Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘Only By Appointing Special Envoys Will Engagement With China Work’

By The Irrawaddy 15 October 2016

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss the resurgence of gunfire and the future of 21st Century Panglong Conference. Ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe, and U Aung Thu Nyein from Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

As you know, gunfire has resurfaced in Kachin, northern Shan and Karen states. And most recently, border posts were attacked in Arakan State’s Maungdaw. These renewed clashes and violence has raised question about national reconciliation and the internal peace efforts of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government. U Maung Maung Soe, you have compiled an analysis of the 21st Century Panglong Conference. Considering the continuing clashes, do you think the national reconciliation strategy and internal peace policy of the NLD-led government is working?

Maung Maung Soe: The 21st Century Panglong made a good start. It included many [ethnic armed] groups except the Kokang, Palaung [Ta’ang] and Arakan groups. And every participating group could speak freely and present its views to the people, which is positive. But the problem is that the government, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, said that [the peace process] would be based on the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement]. There are 13 groups, including the Naga group, which opted out of signing the NCA. And only eight groups have signed it. So, it seemed that the government would have to focus on convincing non-signatories to sign NCA after the conference. But it failed to do so, and it will be problematic, I think. Around [September] 16 or 17, [the government] discussed the political framework but only with the eight NCA signatories. Again, on September 25 Saya Khu Oo Reh of UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council—an ethnic alliance of NCA non-signatories] and U Aung Kyi from the Myanmar National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) held talks in Chiang Mai. But they did not get an answer, and the problem escalated as a result.

If the NLD government has decided to implement the peace process based on NCA, I think it needs to focus its efforts on dealing with NCA non-signatories including those in the UNFC. Again, both the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] and SSPP [Shan State Progress Party], which are clashing [with the Burmese military], in fact had already signed Union-level ceasefires in 2012 and 2013. If all of them would try to abide by the Union-level ceasefire agreement, there would be fewer clashes, even if NCA is not signed.

Again, there have been renewed clashes with RCSS [Restoration Council of Shan State] which is one of the NCA signatories. So, I think they need to enforce the rules. The NLD-led government has kept silent about the clashes over the past month since the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which has frustrated many people. So, rather than concentrating on the framework for political dialogue, the NLD-government and NRPC should focus on this problem.

YN: You mean the government should focus on ceasefire process rather than political dialogue?

MMS: Yes.

YN: Peace and national reconciliation is the top priority of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government. As far as we are concerned, the difference between the NLD government and U Thein Sein’s government is that the NLD has hired foreign consultants such as those from South Africa and England, and the prominent one: Kofi Annan for the Arakan State Advisory Commission. It will also undertake peacebuilding training in foreign countries. So there have been concerns and criticism as some argue that Burma’s peace process is an internal issue to be solved by Burmese people only, and that Burmese people understand the problem better than foreigners, who should not be involved. U Aung Thu Nyein, what’s your view on this?

Aung Thu Nyein: In Burma, we have seen various conflicts between different groups. And it seems that it is a multi-layered conflict. I don’t think we can copy from other countries to solve those problems. We are different in that there are fewer rebel groups in other countries, but we have many ethnic armed groups in Burma, so it is more difficult to handle. We need advice from foreign experts and international assistance in our peace process, but we should exercise caution. Under U Thein Sein’s administration, the government peace negotiation team led by U Aung Min took a homegrown approach to peace-building to solve internal problems internally. There is another approach that we call a ‘joint venture.’ For example, if a meeting day was to be appointed, stakeholders such as the government, the military and ethnic armed groups met and made the decision together. And to me, it seems that the new government is not up for a homegrown approach. It should adopt a joint venture approach, making collective decisions.

Regarding the 21st Century Panglong, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi appointed the date by herself and just asked the other stakeholders to come. I think it would be better to make a collective decision about the date and agenda. Again, the government has formed the Arakan State Commission led by Kofi Annan without holding negotiations with stakeholders in advance. I mean, the government should have consulted with Arakan parties and other stakeholders in advance in order to solve the Arakan issue. If it had done so, there would have been fewer problems.

YN: As the international community is somehow involved in national reconciliation and Burma’s peace process, I think China played a role, too. China invited and rolled out the red carpet for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi while she was still an opposition leader. And they invited her again after she took the office, rolling out red carpet along with the Guard of Honor. China officially stated that it supports Burma’s peace process initiated by the government, and it also urged ethnic armed groups to support it. But then, renewed clashes have broken out with ethnic armed groups on the Burma-China border. So, U Maung Maung Soe, to what extent do you think China’s influence will impact on Burma’s peace process?

MMS: China exerts its influence for its border stability and border security. It is not that China does not urge [the ethnic armed groups to participate]—it does urge the ethnic armed groups along the border to join the peace process. But the problem is that the other side [the government and military] still can’t accept three groups, including the Kokang, in joining the peace process. This is the problem.

Again, since China is a vast country, the central government and subnational administrations have some different views. Burma shares a border with Yunnan Province in terms of administrative regions. And in terms of military regions, it borders Chengdu Military Region. They have their own regional interests and they will act on those interests. So, it is not enough for Burma government to deal only with the Beijing government: it also has to deal with the Yunnan Province government. Yunnan is equal in size to our country while Chengdu Military Region is bigger than our military. So, we need to engage with Chengdu Military Region. It is not that we did not engage with them in previous times—we did. Shan State and Kachin State chief ministers have engaged with the Yunnan government and our military region engaged with theirs. But we could not deal with them effectively because they are much more powerful than us.

So, while Burma’s government should maintain its direct engagement with the Beijing government, it should also appoint a special envoy to deal with Yunnan’s government. And Burma’s military should also appoint a special envoy to engage with Chengdu Military Region. It is not just enough to let commanders and chief ministers—who have very limited authority and power—deal with them. Only by appointing special envoys, the engagement will work. On the other hand, Burma needs to understand well that China wants all of the ethnic armed groups along the border to be included in the peace process.

YN: The peace building process today as far as we are concerned is not just the solving of problems between the pro-democracy forces and military regime or problems between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups. But there have been tensions between ethnic armed groups themselves, for example tensions between the Shan and Palaung, the Kachin and Shanni and the Wa and Shan, and so on. So, my question is: can we still hope for peaceful and harmonious co-existence?

ATN: Our country is faced with multiple and multi-layered conflicts. There are various conflicts in various forms at various levels. And I attended the 21st Century Panglong Conference and found that every participant spoke frankly there. The Burmese people have never heard of such frank speaking before. So, it is like opening dormant wounds, and many problems have come to their attention for the first time. These problems need to be handled promptly, I think.

Some ethnic armed groups still can’t lay down their arms because the designation of territories is not yet finished after the ceasefire is signed, and particular forces want to expand their territories and take advantage of this. Some forces still can’t lay down their arms because of other forces.

As you said, there are problems between the Shan and Palaung as well as between other groups.   And I think the government’s peace and national reconciliation efforts should not just focus on the negotiation table, but it should also work on many other things immediately, such as ceasefire monitoring on the ground. And the government should also adopt and implement an ethnic equality policy—there are international examples of this. It can implement that policy separately outside of the peace dialogue. It should do such things promptly.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!