Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘Internal Peace and National Reconciliation are Preconditions for Building Democratic Federalism’

By The Irrawaddy 7 January 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Happy New Year, and welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, leaders of our country including President U Htin Kyaw have extended New Year’s greetings. It is fair to say that those greetings reflect their resolutions. Our news crew members Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint and Ko Moe Myint join me to discuss the political, social, and economic outlooks for our country as reflected in their greetings. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

President U Htin Kyaw, Vice-Presidents U Myint Swe and U Henry Van Thio, senior Buddhist monks, army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, and other key leaders have extended New Year’s greetings. But I didn’t see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s greetings [in state-run newspapers].  Ma Nan Lwin, whose greetings have caught your attention?

Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint: Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. First, he made a wish about national ethnic people. And he said that there was a significant event in 2016—the election, and that the army cooperated with the government of the National League for Democracy [NLD] in its work. He also mentioned fierce clashes in November and said that those clashes in Kachin State, the northeast area of Shan State, and the northern area of Arakan State were caused by ethnic armed insurgents.

KZM: State-run newspapers Kyemon and Myanma Alinn avoided that choice of words in their publication of his greetings, right?

NLHP: Yes, Myanma Alinn and Kyemon chose to use ethnic armed groups. But Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing used the wording “ethnic armed insurgents” in his greetings posted on Facebook, and in a video aired on [military-run broadcaster] Myawaddy TV. And he said that the army would focus its efforts on peace and stability, national development and work to build a union based on democracy and federalism. He also called on citizens to cooperate. Some ethnic armed group leaders are not happy with their being labeled ethnic armed insurgents. Analysts said that this would negatively impact peace talks between the two sides.

KZM: Lower House Speaker U Win Myint, Upper House Speaker Mann Win Khaing Than and others also extended greetings. Ko Moe Myint, whose greetings do you think are particularly interesting and what political messages do they carry?

Moe Myint: The leaders talked about three points, for example in the New Year’s greetings of Lower House Speaker U Win Myint and Upper House Speaker Mann Win Khaing Than. U Win Myint talked about the NLD’s election manifesto—national reconciliation as the top priority, followed by internal peace and the establishment of a democratic federal union. And he called on citizens to join hands and work shoulder to shoulder in unity to reach these goals. What is interesting is that he also urged citizens to adopt an attitude of caring for the future of the country and to think about what they can do for the union and for future generations. Upper House Speaker Mann Win Khaing Than urged national ethnic people to give up their ego and grudges and move forward together.

KZM: He urged all citizens!

MM: Yes, all citizens.

KZM: Overall, it is a good attitude [to give up one’s ego and grudges]. But it is quite difficult for all to act on it and it seems that most of them still can’t act on it.

As you have pointed out, army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said that the army in 2017 would work for peace and the stability of the country as its top priority, national development as the second priority and the establishment of a Union built on democracy and federalism as its third priority. Their policies seem not different. But, looking at the greetings of Lower House Speaker U Win Myint and President U Htin Kyaw, U Htin Kyaw spoke about internal peace first, national reconciliation second, and democratic federalism third. And U Win Myint spoke national reconciliation first, internal peace, second and democratic federalism third. I think internal peace and national reconciliation are preconditions for building democratic federalism, which is the ultimate goal.

Speaking of national reconciliation, it should be tripartite reconciliation between the government, the army, and ethnic groups, as well as the people. Without this, a federal union can’t be built. This is the difference between the government and the army in their ideologies about country’s priorities. The military governments since 1988 have prioritized peace and the stability of the country. I found a piece of writing by artist U Win Pe published in Kyemon Daily to be really lovely. He wrote, “it is not easy to turn the current that is flowing swiftly northwards to the direction of the south. It needs to first slow down the speed of the current before turning it to the south.” By this, he means that change needs time. Generally speaking, the leaders will work based on that three-point policy.

KZM: Ma Nan Lwin and Ko Moe Myint, we faced a lot of challenges in 2016. Let’s take a look to 2017. What opportunities and challenges do you see?

KZM: Military tensions ran high from August to December in 2016. And there was an urgent problem throughout northern [Shan State] areas. Around the end of December, the peace commission met the Wa and Mongla [groups] in their respective areas. Previously, the Wa refused to meet [the government’s peace team], as they were increasing military activities [in the Mongla region]. I heard on Jan. 1 that three [of four Wa] battalions had retreated [from the Mongla region]. The two pledged to continue to take part in the peace process. So, this indicates that [the government] is starting to get along with the Wa and Mongla, which are among the most powerful of 21 ethnic armed groups in Burma.

But on the other hand, we can’t say clashes with the Northern Alliance [which consists of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army (AA)] have completely stopped. There are still clashes in Kachin State. And in some cases, displaced persons who were living at camps have even had to relocate after artillery shells fell on them. Last week, the Burma Army relocated some villages in Kutkhaing Township in response to the military situation in the area. And clashes with Palaung troops [the TNLA] continue.

KZM:  These will remain challenges in 2017. What is your forecast for other arenas, Ko Moe Myint?

MM: Rather than talking about the political arena, I would like to assess the performance and plans of divisional governments, which directly engage with people on the ground. I’ve found that their plans are poor.

KZM: Leaders including the president did not much touch upon those things [in their New Year’s greetings]. They did not talk about how to improve the daily lives of people, and they only focused on policies. Carry on, Ko Moe Myint.

MM: In terms of significant everyday problems in, for example, Rangoon, which is the commercial capital of Burma, Rangoon Division Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein has promised to tackle traffic problems. But far from solving this problem, [it has grown to the extent that] even rule of law seems to be affected. Recently, we have seen reports of bus conductors hitting passengers. Passengers filed complaints and concerned authorities took action, but their actions were not effective and people have therefore started to take [extrajudicial] action against them.

KZM: So, this shows that [the government] still can’t effectively enforce the rule of law.

MM: Yes, it does.

KZM: In political and peace processes, conflicts such as in Arakan State are huge challenges. And to bring benefits to citizens, another biggest challenge is making economic policy a success. It would be good if the NLD government can adopt and carry out a good economic policy. Now, among everyday problems, commodity prices and fuel prices are rising. And there are a lot of law-breaking activities. But speaking of opportunities, I hope there will be more opportunities if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burma Army and ethnic leaders can engage and hold talks more frankly.

Lastly, Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint, what are your hopes for the country this year as a journalist?

NLHP: Since I have covered the peace process from the time of [President] U Thein Sein, I have continuously seen sad sights wherever I have gone—scenes on the frontline and people suffering. These things I have seen until the end of 2016. I don’t know exactly how they feel, but I have bad dreams whenever I came back from [conflict areas] after covering the clashes. I have never seen good things there, but have seen, rather, that they are short on food, that they have to run for their lives from time to time, that many have lost their relatives, and that they can hardly provide schooling for their children. There are so many problems. I hope I might no longer need to report on such things in 2017. I hope that they can lead a normal life again.

KZM: What are your hopes, Ko Moe Myint?

MM: I would like to talk about the infamous article, Article 66(d), which concerns not only journalists but also the people, and press freedom, because the number of people—including journalists and citizens—facing charges under Article 66(d) has reached more than 40.

KZM: So this law indirectly prohibits freedom of expression, right?

MM: Yes, it does. And I would like to get back media rooms [officially known as interpreter booths], which were closed in the time of Lower House Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann. It has now been more than nine months since the [NLD-led] government assumed power. But we still have to cover parliamentary sessions with voice recorders though TV screens. I’m really pissed off about it. I hope media rooms will be re-opened this year.

KZM: My hopes as a journalist are simple. When I interviewed U Win Tin, a seasoned journalist—he has died now— who established the NLD together with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he said it is important to [investigate and] reveal wrongdoings. So, my resolution is to continue exposing wrongdoings so that wrong things will end and right things will happen. This should be the fundamental cause [of journalists]. Another thing is I would like to quote NLD patron U Tin Oo’s New Year’s greeting. He said he hoped 2017 would initiate a peaceful year and that he would like to urge all ethnic people, regardless of race and religion, to adopt an attitude that everyone has [human] dignity, and to work in cooperation. It is, I think, easier said than done. If everyone practices it, I think the country will become peaceful. Thank you for your contributions.