Myanmar will hold peace talks on May 24 aimed at ending decades-long ethnic wars that have intensified since State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi took power last April.
Negotiators for the ethnic groups want the five-day conference, which was pushed back from February due to an increase in fighting and delays in preparatory peace talks, to hammer out a federal power-sharing deal.
Suu Kyi has made peace the principal priority of her National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
But she has made little progress in the peace process since the first round of her ramshackle “21st-century Panglong conference” concluded last September.
Before the British colonial forces conquered the former kingdom in 1886, the Burman monarchy occasionally warred with the separate the Shan, Karen, Chin, Kachin and Karenni groups in the surrounding hills. The British leaders feared empowering the Burmans, who constituted a two-thirds majority of the population and appointed ethnic minorities to important colonial posts. During the Second World War, the ethnic minorities sided with the British forces (pictured) while the Burmans backed the Japanese invaders only to abandon them in 1945 when the Allied victory was guaranteed.
The ethnic minorities were expecting British wartime leader Winston Churchill to reward them with independent territories after the war but Clement Attlee won the 1945 British election. The new Labour prime minister invited the Burman leader, Aung San, to London to offer complete independence, refusing to acknowledge the minorities’ contribution to the British war effort.
Conflict has persisted ever since.
Since last September’s conference, clashes between the army and insurgents along the Chinese border have reached their worst point in decades, forcing tens of thousands to flee their villages.
Colonel Khun Okka, a rebel negotiator from the Pa-O National Liberation Organisation, said the ethnic armies wanted to see plans to establish a federation and rewrite the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.
“If we can lay out the basic agreement on a federal system, I can say it would help a lot,” said the rebel commander said.
The ruling NLD lost several seats to ethnic-minority parties in by-elections last month, suggesting Suu Kyi might struggle to retain the 80 per cent of the Parliamentary seats available that she won in the November 2015 election. Under the constitution, the military retains 25 per cent of seats and controls three of the most important ministries: home affairs, defence and border affairs.
“Ethnic people are not interested in the peace process as there has been a lot of fighting since the first meeting [in September],” said Sai One Lang Kham, a Shan Nationalities League for Democracy MP.
British forces on Scraggy Hill at Shenam during the Second World War. Picture credit: Wikimedia