It would be best if the NLD created conditions where ethnic people can administer their own affairs in their own states,” she said. “We hope this can be achieved through a step-by-step process.”
Political analyst Yan Myo Thein said the NLD must do more than simply listen to what the ethnic political parties have to say.
“If the NLD delegates merely listen to ethnic parties, it won’t get very far,” he said. “They need delegates who are able to respond to the ethnic parties’ demands.”
“The NLD’s team should have enough accountability and enough power to discuss and give feedback to the ethnic parties about their demands,” he said. “Only then will there be meaningful discussion between the ruling party and ethnic parties before the forming of a new government in 2021.”
Reported by Thiha Tun and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.