YANGON — The head of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic rebel group has warned that fighting in the country’s restive borderlands has reached a critical point, threatening to derail the government’s wobbling push for peace.
Bao Youxiang, chairman of the United Wa State Army, told dozens of armed ethnic leaders they must forge a “new path to peace” as the government’s efforts to expand the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement beyond its current signatories have faltered, according to a leaked version of a speech seen by AFP.
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been pushing to expand the NCA since her party took power a year ago in a bid to end the decades-long conflicts rumbling across the country’s borderlands.
But clashes between the army and the Kachin Independence Army have intensified since, displacing an estimated 20,000 people and threatening the second round of the 21st Century Panglong peace conference slated for next month.
“The ethnic fighting happening today is heavier than ever,” Bao told ethnic leaders gathered in Pangkham, the de facto capital of the UWSA’s territories, on Wednesday, according to the transcript.
“War in northern Kachin State and northern Shan State along the Myanmar-China border is getting worse day by day. The NCA being discussed between some ethnic organisations and Myanmar’s government has brought no solution.
“The many conflicts along Myanmar’s road to peace … mean the dawn can’t be seen.”
The United Wa State Army is the most powerful of the country’s ethnic rebel factions, with an estimated 25,000 heavily armed troops and strong ties to China.
Its delegates stormed out of the first 21st Century Panglong conference last August over a spat about their accreditation.
The group is also accused of producing and trafficking huge amounts of methamphetamine and heroin from their own mini-state on the Chinese border, and buying weapons with the proceeds.
Around 40 delegates from eight ethnic rebel armies gathered in Panghsang this week ahead of Suu Kyi’s next round of peace talks, which were delayed until next month after one group threatened to boycott.
Among the attendees of the USWA-led meeting were members of the Northern Alliance, a collection of four ethnic armed groups that has been locked in bitter conflict with the army since November.
The UN’s rights envoy Yanghee Lee warned last month that the humanitarian situation in Kachin state — a focal point of recent fighting — was “now worse than at any point in the past few years”.