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The Future Must be Federalism in Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  September 16, 2013

unfc-photo by nyo ohn myintPreliminary peace talks between the alliance of ethnic non-state armed groups, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the Burma government in Chiang Mai, Thailand, over the weekend of 8-9 September resulted in little progress. Meanwhile the Burma Army is simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening its positions in Kachin State, resulting in more armed clashes and causing fear of another major offensive.

Led by Minister Aung Min, the Union Peace Working Committee invited the UNFC to Naypyidaw to sign a nationwide ceasefire accord despite there being no ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), a member of the UNFC. Given the increasing attacks on the Kachin and little tangible progress made in the peace process so far, the UNFC did not immediately accept the offer. The nationwide ceasefire accord signing is a major part of the government’s peace strategy and their plan is for international observers to be present, as well as domestic and international media. For the government, this very public show is important may be important to show the world that progress is being made, their peace plan is working and that perhaps more importantly, Burma is open for business.

The reality is that their peace plan is not working. As International Day of Peace looms, the Burma Army are preparing for a major offensive against the KIO, reinforcing positions with troops and weapons. Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network explained, “My native village [Nam Lim Pa] has been under attack for three days. It is an offensive. It is not a regular troop exchange.”

The last time the Burma Army launched a major offensive against the KIO in late December 2012, airstrikes and helicopter gunships bombarded the town of Laiza, killing unarmed civilians. The Burma Army has been preparing for another major offensive on the Kachin since the last peace talks at the end of May 2013 when both sides agreed to work towards a reduction in hostilities. In ethnic areas where ceasefires have been agreed upon, Burma Army bases are restocked, arms replenished and troops have moved in. Since the beginning of the peace process, no Burma Army soldiers have left ethnic areas. A peace process must involve trust-building measures, but preparing for a major offensive does not fill ethnic groups with confidence.

Thus, it is of no surprise that the UNFC did not accept the invitation to sign a nationwide ceasefire accord. It does not address any of the demands of the ethnic groups and has no value for them, something that Nai Hon Tha, UNFC General Secretary pointed out, “We asked them, since we have been separately signing ceasefire agreements, why do we need to sign another nationwide ceasefire?” It is not the ethnic groups who need this nationwide ceasefire, it is for the government’s public relations campaign. In fact, the onus should be on the Burma government to declare a nationwide ceasefire when it’s army ceases all military operations against all non-state armed groups, an opinion shared by many local people who are monitoring the peace process.

At the meeting, the UNFC demanded that Burma Army troops to withdraw from ethnic positions while also rejecting the 2008 Constitution and calling for federalism. The call for federalism is growing louder in Burma, and until this issue is addressed, the peace process will remain stagnated. Even Shwe Mann, the Speaker of the Union Parliament and former high-ranking general, expressed his support for federalism at a public forum in Shan State last week.

Federalism is a prerequisite for sustainable peace in Burma but it must not be just a word used to placate ethnic nationalities who insist on their rights being realized. There needs to be an inclusive discussion on the concept of federalism, of different designs and what kind of system is most apt for Burma and how to implement such a process of transition. A starting point is the rejection of the biggest obstacle to federalism: the 2008 Constitution. This military-written document centralises power in the hands of the Burman majority, disenfranchises ethnic people and institutionalizes the power of the Burma Army and according to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, “is against all democratic values.”

The ethnic groups have initiated this process with plans to write a new constitution based on the ideals of federalism in the works. The government needs to respond in kind and engage with these groups on what federalism will look like in Burma and more importantly, accept that it is indeed inevitable, as Shwe Mann reportedly said. This is where trust building begins, not preparing for another major offensive in Kachin State.

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This post is in: Blog, Peace and National Reconciliation

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