LAIZA, Kachin State — Though Naypyidaw has made significant progress in recent years’ peace talks with Burma’s numerous ethnic rebel groups, clashes between government troops and Kachin fighters continue, stymieing efforts to bring an end to the country’s long-running civil war.
As both sides gear up for negotiations this month aimed at reaching a nationwide ceasefire agreement, The Irrawaddy sat down with La Nan, spokesman and joint secretary of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), at the rebels’ stronghold in Laiza, a town on the Sino-Burmese border. Speaking from the KIO office—a building that once operated as a casino—La Nan talks about the ongoing fighting between the KIO’s armed wing (the Kachin Independence Army) and the Burmese military, as well as discusses peace process prospects and China’s role in Burma’s national reconciliation.
Question: What is the current situation regarding armed hostilities between the KIA and the Burmese army?
Answer: We can say that the battles are now fewer. Whenever we talk with the Union Peace Working Committee, we discuss ways to reduce the number of battles occurring, but we can’t yet say completely that there is no fighting anymore.
The type of battles occurring has changed. Instead of direct offensives like before, it has become surprise attacks against our posts. They [the Burmese military] occupy some places for a week or two and then step back. They make as though it is not a war about occupying territories.
Q: What is the KIO’s view of the current peace talks between ethnic armed groups and the central government?
A: What we have always pushed for is a political dialogue, together with all ethnic armed groups. That’s why we have held two ethnic armed groups conferences at Laiza and Law Khee Lar, the KNU [Karen National Union] headquarters.
What we discussed in Law Khee Lar was drafting the text of a nationwide ceasefire agreement to be discussed with the Union Peacemaking Working Committee. But what we heard back was that the Ministry of Defense disagreed with what [President’s Office Minister] Aung Min was doing. We have already given the draft to them and they brought it to Naypyidaw. When they discussed it, we heard that the army was quite pessimistic about it.
They take issue with the fact that they are ‘being asked to accept a plan drawn up by revolutionary groups.’ They say, ‘Shouldn’t the Union Peacemaking Working Committee draft the plan and negotiate with the ethnic armed groups from there?’
They also say that once a ceasefire agreement is signed, all groups are effectively agreeing to accept the 2008 Constitution, meaning all political discussions would proceed in accordance with what is said in the Constitution. We have heard that the army is of this view.
In March, Aung Min and ethnic groups will meet again, but there is not much hope because the current peace process is not adequate. As we have always said, we are urging a political dialogue led by the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups].
Q: When will the KIO sign a ceasefire? Will it be only underthe terms of the draft agreement submitted to the government?
A: We are asking for political dialogue. When political problems are solved, there will be no more battles. The ceasefire will happen then, not because a piece of paper has been signed.
We have seen the signing of many ceasefire agreements before. Nothing came into force. They let us open a liaison office, that’s it. No political discussion. What we believe is that when the political problems are solved, the ceasefire will happen.
Before a nationwide ceasefire agreement is made, we need a framework that will guide us in how we are going to arrive at political discussions after the ceasefire agreement—how long after. It’s like a roadmap. If both sides can agree on that political framework, we will sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Q: What is your opinion of Burmese army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s involvement in the peace talks?
A: We are not dictating who we will or will not talk to. We have our representatives, the government has its representatives. What we understand is that the government’s group is being led by Aung Min and a state-level committee assigned by President Thein Sein. Their words represent the state’s. If they want to include the commander-in-chief, that’s fine. Whoever is involved, we are ready to talk with them.
Q: What do you think of President Thein Sein’s push to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement this year?
A: We haven’t seen the will to solve the political problems. We haven’t seen the government’s true intentions vis-à-vis ethnic armed groups. They used to talk about this in their speeches, but there has been no practical implementation up until now. Dry season military offensives continue, and there will be more battles in 2014 if the KIO does not show restraint.
The year 2012 has passed. They were saying that the ceasefire could be done by that time. When Thein Sein began his term as president, he said that in a speech, and also a number of times in 2013. He will continue to say it. But the signing is on a piece of paper of no value. If the signing happens, the government will reap more benefits internationally. But in our ethnic areas, nothing will have changed. To make it a real ceasefire, they should reduce their military operations.
Q: What is China’s role in the peace process?
A: They put a lot of pressure on us. When there are severe battles, they put pressure on us in Laiza to come to a ceasefire quickly. They don’t understand that the battles happening are part of a political and civil war. They think in terms of stability on China’s border. They can trade when the situation is stable. I think they see the battles in terms of business. When the fighting is fierce, instead of telling the government to stop, they tell us to sign a ceasefire. So, we can say China’s government is in some way involved in the peace process. Whenever we say there should be international witnesses to our discussions, they send their Asian affairs officer.
But as their general foreign policy, they do not meddle in other countries’ affairs. Their only intention is to prevent battles on China’s borders. They do not seem to have any deep concern about whether the problems get solved or not. We accept China because we have to deal with them, but due to pressures by the Chinese government, we have suffered more. They talk and pressure to us to do what the Burmese government wants, but they do not intervene to solve the ethnic armed groups’ grievances. They just want a ceasefire agreement signed quickly.
Q: How long do you think this peace process will take?
A: If the form of the ruling government changes, this problem will be solved quickly. But it will not happen with this government representation, the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP].
We don’t know how long it will take. It might get worse than the current situation. If the situation reaches a point that ethnic armed groups cannot tolerate, civil war could flare up again. The civil war is not over yet, so we cannot guess how long it will take.