Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘A New Political Chapter for Burma?’

By The Irrawaddy 2 June 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! The second session of the 21st Century Panglong peace conference concluded on Monday in Naypyidaw. We’ll discuss whether the conference has ushered the country into a new political landscape. Ko Mya Aye, one of the 88 Generation students and Ko Maung Maung Soe, ethnic affairs analyst and writer, join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

In his closing speech to the conference, Lt-Gen Yar Pyae of the Burma Army said the current political landscape presents a new chapter in Burma’s political culture. Ko Mya Aye, what is your assessment of this? To what extent do you think it is true?

Mya Aye: It is difficult to assess based on that statement, but one thing is for sure: according to what I have heard from ethnic participants, they have had heated debates over the topic of secession, although they could not work out an agreement and left the issue for discussion at the next session. It is good that they debate face-to-face now, unlike in the past. To put it in the words of [former President] U Thein Sein, it is a new political culture. Talking of political trends, the conference reached agreements on 37 points, and 12 points are about politics. I don’t see any breakthrough in those 12 points. I heard that while some participants signed those agreements willingly, some signed them unwillingly, which concerns me. To make a long story short, Northern Alliance members came and attended the conference, but then they left, as they were not allowed to take part in the discussion. And none of the five members of the UNFC (United Nationalities Federal Council) signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). So we need to see the reality.

KZM: What is your assessment?

MA: Frankly, the second session was not much different from the first one. The draft Union Accord only includes some NCA provisions, and no other significant agreements. Yes, it is good to hold face-to-face, candid discussions rather than fighting with arms, but it is also important that such discussions yield good results.

KZM: Ko Maung Maung Soe, how much do you agree with Lt-Gen Yar Pyae’s statement? And what do you think of the draft Union Accord?

Maung Maung Soe: Face-to-face discussion is good, but those 37 agreements are quite general because the government wanted to make sure they were acceptable to all involved. For instance, one of the points is that the sovereign power of the Union is derived from the citizens. Some wanted to change it to national people, not citizens, but finally it was agreed upon as the sovereign power of the Union is derived from the citizens. This is quite general, but still there are many important issues beyond this that need extensive discussion. If sovereign power is derived from citizens, those elected by the people should be included in the executive and legislative branches. But according to the 2008 Constitution, unelected people remain in both executive and legislative branches. If that point were discussed extensively, the talk would be concerned with amending the Constitution. My view is that the initial agreements are good, but there are still many hurdles and many extensive discussions needed to move forward.

KZM: Ko Mya Aye, you mentioned secession. The oldest Constitution—the 1947 Constitution—and the [Panglong Agreement] signed by Gen Aung San provided the option of secession ten years after Burma’s independence. It is the main issue that locked the talks in stalemate at the second Panglong conference. The Burma Army and the government want ethnic armed groups to ensure they would not secede from the Union, but most of the ethnic armed groups refused to sign. What do you think of secession?

MA: This issue did not need to be discussed at all [at the conference] because the NCA enshrines Our Three Main National Causes, namely non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty. I don’t think it is an issue that needs to be discussed separately, as the NCA does not allow a part of the Union to secede from it. There is the question of whether they want to build a pushy Union or an equal, federal Union through serious negotiations. Forcing them into signing it is neither politics nor natural. Some say that the Union may break up with the secession of the ethnic states, but they need to understand that the Union is made of different states from the very beginning. For example, Karenni or Kayah states have not been under successive government control. We need to study their historical backgrounds. Yes, I also do not want to see the break-up of the Union, but Unions that are pushed too much to prevent break-up tend to split more easily. Take a look at the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. These are the historical lessons. On the other hand, real federal Unions built through thorough negotiations and that guarantee equality are unlikely to break up.

KZM: [The State Counselor Office’s spokesperson] U Zaw Htay said ethnic armed groups just need to sign to promise not to secede from the Union, and there would be nothing more of it. How sensitive is this issue to ethnicities, and to what extent do the government, Parliament and Burma Army need to guarantee self-determination to persuade ethnic armed groups to sign this agreement?

MMS: Non-secession can neither be demanded nor promised by any individual or organization. [Secession] is the birthright of every ethnic group. For each ethnic group, the most important thing is identity. Speaking of ethnic issues, some think that ethnic armed groups may not secede if they are given rights, but besides the issue of rights, there is also the problem of identity. Take Scotland, which has been the part of UK for more than 300 years. Until recently, it had demanded secession, and not because of a problem concerning rights—the living standard is high in Scotland, one of the highest in Europe. But then, it demanded secession. Why? Because of identity. Let’s take a look how it was handled: the UK enacted the law for a referendum, which was held in Scotland. Those who were against the secession preached the merits of the union, and those who were in favor of secession preached its merits. Finally, the Scottish people decided through the national referendum that Scotland would not secede. I mean, the problem should be addressed correctly. At the peace conference, ethnic armed groups were told that if they promised not to secede from the Union, they would be allowed to draft their own state constitutions. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has frequently urged ethnic armed groups to think about what they can give and do first before making demands. According to her own words, wouldn’t it be better for the government to think what it could give regarding ethnic rights and federalism rather than asking for them to promise not to secede? They should do that.

KZM: We all know that the government and the military are not on the same side. Wouldn’t this make it difficult for the government to negotiate? Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said in his opening speech to the conference that he would not accept the second way [an alternative to the NCA proposed by a Wa-led committee], but would adhere to the NCA and political dialogue. Do you think what Ko Maung Maung Soe has just suggested is practical?

MA: Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said there is no path other than the NCA, but the UNFC’s nine demands are based on the NCA. Likewise, the Northern Alliance including the United Wa State Army (UWSA) said that they would adjust the NCA, and not resort to other means unless altering the NCA is possible. They were just arguing over the NCA first, but later the disagreement became wider. It is said that each state will have its own constitution, but going against the 2008 Constitution is barred. The chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) also said that those constitutions should not go against the 2008 Constitution. How then, can the Union be federal?

KZM: Reading the seven-point policy of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, it can be said that her entire political roadmap including the peace process and the 21st Century Panglong is directed toward changing the 2008 Constitution—to a point where Union level agreements are signed to amend the Constitution. Constitutional amendments currently need 75 percent of votes from lawmakers, so the Constitution can only be changed when the Burma Army accepts it. Do you think that path is possible?

MA: We need to think about these two separately. The ceasefire agreement is the ceasefire agreement, and political dialogue is about building a nation. You’re right, the 2008 Constitution will be amended automatically if that path leads to an answer. But the question is, how long will the discussion last? The peace process was initiated under [former] President U Thein Sein and how many years have passed now? Another question is whether all the ethnic armed groups have joined it. In political dialogue, everyone must be allowed to join, and detailed discussions must be had. The ceasefire and political dialogue are different. The 2008 Constitution should be forgotten in those discussions. Only then, will there be new ideas, otherwise the discussion would still be influenced by the 2008 Constitution.

KZM: But military representatives in the Parliament and the entire establishment are chiefly responsible for protecting the 2008 Constitution. Do you think the ultimate purpose of the entire peace process implemented by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is to amend the constitution? How long will it take? Karen National Union (KNU) leader Mutu Say Poe said in his opening address that it would take time to solve the problems that have existed for nearly 70 years. So, Ko Maung Maung Soe, do you think the ultimate purpose of the peace process is to amend the Constitution?

MMS: The government’s aim is to amend the Constitution, and they expect to achieve this, as the military also agreed to it in the Union Accord. But nobody can say to what extent it can be changed. Firstly, armed groups involved in conflicts still can’t be brought to the negotiation table. Secondly, national-level political dialogues still can’t be held in every state, as stated in the NCA. Only when these two stages are completed, a nationwide agreement will be reached. For example, if national-level political dialogue is to be held in Shan State, we can’t leave behind Danu and Intha tribes. Likewise, we can’t leave behind Kadu and Kanan in Sagaing Division, and plain Chin in Magwe Division. How can we leave them behind? I don’t mean they should all be brought to speak at the Panglong conference, but we must make sure they can express their voices at political dialogues in respective divisions and states, but this still does not happen. So it is fair to say the conference has shaped a certain landscape for the peace process, though much remains to be done to reach the goal.

KZM: Ko Mya Aye, the conference was held for the second time under the new government. What are your expectations of the third session?

MA: We can’t give up hope. Discussion is better than fighting. They have started to talk frankly, and as they get closer to each other, there will be a greater understanding between them, so the 21st Century Panglong is not fruitless. But much is yet to be done to deliver good results, and I want this conference to be independent. If it is to be discussed under the 2008 Constitution, it is meaningless, and will never give way to federalism.

KZM: Ko Mya Aye, Ko Maung Maung Soe, thank you for your contributions!