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.