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The dwindling alliance of ethnic armed groups joined under the banner of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) convened a conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Tuesday chaired by a leader of one of its former members, the influential Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
N’Ban La, a senior KIA official and outgoing chairman of the conference, delivered an opening speech in which he explained the reasons behind the decision by the ethnic armed group he represents to withdraw from the council.
“The KIA had consistently endeavoured to establish the UNFC. We submitted the letter of resignation for many reasons. Kachin people and members of the Kachin Independence Organisation are all saddened about resigning from the UNFC,” he said, referring to the KIA’s political wing. “However, due to the current situation of the region, the government’s and the Tatmadaw’s pressure, and discriminatory administration practices, we needed to be united with the northern allies. That is the reason why the KIA withdrew its membership from the UNFC.”
The “northern allies” refers to a group of seven ethnic armed organisations that in recent months formed a coalition spearheaded by the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Earlier this year, the powerful group brought several other non-signatories to the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) to its headquarters in Panghsang, Shan State, where the latest permutation of Burma’s ever-evolving peace process was born.
“The KIA allied with the Panghsang groups in order for inclusivity in the peace process,” N’Ban La added on Tuesday.
“Regardless of many difficulties, I went to Panghsang, in the Wa-controlled region, more than 10 times to persuade the Panghsang allies to join the UNFC. However, the Wa-led group could not be a member of the UNFC for many reasons. The policy of the KIA is all-inclusivity in the peace process. So, it is impossible to achieve national peace without the participation of the Panghsang allies.”
N’Ban La continued, “There are many other circumstances that made the [Panghsang] alliance happen. There are things that can’t be said here at this conference. I request that the leaders from their respective organisations attending the [UNFC] conference understand.”
The KIA is one of a handful of ethnic armed groups engaged in active conflict with the Burma Army, also known as the Tatmadaw, in the country’s north.
Although the senior KIA official was in attendance on Tuesday, there were no representatives from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) or the Wa National Organization (WNO). All of the groups are former UNFC members — the WNO and the KIA were the latest two to leave the alliance, doing so in early May.
With those departures, the UNFC now consists of just five members: the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) and the Arakan National Council (ANC).
Established in 2011, the UNFC originally consisted of 11 members, but developments in Burma’s peace process in the years since have fractured that coalition — most notably the NCA, which some UNFC groups signed in October 2015 while others abstained. The UNFC leadership cut ties with the Chin National Front (CNF) and the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) about a month after the two groups signed that accord, while the Karen National Union, arguably the NCA’s dominant ethnic armed group, withdrew voluntarily in 2014.
Interestingly, the UNFC decided not to send a delegation to last month’s second iteration of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, a high-level peace dialogue bringing hundreds of stakeholders together in the capital Naypyidaw, while several of the “northern allies” did send representation, including N’Ban La.
This month’s UNFC conference in Chiang Mai is slated to run from 20-29 June, with members of the alliance reportedly expected to elect new leadership and consider requests to accede to the grouping from other ethnic organisations.