Concerned Burma watchers and people involved in the country’s peace process eyes are trained on the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) two-phase meeting, one explicitly for the UNFC members and the other, that was programmed to host other Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) that are operating within the country, ethnic political parties and civil society groups.
It is not that the UNFC is seen as a crucial prime mover that it used to be, but whether it would be able to survive the wave of resignation that has inevitably weaken its bargaining stance as an umbrella ethnic group. And besides, of course, on how the organization would fair politically in the aftermath of its remoulding and reshuffling the setup.
This formidable ethnic umbrella organization was officially formed from the 12 remnants EAOs of the Committee for the Emergence of a Federal Union (CEFU) on 16 February 2011, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is also its first official gathering but the first UNFC Congress was only able to be convened, in October from 20 to 22, 2014 at a certain place on the Thai Burma border. The recently held meeting from 20 to 29 June, in Chaing Mai, was the Second UNFC Congress. They included: Kachin Independent Organization/Kachin Independent Army (KIO/KIA), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), Arakan National Council/Arakan Army (ANC/AA), Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), Wa National Organisation (WNO), Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Chin National Front (CNF), Karen National Union (KNU), and Pa-O National Organization (PNO).
The organization’s objectives were and still are to build a genuine ethnic unity, lasting peace in the country, establishment of a genuine multi-party system, and to build a peaceful federal union that all could live together.
However, in 2014, the KNU even before the signing of Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015, suspended itself from the UNFC, due to the disagreement over the management of the organization and rivalry on leadership position with the KIO. A year later, in October 2015, two other members – PNLO and the CNF – were suspended from the council after signing the government’s NCA, which other members had rejected because it was argued not to be all-inclusive of all the armed groups. The MNDAA and the TNLA resignations from the bloc followed in 2016, as the UNFC wasn’t able to give a helping hand in their resistance of the government’s forces military onslaught. The KIO and the WNO followed suit with the resignation in 2017; the former out of necessity to join the EAOs for its survival in the face of the Burma Army or Tatmadaw’s heavy offensives and the latter to join the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
Presently, the UNFC’s member counts have dwindled from original 12 to only 5 members, which includes ANC, KNPP, LDU, NMSP and SSPP.
UNFC 2nd Conference
The second UNFC conference kicked off during the last two weeks of June. According to the UNFC’s eight-point statement of June 29, the first part of the conference held from June 20 to 26 was attended by 62 participants, which covered the second term period of August 2014 to June 2017. During the gathering, the reading out of various foreign, domestic reports, analysing and endorsing them; election of new leadership; resignation of some members and as well, acceptance of new membership issues were discussed and decided.
While the acceptance of the new membership would be decided in the course of time by the UNFC appointed committee for this sole purpose, the resignation of the members were duly approved, without problem. Of all the resigned EAOs, KIO’s case was highly emotional, as it was the bulwark for the UNFC, in terms of military might and as well, a generous financial backers of the council.
General N’Ban La explained by saying: “Also due to regional situation, the government-Tatmadaw’s pressure under selective administrative condition, we, the northern groups, were pushed to become united. That is why we have to resign from the UNFC.”
Accordingly, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the Chin National Front (CNF), Kachin National Organization (KNO), Kuki National Organization (KNO), and Zomi Revolutionary Organization (ZRO) have asked to join the UNFC’s ranks.
The election of UNFC for the third term was undertaken, where 24 council members were elected, which includes 9 central committee members. The council line-up includes: Nai Han Thar from the NMSP, who was elected as the chairman of the council, Dr. Khin Maung from the ANC as vice-chairman, Khu Oo Reh from the KNPP as general secretary, Hsur Onn from the SSPP as joint-general secretary-1 and Solomon from the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) as joint-general secretary-2.
The second part of the conference took place from June 27 to 29, which included friendly EAOs, political parties and civilian-based organizations or civil societies, observers, including technical consultative teams of one hundred and three altogether.
The second part gathering undertook to analyse and discuss issues that were taken into account at Mai Ja Yang, ethnic leadership conference in July 2016. They were Panglong principle guidelines or Panglong Manual; basic federal principles; position on defence and security; Framework for Political Dialogue (FPD); National-level Political Dialogue (NPD) – actually it should be termed sub-national-level (remark by this writer); and the outcomes of Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong (UPC–21CP). However, it is not clear whether common agreement were reached among the attendees.
Most of the statement dwell on the shortcomings of the UPC–21CP, on which different levels of implementation were not appropriately followed and in some cases even breached the NCA’s FPD guidelines.
The statement paragraph four pointed out that the NCA implementation highest body, the Joint Implementation Committee Meeting (JICM) and the two directly under it, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) and Ceasefire Joint Monitoring Committee-Union (JMC-U), the former responsible for UPC-21CP and the latter for monitoring nationwide ceasefire arrangement, were all very weak at every stage in implementing the NCA and not doing their duties as prescribed.
JICM is made up of two groups with 8 members each. One is the government, parliament and military combined and the other the signatory EAOs.
The JMC-U is made up of three groups. The two groups with 10 members each are the government, parliament and military combined and the other, the signatory EAOs. In addition, 3 civilian representatives each chosen by the military and the signatory EAOs, making 6 altogether also are included.
The UPDJC is made up of three groups, each with 16 members. The three groups are the government, parliament and military combined, the signatory EAOs, and political parties. It is the highest organ in directing the country’s political dialogue, including the convening of UPC-21CP.
The UNFC statement paragraph five stated the government’s inability to conduct sub-national-level political dialogues; not given enough time to hold sectoral – political, security, economy, land and natural resources, and social issues – discussions; unclear job description of the UPDJC; inadequate arrangement in holding the UPC–21CP; the outcome of conference results (Pyidaungsu or Union Accord) didn’t cover the opinion of all the conference participants; no equality in all levels of groups’ discussions; and unable to conclude the FPD.
The paragraph six said that the KNU and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), both the NCA signatories, criticism on the last UPC–21CP as being on the same wave length with the second part UNFC conference participants’ opinion.
Its closing two paragraphs recommendations said that in order to overcome the said weak points and achieve long-lasting and genuine peace with the termination of conflicts, negotiation is the only way out; and that all-inclusiveness participation of all groups; re-examining and amending of the FPD; to first attain acceptable condition that all could agree with before signing the Union Accord have to be carried out.
It also vowed to strive for democracy, national (ethnic) equality, and rights of self-determination in order to build the federal union and peaceful atmosphere together with the EAOs, ethnic political parties and civil societies.
Apart from UNFC, United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), Women League of Burma (WLB) and Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement-Signed EAOs (NCA-S EAOs) were present at the UNFC held conference.
The question of whether the UNFC would disintegrate and fade away like its predecessor organizations the National Democratic Front (NDF) and Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) or continue to survive now seems to be answered, if its latest statement is to be taken as an indication or clue.
It might have endured the great loss of having to let go its giant bulwark member, the KIO that has led to the weakening of its military capabilities and of course, financial prowess also. But in terms of political outreach and ethnic solidarity, it has really put on some plus points, as ethnic political umbrella groups like UNA and NBF were active participants, together with ethnic civil society organizations, including even like the CNF and ABSDF which are NCA signatory EAOs.
Thus, it could be said that the feeble UNFC is now able to revamp its image and position to be a political platform for most ethnic nationality groups striving for equality and rights of self-determination.
Again, the signatory 8 EAOs, the UNFC, and the 7 EAOs Pangkham alliance or Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC) now seem to see themselves not as separate groups with different interest, but struggling for the same political aim or aspirations. And as such, they now see each other not as enemies but organizations united in their political will, aspirations and conviction, a proposition stand point made by the departing, UNFC former chairman General N’Ban La.
From the government point of view it could well be that it is angling to cash in some benefit in the form of wooing some UNFC members into its fold by forcing them sign the NCA, as it calculated the weakened UNFC would easily give in to the pressure or out of worries that they could be left hanging without solid political base. This assessment have shown to be premature as the government hasn’t win over any new group signing the NCA, since the NLD came to power more than a year ago.
For the short term, the government’s sincerity would be tested when the UNFC and government meet during this month, where negotiation on UNFC’s nine-point amendment proposal of the NCA would take place. If the government sticks to its short term gains, the give-and-take accommodation would be hard to come by and the stalemate with the UNFC would continue.
While it is understandable that now the government would need more to talk to the Panghsang alliance given that it possesses eighty percent of the whole ethnic fighting force, including the pressure to iron out the differences by China to both parties, treating the UNFC as a low-hanging fruit that could be picked anytime it wanted would be a disaster, as it would be a litmus test for the government’s sincerity and political willingness to really go for equitable political power-sharing, embedded in a genuine federal union system of governance.
But for the longer term, the success or failure of the peace talks would depend on whether the UNFC’s recommendations that echoed all the EAOs, political parties and civil society organizations are heeded. And for the immediate jump-start of peace negotiation that hasn’t moved an inch forward for sometimes would depend on whether the government is ready to accommodate the Panghsang alliance desire of meeting all its members as a group and not separately as has been demanded, as the first step.
The ball is now actually in the government-Tatmadaw’s court, so to speak.