Delegates from powerful armed militia storm out of Myanmar peace talks

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing leaves the stage after delivering his address during the opening of a peace conference in Naypyidaw on Aug 31, 2016.
Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing leaves the stage after delivering his address during the opening of a peace conference in Naypyidaw on Aug 31, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

NAYPYIDAW (AFP) - Delegates from one of Myanmar's most heavily armed ethnic groups stormed out of peace talks on Thursday (Sept 1), in an early blow to a landmark gathering aimed at ushering in a new era of peace.

Oon day two of the talks, four delegates from the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) walked out, officials said, reportedly after being told they could not address the gathering.

Government peace negotiator Khin Zaw Oo told reporters the UWSA had been given observer badges, instead of ones allowing them to speak, angering their delegation. But he played down their departure, saying it was a "misunderstanding" that could be solved.

"This is a misunderstanding," he said. "Our committee will go and meet them if they are here (in Naypyidaw). We will negotiate."

A spokesman for the militia told the Democratic Voice of Burma they had left after being told they were only accredited as observers, calling it discrimination.

But Mr Lian Hmung Sahkong, from the Chin National Front, another ethnic group at the talks, denied the UWSA was treated unfairly.

"We give equal rights to them and gave them a front row seat. I would like to confirm again that we did what they demanded," he said.

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been informed of the episode and “gave instructions that the peace process not be harmed because of this case”, government spokesman Zaw Htay told reporters, without elaborating.

The veteran democracy activist has devoted her first few months in power to planning the summit, where she hopes to thrash out the precepts of a federal state in exchange for peace. 

The five-day conference in the capital Naypyidaw has been hailed as the best chance in a generation for Myanmar to end wars that have raged for up to 70 years, claiming thousands of lives and keeping the country mired in poverty.

The powerful UWSA stopped fighting the government years back in exchange for control of a remote portion of territory bordering China, which is now a notorious drug manufacturing hub.

It had originally refused to make this week's talks, arguing they signed their own ceasefire with the previous military government back in 1989.

But it eventually agreed to attend following discussions last month with Ms Suu Kyi and after pressure was applied by China, which retains significant influence over the group.

Several complex ethic conflicts are rumbling across Myanmar's borderlands, hampering efforts to build the country's economy after the end of junta rule.

Many militias have grown rich from trafficking drugs, illegal gems and timber while deep seated distrust remains among ethnic minorities of the country's notorious military which ruled for decades with an iron fist.

Ms Suu Kyi wants to convene a meeting to thrash out the precepts of greater federal autonomy for ethnic groups in exchange for peace.

While they have not fought against the military for years, the USWA are accused of producing and trafficking huge amounts of methamphetamine and heroin from their secretive holdout and buying weapons with the proceeds.

During a visit by Ms Suu Kyi to Beijing earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to support Myanmar's peace process, comments that were widely perceived to be a boost for her new administration's attempts to bring the USWA into the peace process.