Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Wars have escalated in our country under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which has said its top priority is building internal peace. After four ethnic armed groups dubbed the northern alliance launched a joint offensive over the weekend, clashes intensified even more. There have been civilian casualties and injuries, and thousands of displaced people. We will discuss how this could negatively impact the NLD’s peace process, the stance that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should take and if there are other means to stop wars. Ko Moe Thway, chairman of Generation Wave—which has been engaged in advocating against war—and ethnic affairs commentator U Maung Maung Soe will join me for the discussion this week. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
Out of the blue, the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army], MNDAA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army] and AA [Arakan Army] launched a joint offensive on November 20. The problem of civil war has increased. Are these [offensives] a solution to achieve peace?
Maung Maung Soe: The civilian government has focused primarily on peace since it came to power. While it focuses on peace, KIA leadership and the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council] have not yet decided whether or not they will sign the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement]. The Burma military also held official talks with the MNDAA, TNLA and AA, but the talks failed. Since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she would stick to the NCA in her peace initiative at the Panglong Conference—which convened on August 31—the problem has come up again because this decision makes the KIA and other NCA non-signatories like the TNLA unable to join the next rounds of the peace conference. At the same time, there were Burma Army offensives in the KIA and TNLA regions. Under these circumstances, the groups who are outside of the peace process and are being attacked by the military have gathered together and launched a military operation.
Seemingly, they have two objectives—the military objective is to respond to the military offensives. Because they are a smaller force than the military and it is difficult for them to resist for long at a single front, they are carrying out attacks in several different places.
The political objective is to launch an attack at a place like the Muse border trade zone, whereby drawing attention from both local and international communities. They were successful in realizing that objective because both local and international communities have paid attention to the clashes. Whether or not a solution can be found will depend on how [the government and military] view those offensives.
KZM: Since the new government assumed office, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has worked persistently toward peace and held the 21st Century Panglong Conference. Given this, there should have been fewer clashes but the reverse is happening and the situation is worse to the extent that these joint offensives have occurred. Why is this? There have been clashes between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups before, but why have they escalated recently?
Moe Thway: Normally, it takes two to quarrel. But as far as I understand, the latest attack is the one and the only major offensive started by ethnic armed groups over the past few years. Soon after the Panglong Conference concluded in September, the military launched massive offensives around the KIA’s headquarters in Laiza. To answer the question of why the wars have escalated, I think we have to question why the military launched massive offensives. I think these ethnic armed groups launched offensives because they wanted to get attention. Among the groups, three have not yet signed or are not permitted to sign the NCA. As far as I understand, they have constantly expressed their desire to join the NCA and attend the peace conference. So, they took action for their right to participate. But why has the Burma Army continuously launched attacks in those ethnic areas? Recently, civilian children were killed in the military attacks. I wonder why the military has carried out such fierce assaults.
KZM: Can we assume that those four groups launched an offensive in response to increased assaults by the military?
MMS: Yes. But Muse’s 105th Mile is not a militarily strategic place. It brings no military advantage for them to attack there. They attacked there to draw political attention. For military purposes, they will attack Burma military reinforcements along the way and military outposts in Mong Ko, Pheng Sai and Mangan, which would be militarily strategic.
KZM: The joint operation of the allies may attract the attention of both local and international communities, but I doubt that it can contribute to stopping the wars. What if the flames of war grow larger in a vicious circle of more and more fighting? Is the offensive the right solution?
MMS: It will depend on the civilian government in charge. Conflicts have erupted amid the peace process because there are groups that can’t participate, as Ko Moe Thway has pointed out. I went to South Africa on an educational visit regarding peace processes and former president de Klerk stressed that all groups involved in armed conflicts must be able to participate in the peace process. While Mandela himself was an opposition leader, he drew the South Africa Communist Party—which was the smallest force in the Free South Africa Movement and the most hated by the British [colonial] government and the army—into the peace process.
What we need today is for those who lead, participate in and support the peace process to unconditionally accept a policy of all-inclusion. The NCA is not a fundamental task. It is a process—a process that includes institutions like the UPDJC [Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee], the UPC [Union Peace Conference] and the JMC [Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee]. The fundamental principle for peace is all-inclusion—the inclusion of all those involved in armed conflict.
KZM: People, political organizations, the government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic groups always talk about all-inclusion. But why can’t all-inclusion be realized yet? Who is not allowing it?
MT: Not only the new government but also the previous government talked about all-inclusion, as well as the Burma military. The military said the TNLA and AA should be excluded because they were established and became militarily active only after the NCA process was initiated. Regarding the Kokang group [the MNDAA], the military said it could not allow them because the MNDAA attacked Laukkai last year, which threatened the sovereignty of the country and could not be pardoned. The military has given these reasons to justify its unwillingness for inclusion.
I think the current government should make its stance clear. Everyone understands that there are gaps [in terms of power] between the civilian government and the military under the 2008 Constitution. It would be better if the people and the ethnic groups knew where the government stood. We hope to be told. If the current government states a fair, balanced stance—saying things like they believe in and desire an all-inclusive peace process but that it is not possible because of certain difficulties—then there will be better hope for peace and [the two sides] will be able to exercise restraint in military operations.
KZM: The position of the current government is critical here. Which side will it take? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto political leader in our country. So, her stance is the most important. What is her stance? Some ethnic groups have criticized her for her indecisive position. The four groups launched joint offensives because they did not get attention from the government, the international community and perhaps also from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What should her stance be?
MT: Because she is the leader of an elected government, it would be difficult for her to stand by ethnic armed revolutionary organizations. We are not talking about if she should take the side of the military or ethnic armed groups, but that she should make her stance clear, even if her stance is neutral. She cannot choose to stand by the military just because of her government position. We do not know what she is really thinking, but the circumstances suggest that she is on the same side as the military. This kills the hopes of ethnic groups as well as the people.
KZM: Those four groups clearly stated that although the government and some ethnic armed groups are negotiating and trying to achieve nationwide peace, the Burma Army continues
offensives that could undermine the internal peace of the country. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was elected the leader of the entire country. U Maung Maung Soe, what should she do to build peace between the military and ethnic armed groups? She said the NCA should be signed in February. But you said it is a process. What can she do to make breakthroughs?
MMS: The main point is that only eight groups have signed the NCA. There was hope when the peace conference was held because non-signatories were also invited. But, actions toward all-inclusion were weak. Not every stakeholder could participate in peace negotiations. According to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s words, inclusion means participation. In my view, the government—which leads the peace process—and those who support the process, should embrace the fundamental principle that all those involved in armed conflict should join peace talks. Only then can armed conflicts be solved and civilian casualties be reduced. There may be different views regarding policy but that is not a problem. Policy can be negotiated. The most important thing is that those who lead the peace process have a policy.
KZM: To what extent can the government persuade the Burma military and ethnic armed groups to adopt that policy?
MMS: It won’t be easy. But the government needs to stand by its policy and take action.
KZM: The next round of the 21st Century Panglong Conference will be held in February. Considering the fierce clashes, do you think it will still be held as scheduled?
MT: Since there are already NCA signatories, the conference will take place if the government wants to hold it.
KZM: I mean a genuine one, an all-inclusive one.
MT: From the beginning, there have never been genuine peace negotiations because not every stakeholder could participate and express their voice. There still is no genuine peace negotiation and the peace conference has been nominal. The next round of the conference is possible if just a nominal one will be held. To hold a genuine one, it must be all-inclusive and those who are engaged in the peace process have to draw those who are outside the process into it. If those who have expressed their wish to join are left out, the peace negotiation will not be genuine.
KZM: There have been many clashes and people are pessimistic. Do you think the clashes will turn out to be good for the country’s peace process?
MMS: Normally, military clashes automatically stop when it becomes too difficult for the two sides to continue fighting. If leaders desire peace talks, who can or will lead them all to the negotiation table? It mainly depends on who will lead because the peace process needs to be led by someone. If the civilian government leads the process, we can hope the way to all-inclusion can be paved on the condition that the government provides firm leadership. The bi-yearly Panglong Conference may be held nominally on scheduled or delayed. But it is not important. It is just a process. To make the peace conference successful, it calls for all-inclusion. Otherwise, it won’t be.
KZM: What should be the main solution to ending the wars?
MT: We need to approach this not only from technical and political points of view, but also from a social point of view. There has been deep distrust between our nation’s people and there have been reasons for this distrust. The leaders of the current government—the State Counselor and the President—should establish social ties with both the military and armed revolutionary groups beyond formal procedures. For example, recently, two children were killed by artillery fire from the Burma Army. Government leaders should have met with and comforted the victims’ families. They should establish closer ties with those who they can meet. The military chief attended the meal offering on Martyrs’ Day at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence. This is a social tie. The president and the military chief watched a football match together. Why can’t Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or the president have a cup of coffee with General N’Ban La or have a dinner with Mutu Say Poe or watch a dramatic performance with General Yawd Serk or General Say Htin of Shan State? There should be social ties and informal discussions. Again, the government needs to be very careful in releasing its stance and statement.
KZM: Not to be one-sided…
MT: Yes. The government-run news agencies never publish civilian deaths in Kachin and northern Shan State caused by military offensives. But during the Muse attacks, the attacks happened in the morning and they published reports of the clash in the afternoon. If ethnic groups see this as biased, it will be more difficult to build trust. The government needs to have the proper stance on the political front, and on the other hand it should have social, friendly ties.
KZM: What do you think, Ko Maung Maung Soe?
MMS: The first thing is willingness to solve the problem through negotiation. Second, there must be trust between the two sides. Third, it is the best if all can stop the war rather than pointing fingers at each other about who started the war, which causes distrust. The problem is that they are still pointing fingers at each other. There should be someone who will lead negotiations.
KZM: Thank you for your contributions. What we citizens want is for the guns to fall silent across the country.