Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Govt’s 21st Century Panglong Conference is at Risk’

By The Irrawaddy 18 March 2017

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss the latest developments in the peace process, one of the most pressing issues facing Burma. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese reporter Kyaw Kha, and my colleagues, ethnic affairs reporters Ko Lawi Weng and Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint, will join me for the discussion.

Northern Alliance troops have again launched attacks in Laukkai in northern Shan State. Ko Lawi, what do you think are the causes of those attacks?

Lawi Weng: The Northern Alliance has repeatedly stated the reasons behind the clashes. As we have continuously reported about the clashes, we find that its reasons are logical given the developments. Recently, the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council] met government peace negotiators in Naypyidaw. Before that, General Mya Tun Oo [of the Burma Army] held a press conference in which he said the Burma Army would not hold [peace] talks with the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army], the MNDAA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army] and the AA [Arakan Army]. Just a couple of days after this, the Northern Alliance launched attacks in Laukkai. The Northern Alliance said it was forced to launch attacks because the Burma Army had been conducting large-scale offensives in their regions. Another reason would be their frustration with General Mya Tun Oo’s words.

KK: There are people who say they don’t care why the two sides are fighting; they just don’t want clashes in residential neighborhoods. Clashes have forced local residents to suffer. Ma Nan Lwin, please share your thoughts about this.

Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint: Those clashes were only brought to light after they took place in Laukkai. Before that, there were continuous clashes on the hills between Laukkai and Maw Hitke in January and February. The Burma Army spokespeople did not talk about those clashes, but released statements only after the large-scale offensive in Laukkai, saying about 56 clashes took place during January and February.

More than 3,000 people including internal migrants from central Burma who were working on sugarcane plantations as well as company staff fled the clashes and as many as 40,000 people, most of them Kokang locals, fled to China. Kokang locals have border passes so it was convenient for them to cross the border. But internal migrants had to flee through sugarcane plantations and some did not get their salaries because the clashes were in the early days of the month.

KK: They faced many difficulties on the way.

NLHP: Yes, they did.

KK: Some [ethnic] groups have called for self-determination, but in reality, people who are in control of their own destinies are also in grave danger, aren’t they?

NLHP: The Burma Army justifies the fighting by saying it is protecting the territorial integrity of the country and the safety of the people. And ethnic armed groups justify it by saying they are fighting for self-determination. Locals, however, have fallen victims to the clashes, and some have had to flee for their lives. They can’t even plan for tomorrow, never mind control their own destinies.

KK: People have been innocent victims in a tug-of-war between armed men. The same people will continue suffering until the animosity between those armed men vanishes.

LW: It’s mainly because the Burma Army has rejected those three groups despite them wanting to join the peace process. They searched for ways to join and then decided to fight, hence the clashes and the suffering of locals.

NLHP: Besides those causes, the Kokang group led by U Pheung Kya-shin was driven out of the region [into China by the Burma Army] in 2009 due to its links with the drug trade. It returned in 2011 and 2012, and I heard it was attempting to retake its strongholds in places like Mong Ko and Laukkai, resulting in clashes.

KK: Ko Lawi, armed groups along the China-Burma border and the Chinese special envoy met on Tuesday. What have you heard about the meeting, and what do you think they discussed?

LW: They met in China’s Kunming. They would have discussed the ongoing clashes [in Laukkai] and the committee formed [by the United Wa State Army (UWSA)] at the Panghsang ethnic summit in order to discuss peace with the government. There have been continuous clashes on the border to this day. China has been affected by those clashes­­– both its dignity and the safety of its citizens– so that would have been discussed at the meeting as well as the Panglong Peace Conference and an all-inclusive peace process. But we still don’t know the outcome.

KK: The UWSA can’t be excluded when talking about ethnic armed groups and the peace process. Let’s discuss the UWSA draft [on the Wa policy regarding the political dialogue and its demands, initially submitted to the Panglong Conference] that was brought forward again at the Panghsang Summit. Some points in the draft are concerning for the peace process. What will happen if the UWSA moves forward based on this draft? Ma Nan Lwin, what is your assessment of the draft?

NLHP: The UWSA prepared that draft long ago and restated it during the Panghsang Summit that concluded on Feb. 24. The group submitted it to the first Panglong Conference last August. The draft includes 15 points, mostly on its detailed political demands regarding presidential eligibility, ethnicities making their own laws and border relations, the latter allowing ethnic states to directly engage with neighboring countries and impose their own immigration regulations on foreigners who come to their regions, as well as deciding the terms for sharing their resources. Other demands included demilitarization and ethnic minorities’ rights.

This suggests the UWSA is demanding a confederate state more than a federal state. Brig-Gen Tar Bong Kyaw of the TNLA recently said they would discuss with the UWSA and other ethnic groups after the Panghsang Summit whether or not to use the Wa’s draft as a guideline for future dialogue with the government. Nine groups are slated to discuss it but two groups from the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council]—the KNPP [Karenni National Progressive Party] and the NMSP [New Mon State Party]—are not yet sure if they will join the discussion [although they were invited, the KNPP and the NMSP did not attend the Panghsang Summit].

The UWSA plans to formally implement a committee [agreed at the Panghsang Summit] by the end of March and begin discussions based on the draft. Then we have to see if its policies conform to the policies of other ethnic armed groups. The Wa and Mongla groups have already enjoyed self-administration, but other ethnic armed groups have not even signed ceasefire agreements or started political dialogue.

KK: Unlike other ethnic armed groups, the UWSA already enjoys self-administration. So if the UWSA signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement with other ethnic armed groups, it would seemingly have to renounce all those rights, which is why it is demanding so much. However, the Burma Army will not accept those demands and so it is fair to say that things will be difficult.

LW: Yes, it is quite a complicated issue. The UWSA included the NMSP, KNPP, KIA and SSPP [Shan State Progressive Party] in the committee [formed at the Panghsang Summit]. But these are also members of the UNFC. It’s complicated and makes me wonder if they are playing political tricks.

KK: We learned that the UNFC, the alliance of NCA non-signatories, met on Tuesday. Do you think they discussed the nine points that the UNFC has demanded from the government?

LW: They would have discussed those nine points as well as how to sign the NCA. I’m afraid the Burma Army will not agree to all nine demands. Some say the Burma Army will not agree to three points in particular, including declaring a nationwide ceasefire and demilitarizing within 24 hours after signing the NCA. There is no way it will agree to those demands. The UNFC would have also discussed the outcome of the Panghsang Summit. The KIA, SSPP and NMSP have not yet clearly disclosed what they agreed to at the summit although the UWSA announced a committee would be formed. It’s not yet clear whether the UNFC and the UWSA are in the same boat or not.

KK: I find it interesting that the KIA attended the Panghsang Summit in Wa State and was included in the committee formed at the summit but is also taking the lead role in the UNFC. Will the KIA act on the policy of the UWSA or the UNFC? What do you think, Ma Nan Lwin?

NLHP: We are waiting to see what will happen. KIA Gen N’Ban La and SSPP Maj Sai Htoo attended the Panghsang Summit from Feb. 22-24 and then attended a meeting with the UWSA over the next two days to discuss forming a committee that would hold talks with the government. On the other hand, the NMSP and the KKPP said the UNFC would not join the committee formed by the UWSA. This raises questions; such as will its cooperation depend on the political situation?

The KIA also attended the UNFC’s meeting in China’s Kunming. We have to wait and see what moves it is making. Now the KIA has joined the UWSA’s committee, it is still a UNFC member, and it has not clearly stated its policy for how it will join the peace process. The KIA has military outposts in northern Shan State and it wants an all-inclusive peace process because it has political and military ties with the TNLA and the AA, which are adjacent to its controlled areas. If these two groups were not included, the KIA would feel unsafe­–militarily unprepared. It attended the Panghsang Summit and also takes part in the UNFC to ensure an all-inclusive approach.

KK: Overall, the latest developments are a real headache among UNFC members. We can draw the conclusion from recent developments that the government’s 21st Century Panglong Conference is at risk. Ko Lawi Weng, Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint, thank you for your contributions.