What Does COVID-19 Mean for Myanmar’s Peace Process?

By The Irrawaddy 2 May 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, the panel will participate in discussions from home via videoconferencing like we did on last week’s program. We’ll discuss the prospects for peace in Myanmar amid the COVID-19 pandemic and whether mutual understanding can be built between ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) themselves and between EAOs and the Tatmadaw [the Myanmar military]. Member of the Central Executive Committee of the Karen National Union (KNU) Padoh Mahn Nyein Maung has joined me from his home in Su Taung Pyae Village of [Ayeyarwady Region’s] Pantanaw Township. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

Good morning, Sayar. Thank you for participating in The Irrawaddy’s Dateline program.

Padoh Mahn Nyein Maung: Thank you. Happy New Year!

YN: The President’s Office issued a statement on Tuesday, forming a coordinating committee to work with EAOs to contain the spread of COVID-19 in ethnic areas. Clashes between the Tatmadaw and EAOs have decreased in most of the conflict zones except in Rakhine State. There has been no fighting in the Palaung area [in Shan State, also known as the Ta’ang people] where fierce clashes took place recently and the fight against COVID-19 is taking priority. The government has adopted a “no one left behind” policy to fight COVID-19 everywhere in its territory, aiming to tackle the pandemic together with the EAOs.

My understanding is that the government has formed the coordinating committee to implement that policy. There are previous examples that show an understanding could be built during crisis and peace could be achieved after the crisis is over. In a recent example, the legacy of the tsunami brought peace between the Indonesian military and rebels in Aceh in 2004. Do you expect the cooperation in the fight against COVID-19 will boost the prospects for peace in Myanmar?

PMNM: Yes, I hope so. As we are distant from each other [in ideological foundations] and particularly as the peace process has been slow, I hope things will improve if [the Tatmadaw] cooperates based on mutual understanding with the EAOs in the COVID-19 response and there are more frequent communications.

YN: The coordinating committee led by Dr. Tin Myo Win [physician of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and vice-chairman of the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC)] is tasked with handling migrants who return to Myanmar across the border, sharing information on containment of the coronavirus and providing technical assistance. Recently, over 3,000 people who returned from China were placed under quarantine in Mongla in eastern Shan State. The Union government has supplied rice and oil to feed them. Can these moves be interpreted as positive steps? What else do you think can be done?

PMNM: The forming of the coordinating committee is a move that we should welcome. This is a very good move. As we have regular contact with those leaders [regarding the peace process] and we know each other well, I believe the cooperation will be successful. It would be better if the Union government could provide material support on a wide scale for ethnic areas like it did for Mongla.

YN: Could you explain the policies and actions of the KNU in the areas it controls regarding the fight against COVID-19?

PMNM: As it is a disease that is harmful to the entire people of the nation and the country as a whole, it will not spare any ethnicity or any area. This must be understood and borne in mind. The KNU therefore is taking preventive measures against COVID-19 in its respective districts. Not only the KNU, but also the border guard force, the DKBA [Democratic Karen Benevolent Army] and the PC [KNU/KNLA Peace Council] are working in cooperation with the [Karen] state government. There has been success to a certain extent. The state government also has sent a letter of acknowledgement to us for our cooperation. We assume that there has been some progress and success in Karen State [in the fight against COVID-19].

YN: As the KNU is working together with other Karen ethnic armed organizations in Karen State, there is a large population of Karen people in Ayeyarwady Region where you live. What is your assessment of the Ayeyarwady regional government’s actions against COVID-19 and have you seen Karen people showing awareness and participating in the COVID-9 response?

PMNM: Yes, I have seen and I am satisfied with their actions. Particularly, young Karen people have formed [community-based] teams to prevent the spread of the virus, helping with temperature screenings of passers-by and cooperating with township authorities. I am very satisfied with it. Also in large villages, they also carry out checks on people who enter or leave the village, and locals have been seeking the approval of relevant village authorities to travel from one place to another. It is fair to say that there is a fair degree of discipline. I am satisfied with that. I have seen that young Karen people are cooperating with authorities with awareness in every township and area [in Ayeyarwady Region].

YN: Didn’t the National Peace and Reconciliation Center provide necessities and medicines to other areas like it did to Mongla? The government has said it would provide technical assistance and exchange information [with EAOs]. But was the government already cooperating with the KNU in its areas before the coordinating committee was formed on Tuesday?

PMNM: Yes, there had already been cooperation before the coordinating committee was formed. U Zaw Htay of the NRPC provided relief supplies to us and our KNU health department is distributing the supplies to different places.

As I’ve said, COVID-19 is a disease that is harmful to the entire country and a disease for national concern. I honestly believe it is a must for all the people in the nation, organizations and leaders in this country to cooperate. As the government has formed the coordinating committee, I’d like to suggest practical actions be taken swiftly.

YN: This question is not directly related to the KNU, but I’d like to know your suggestions. Rakhine State is left out as the government has adopted a “no one left behind” policy. Everyone agrees that there is a need to stop the fighting in Rakhine in order to contain the coronavirus. As a CEC member of the KNU, what are your suggestions as to how to stop the fighting in Rakhine?

PMNM: The conflict in Rakhine State concerns the issue of national identity. We Karen people went through the same experiences for more than 70 years. The final result we got was that the entire [Karen] people were damaged. We didn’t achieve a good result. Regarding the ethnic rights that ethnic groups are fighting for today, we Karen people have fought for them on the battlefield for more than 60 years, but we didn’t achieve good results.

To achieve good results, given the current situation in Myanmar, we must engage in negotiations around a table. The views will not be the same because our country has just struggled its way out of over 60 years of internal conflicts. There are many difficulties for a society, a country that has just struggled out of conflicts.

I’d like to suggest [the two sides in Rakhine] acknowledge this reality and meet face-to-face around a table. I make this suggestion based on the experiences of our Karen people. As conflicts have de-escalated a little in the Rakhine battlefield, I’d like to suggest leaders from the AA and the Tatmadaw meet face-to-face, then there will be a solution. According to the example in Kachin State, under the previous government, whenever fighting took place, representatives of the Tatmadaw, the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] and the Kachin people met. Whenever there was a fighting, they met and tried to prevent the conflict from growing bigger. Based on this experience, I think there will be a good outcome if representatives of the Tatmadaw and the AA could meet at this point in time. If the two sides could hold a preliminary meeting on the rights and wishes of the Rakhine people, there would be improvements, I hope.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

PMNM: Thanks a lot for being able to speak to me in my hometown.

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