Bertil Lintner: ‘They Don’t Just Want a Ceasefire, They Want to Talk About the Future of the Country’

The Irrawaddy's founding editor Aung Zaw speaks with journalist and author Bertil Lintner, August 2015. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

The Irrawaddy’s founding editor Aung Zaw speaks with journalist and author Bertil Lintner, August 2015. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Swedish-born journalist and author Bertil Lintner has written countless articles and several books on Burma during a distinguished decades-long career. He is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and currently contributes to various new outlets, including The Irrawaddy. In this excerpt of an interview with The Irrawaddy’s founding editor Aung Zaw, Lintner discusses the prospects for peace in the conflict-wracked country, the role of foreign interests and intermediaries, and the issue of federalism.  The full interview can be found here.

The next round of talks on the nationwide ceasefire agreement have been set for September 9. It seems it may be signed soon. It has been a long process even to get this far. Can you share your opinion?

Well, commentators sometimes refer to this as a peace process, but that’s a misnomer. They’re not talking about peace. They’re talking about the technicalities of the ceasefire agreement. And normally, a ceasefire can just be announced. They stop shooting at each other, they sit down, they talk, you reach a consensus, you sign an agreement on political issues. Here, they’re putting the cart before the horse, and they want to talk about an agreement before they’ve even discussed any political issues. That’s not going to work.

So even the starting point is wrong?

Yes, the whole concept is wrong. Let’s say that they sign this thing. Is it really going to lead to even a ceasefire? The crucial point here is that they expect details for how that ceasefire should be implemented and monitored on the ground to be discussed after they sign the agreement, not before. So this is just going to lead to more conflict. I cannot possibly see how this will lead to lasting peace.

You said that this is going to lead to more conflict. What do you see happening after signing the NCA? Some fear that it will be the same as before, and some expect that more fighting will break out in the north.

There could be more fighting in northern parts of the country. There could also be severe problems between those who sign the ceasefire agreement in a certain ethnic group and those who are opposed to it. Look at the KNU [Karen National Union], for instance, where some of the leaders would like to sign this agreement and others in the group are against it. So you’re going to have splits and infighting, as well as conflicts between the government and the ethnic groups.
People are talking about the ceasefire being inclusive, but that seems doubtful.

They call it a nationwide ceasefire agreement, but it doesn’t cover the whole nation. For instance, you have groups in Shan State that are excluded from the whole process. But let’s say that they sign this agreement. It just means,

OK, leave us alone for another 10-20 years, we can manage ourselves. That’s nonsense. We have to remember that this whole idea of a ceasefire is nothing new. In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the government entered into ceasefire deals with about 20 armed resistance groups. Now that the whole idea has been revived, the only thing that’s different is that they want everyone to sign this agreement—once again—and you get a whole machinery of foreign peacemakers getting involved in this whole process. I call it the peace industrial complex.

Before going into that area, it’s quite intriguing to see that President Thein Sein, a former general, is very eager to sign this ceasefire agreement before the election. To me, it’s more like a ceremonial thing, but there are also foreign embassies and Western governments and donors who are very much excited and optimistic—including those peacemakers. Why is that?

One can expect that the government would like to finish this before the election so that it can leave behind a legacy of establishing peace in the country. But also, I think that they believe that if they can get a ceasefire agreement before the election, it would strengthen their chances of doing quite well in the election. They think that they will get a lot of support from the general public…

There’s also the foreign diplomatic community [that are] putting immense pressure on the various ethnic armed organizations to sign this agreement, and I think that it’s totally shameful. First of all, they shouldn’t interfere in this process; it’s not their business. And moreover, I don’t think they understand the complexities on the ground.

What about the UN, Norway and other donor countries? It seems like they’re siding with the government and the Myanmar Peace Center.

Yes, they are. And as you know, the European Union, of which Norway is not a member, is the main financial backer for the Myanmar Peace Center. And what have they achieved? Nothing.

I [would] single out Norway because it’s not the first time that Norway has gotten involved in an ethnic conflict in Asia. They were involved in the absolutely disastrous process in Sri Lanka, which ended in a blood bath. And I was actually told by two friends from Oslo that when Norwegian tourists go to Sri Lanka these days, they can’t say that they’re from Norway because they’ll probably end up with a punch in the face. So they’ll actually say that they’re from Sweden. Norway’s name is that bad in Sri Lanka, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the same thing in Myanmar within a couple of years.

Why has Norway been so eagerly involved in this peace process? Is it tied to business interests?

It’s business interests. Norwegian oil companies want to go in there and invest and so on. But it’s also kind of the legacy of the Nobel Peace Prize. Norway believes it’s the peacemaker of the world, that it can go anywhere and solve problems. But so far, to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t managed to solve a single conflict anywhere in the world.

The US and China also have a big stake in this peace process. If you look at the ethnic conferences that have been held over the past few years, the ambassadors of both countries have attended and talked to both sides.

Well, this is the first time we have the whole international community getting involved in the peace process in Burma… The most interesting partner in this whole process is actually China, and they’re actually outsmarting everybody else. They know what they want, and they’re playing many different games at the same time. They’re not just taking a moral high ground like Norway or doing nothing like the United Nations. On the one hand, they’re encouraging the peace talks… and at the same time, what about the Wa? They’re armed to the teeth with weapons from China, and this is not the type of stuff that just falls off the back of a truck.

It seems to suggest that China will play a bigger role because, on the other hand, China wants stability along the border area.

Of course, they want stability but they don’t want to see Myanmar drift into the Western camp and become an ally of the United States. And if you look at it from a much broader perspective, this might be one reason why China is playing this double game with the carrot and the stick. But we shouldn’t forget, either, America’s interests in Myanmar. Are we to believe that democracy and human rights are the most important guiding principles for America’s foreign policy? Well, I can’t say I believe that. I think here the China card is a bit more important. The fact that President Thein Sein managed to move away from China and open the door to the Americans really got Washington on board. And that’s why America is so careful: They don’t want to criticize the government, no matter what the government does, because they think that then they will push Myanmar back into China’s embrace.

You believe that these peacemakers have no idea of the complexities on the ground?

They’re completely clueless. Which is sad because it just makes the situation messier and much more difficult to tackle. If the foreign community wanted to make a contribution to peace in Myanmar, it should not be sending these people who are talking about things they have no understanding about. The weakness of this whole process is not only on the part of the government; it’s also on the part of the ethnic groups. They say that they want to have a federal system—you ask them, what kind of a federal system, and they say, a genuine federal system, but that’s not really an answer. If the foreign community could make any contribution to peace and prosperity in Myanmar, it’d be to sit down with these ethnic groups and work out the parameters for a federal system which would be suitable to the specific conditions in Myanmar.

I want to go back to these peacemakers. We assume that they’re well paid and that the donors whom they receive money from have their own agenda. Can these peacemakers be neutral and impartial?

They can, but the peacemakers in Myanmar are not neutral and impartial. They’re definitely on the side of the government, and they’re also putting pressure on ethnic groups to sign an agreement which they don’t really want to sign, because they don’t just want to see a ceasefire; they want to talk about the future of the country—What kind of country should we live in? Should it be a unitary state or a federal state?

There’s also a persistent criticism that ethnic armed groups lack unity and that there are business interests involved in this conflict.

First of all, what we have to remember is that ethnic conflict in Myanmar is not just between the majority Burmans and all the other ethnic groups. It’s also between the various ethnic nationalities.

Will there ever be a genuine federal union in Burma? And what about the role of the military? It seems to be sending very mixed signals toward the demands of ethnic groups.

There was real enthusiasm when Aung Min took up the word “federalism.” But actually, one shouldn’t be too excited by that. People have been talking about federalism since it was abolished in 1962, so it’s nothing new. Still, the fact that he actually said it made the international community excited. It’s always been a taboo word in military circles. From what I’ve heard, the military was not happy when Aung Min made that slip of the tongue in discussions with ethnic armed groups. The army sees federalism as a first step toward the disintegration of the country. Why they think that, well, one has to ask them, because the unitary state obviously hasn’t worked and something else has to be tried. I can’t see any way out of the country’s problems other than some kind of structure where all ethnic groups have their rights and where their cultures and languages are respected. And that would be in some kind of federal system.


17 Responses to Bertil Lintner: ‘They Don’t Just Want a Ceasefire, They Want to Talk About the Future of the Country’

  1. Yes, I like this word, peace industrial complex. Every one try to approach the problem for their own interest, no one seen to care about thousands of refugee live in refugee camp and IDP camp. No wonder collage drop out car sale man rush to go back to Burma to fine the job at the MPC. Some time, I saw him holding the umbrella for Ethnic leader. HOW LONG FOREIGN DONOR KEEP POURING MONEY ? It that really their investment going to produce the prolong peace in Burma? I doubt it. Instead of using money to buy the peace in Burma, Foreign donor should use their money for the real suffering people. Also that is very true, we can not built the roof before we make the foundation of house.The most important is military stand point, without it, nothing going to happen. Every step of discussion and agreement must include the military.Prolong long peace and stability is our nation first priority problem to solve, we have to fine our self without external pressure. When money run out, all seasonal peacemaker go home, than both party go back to fight endless war for nothing.I think all funding for this(peace or cease fire process) are counter productive.

  2. Even myself belong to ethnic national,I barely know about many ethnic and their political issue.But I like to tell about my community in USA. Our town in Florida,their are all ethnic national, A toZ,all religion, rich and poor, educated and non educated, Former Burmese military personal and former rebels, we all live in peace and harmony. We don’t have any problem at all. Some time, I wonder why over there?. Only the true people who suffering by endless war can make the peace on earth.People, who never seen the suffering try to make the peace from Hotel is not practical approach. If all rebel, Govt,corporation, donor, pay to play peace maker stay away from self interest, we may get closer to solution.If money from donor come with expectation, later who going to full fill those expectation.? Not me! I live in U.S.

  3. Please educate the world about the political issues of Burma, Bertil. Thank you. I agree with you that most Foreigners are clueless, they do not have the slightest idea about Burma and they are leading the UNFC in following the wrong path. The cease-fire is meant only for the ethnic resistant armies to stop firing at them while the dictatorial regime army attack and destroy them. This so called process has taken so long that it has given the required time for the dictatorial regime to increase their power with more sophisticated weapons, and for them to position themselves in every corner of ethnic states. The plan is to make it easier to destroy all the resistant armies one by one.

  4. Please educate the world about the political issues of Burma, Bertil. Thank you. I agree with you that most Foreigners are clueless, they do not have the slightest idea about Burma and they are leading the UNFC in following the wrong path. The cease-fire process is meant only for the ethnic resistant armies to stop firing while the dictatorial regime army attack and destroy them. This so called process has taken so long that it has given the required time for the dictatorial regime to increase their power with more sophisticated weapons, and for them to position themselves in every corner of ethnic states. The plan is to make it easier to destroy all the resistant armies one by one.

  5. Burma. The farce continues…

  6. I suppose I am risking to become BL’s troll here. I think he is entitled to his own opinion. this is a democratic right. I would asume that may of the concerns he raises are also concerns of what he calls the peacemakers in Yangon and elsewhere. If he risked to enter a “conference room” in Yangon he would realise that many of the “peacemakers” and international consultants are actually more on his page than backers to “the government”.
    I personally find it deplorable that a brilliant journalist who has written so much about the background about what happens in the ethnic areas etc now choses to retreat into black and white thinking patterns. Yes there are issues. Yes some are mentione above. BUT:
    A) BL is not the only one on the planet with a clue. There is high awareness about Chinese and US thinking (whatever that might be) geopolitical and geoeconomic narratives. the role of China during the Cold War and after. No news.
    B) There is no such thing as a peacemaker. We are still talking about Burma/Myanmar. A country whose postcolonial consitiution disallows people to become head of state will surely not allow foreigners to become involved in the “Peace process”.
    c) speaking of which. Noone talks anout a peace process at this stage indeed. That would be the next stage. It is right. The parameters for a peaceprocess should be set. After the NCA signature peopel will scream even more because they will realise that the parametwrs for a process need to be set. that is the point when issues such as statebuilding will be contested. (which is ridiculous because there won’t be neither peace,democracy nor a retreating military without viable state insitutions.

    I really would like to see BL in a conference room in Yangon and lay out his vision how things would proceed correctly. How he would in detail structure a process. Maybe we can learn something.

    Criticism has never achieved anything

  7. One good piece of advice given to me by my elders:
    If you want it to happen, then do not just talk. Do something about it.”

  8. I repeat: Burma is a country without territorial and moral integrity.

  9. Thank Irrawaddy, your interview with talent journalist BL is very informative. Twenty five year ago, I went to Thai-Burma border to join the arm struggle. Instead of fight for enemy, day to day, we try to live in difficulty life. Some of my friend, they went and hang out with ethnic leader. They were attention all marathon meeting for how to bring the democracy to Burma. They were having good life and enjoying the Democracy Bonanza.Now, I saw all most those guy working as a peace maker. They are enjoying the Peace Bonanza. I am sad to see the land mine victims,. All suffering people by civil war are waiting for their uncertain future . I really like to see the peaceful developement but I do not believe the people who working for peace.Holding the umbrella or shinning the shoe does not mean doing the peace for people. As long as donor pay, as much as they enjoy, that is good for them. But that nothing to do with suffering people.ALL INTERNATIONAL DORNER! IT IS TIME TO RETHINK ABOUT YOUR MONEY! SOME TIME MONEY DO NOT SPEAK AT ALL?

  10. Bertil employs his unassailable common-sense weapon to devastating effect once again. The EAO alliance would have been well advised to co-opt his knowledge and expertise, as would the “Industrial Peace complex”. That they apparently haven’t speaks loudly of the ineffectiveness of their primary reason for existence. More’s the pity for people of ethnic origin in Burma.

  11. It’s fashonable word, but very funny and pity in the reality.
    Are EAGs really representative from their ethnic nationals? It’s still doubtful. Under armed clashes in their areas, local ethnic people is situated in isolation, burdened double or triple taxes from EAGs, forced soldiers, disadvantaged environment in any economic activities except for drug/illegal business and so on.

  12. From my knowledge, the republic of the Union of Myanmar Peace process will success if the United Kingdom come into exist between Burmese and Ethnic groups. UK is the one who really known how to approach the best way to tackle the issue of Myanmar. UK is the one made this country as such. So without UK intervene the peace will not be exist in Myanmar.

  13. BL is right. I would add that there is total lack of sincerity from the Myanmar Government.

  14. I don’t think they really want peace.Peace canot be obtained by signning on a paper.This paper is easily become a scraps when their intention appear by their acts.We are watching this process from last 50 years.
    They should hand -over this to the Lady.


  15. I have always very highly valued the concepts and opinions of BL because they always reflected the wishes of the underdogs or the grassroots. His opinions in this interview are also no exceptions: they are enlightening, eye-opening and thought-provoking.
    However, if I’m to be very frank and honest, I must admit that I’m getting more and more the impression that the destiny of the peoples of Burma is no more in the hands of anyone in the country – be it U Thein Sein or Sr. General Min Aung Hlaing or Daw Aung Suu Kyi or the non-Burmese ethnic nationalities. It (our common destiny) I’m afraid, is already being shaped – or will be shaped – in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Oslo, UN Headquarters, Tokyo, Peking, Singapore, Bangkok, New Dehli, Moscow, Brussel, etc. Please forgive me, my dear compatriots, if I have destroyed your illusions and false hopes with these few lines.

    Thang Za Dal (Mr)

    PS. I am a Chin national living in exile since nearly 40 years ago and the author of a 267-page paper called: Grand Strategy for Burma VII*

  16. 2016 Modern Burma( up to you to be optimistic or pessimistic) is likely to amend one or more of the following days. Please imagine your best guess!
    1.Independence Day : 4 January
    2.Union Day : 12 February
    3.Arm Forces Day :27 March
    4.Marty’s Day 19 July
    5.National Day :10th Waning Tazaungmone (in Nov-Dec)

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