The Myanmar government has invited the Northern Alliance group of ethnic armies to meet for talks in October to try to persuade their leaders to sign bilateral cease-fire agreements ending escalated armed conflict with the national military in the country’s far-flung ethnic regions, a government negotiator said Tuesday.
Myanmar's top peace negotiator Tin Myo Win sent invitations on Monday to the four alliance members — the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — to attend the meeting in the town of Kengtung in eastern Shan state on Sept. 16 and 17.
The invitation also said that the peace commission would guarantee the safety of delegates from the ethnic armed organizations, three of which have been engaged in recent fighting with Myanmar forces.
“I want the peace talks to succeed,” said National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) member Hla Maung Shwe. “That’s why we sent invitations to them.”
The invitations come a day after the AA, TNLA, and MNDAA declared a conditional temporary cease-fire in areas where hostilities with government troops have intensified, as a trust-building measure to move closer toward peace negotiations. The cease-fire runs through Oct. 8.
Likewise, the Myanmar military has thrice extended its own temporary truce, originally declared in December 2018, in five of its regional command areas, including northern Shan and Kachin states, with the latest extension set to expire on Sept. 21.
“The military has extended the cease-fire for 21 more days,” Hla Maung Shwe said. “This also gives a guarantee of safety to those who attend, so I want to see these peace talks proceed.”
During the last meeting on Aug. 31, which Myanmar military representatives did not attend, the ethnic armies suggested that the next round of discussions should be held in Panghsang, capital of the Wa self-administered region in the hills of eastern Shan state near the China-Myanmar border.
Laphai Gunja from the Peace Talks Creation Group (PCG), an ethnic Kachin group that brokers peace negotiations between the ethnic armed organizations and the government, said the Northern Alliance has not yet agreed to hold the discussions in Kengtung.
“We don’t know which location will be the final venue,” he said. “The Northern Alliance groups haven’t responded yet with their preferred location. We are still negotiating that. I think it will end well.”
Kengtung is in military-controlled territory, while Panghsang is in an area controlled by the Wa ethnic army, Myanmar’s largest non-state military and an ally of the Northern Alliance, said AA spokesman Khine Thukha.
“So it is better for our security [to meet in Panghsang] as this will allow us greater freedom in the negotiations,” he said. “Besides, the military delegates were not present at the last meeting in Kengtung, and this made the discussions challenging.”
‘They should attend’
The ethnic armed groups said it is necessary for Myanmar military delegates to attend the next meeting because they want to discuss the deployment of soldiers in the regions in which they operate — northern Shan, Kachin, and Rakhine states.
But Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun could not say if army delegates would participate.
“I can’t confirm that the military delegates will be present at the meeting,” he said. “They should attend.”
The TNLA, MNDAA, and AA have been engaged in fierce clashes with Myanmar forces since Aug. 15, when they launched coordinated attacks on five locations in northern Shan state and Mandalay region, killing 15 Myanmar soldiers, policemen, and civilians.
The three ethnic armies said they conducted the armed assaults in retaliation for offensives by Myanmar soldiers against them in areas under their control.
The KIA, which has not engaged in skirmishes with Myanmar forces since December when the military's unilateral truce came into effect, was not involved in the mid-August attacks or the clashes that followed.
None of the four Northern Alliance groups have signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), a prerequisite for participating in the series of peace talks known as the 21st-Century Panglong Conference or Union Peace Conference.
Peace conference to continue
On Tuesday, the government’s peace negotiation team and representatives from 10 ethnic armed groups that have signed the NCA agreed to meet in early 2020 for the fourth round of negotiations, NRPC member Hla Maung Shwe said.
Myanmar’s civilian-led government under State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has made the peace process one of its top goals by holding periodic negotiations among the ethnic armies, political groups, and the national military to try to end decades of armed conflict that have prevented the formation of a democratic federal union.
The government intended to hold the talks every six months after coming to power in April 2016, but the process has teetered because of the ethnic armies’ opposition to military demands that they lay down their arms and form a single army, and not secede from the federal union that Myanmar seeks to create once peace is established.
The next meeting is intended to remove such roadblocks in the peace process, Hla Maung Shwe said.
“The ethnic armed groups said they will stick to the route defined in the NCA,” he said. “We also intend to work within the framework defined in the NCA. During the meeting, we discussed how it will be implemented.”
Besides members of two working groups comprising representatives from the 10 NCA signatories, a delegate from the Myanmar military and one from parliament participated in the meeting.
“The result of this meeting is an agreement to hold [the next session of] the 21st-Century Panglong Conference,” said Khun Myint Tun, chairman of the Pa-O National Liberation Army, an NCA signatory. “It is necessary for both sides.”
The ethnic armed groups want an assurance that the peace conference will be continued by successive governments to work towards the creation of a federated union, while the current government wants to secure the principles of federalism during its tenure, he said.
“We want the peace talks to continue before and after the 2020 [general] election,” he said. “This should be confirmed at the 21st-Century Panglong Conference.”
Leaders from the ethnic armies, Myanmar military, and government will meet in October to set out a policy on continuing the peace process, Hla Maung Shwe said.
Decapitated bodies found
While plans to hold the next peace conference were being hammered out, the bodies of two civilians believed to be the latest victims of the ongoing hostilities between the AA and government forces in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, were found Tuesday in Myebon township, a local lawmaker and township official said.
Mya Than, a lawmaker from Myebon township who is deputy speaker of the Rakhine state parliament, said the bodies of two decapitated men were found along a road to a local market in Myebon’s Kanhtaunggyi ward.
“We don’t know who killed them yet,” he said. “The police cannot confirm it yet.”
Both men were around 40 years old, though one lived in Kanhtaunggyi and the other lived in Ann township, Mya Than said.
“The one from Kanhtaunggyi doesn’t have any family members,” he said. “We don’t know anything about the one from Ann township.”
Photos of the men’s corpses have circulated on social media, he added.
A police sergeant from Kanhtaunggyi Police Station identified the men as Nyi Nyi Htwe, an ethnic Rakhine resident of Kanhtaunggyi’s southern ward, and Maung Laung of Thaekanhtaung Village in Ann township, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Myebon township administrator Zarni Kyaw said the bodies were sent to a hospital mortuary in Kanhtaunggyi for autopsies, though officials still do not know details about the men’s deaths.
“We found the bodies at the four-road junction of Kanhtaunggyi ward last night,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The local ward administrators reported to us about two decapitated bodies. We sent the bodies to the mortuary for autopsies.”
Meanwhile, a 39-year-old ethnic Chin man was killed in his home in Maelatmaung village in Ann Township around midnight, local sources said. No details about the murder have been released.
The Myanmar military blamed the three deaths on AA soldiers, though the Arakan force denied the accusation.
“The decapitated bodies were lying [on the ground], and their heads with their ears cut off were laid on them,” said Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun.
“According to the local residents, the AA is responsible for the killings,” he said. “The police have opened a case and are conducting an investigation.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the accusation was baseless.
“This is a groundless accusation against us,” he said. “We have never done something like that. Only the Myanmar military has committed brutalities such as beheadings or disembowelments. We have several records of that.”
RFA could not independently confirm the killings of the three men.
Both the Myanmar military and AA have detained civilians during the fighting in Rakhine state which flared up late last year as Arakan soldiers continued their push for greater autonomy in the state. Dozens of civilians have been killed or injured in the conflict, several of whom have been accused of colluding with the AA.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Tin Aung Khine, and Kyaw Htun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.