NCA: The Elephant in the Room at the Peace Conference?

By The Irrawaddy 21 July 2018

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week we’ll discuss what lessons were learned at the just-completed third session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference and identify the challenges faced by the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military], government, ethnic groups and other stakeholders in building peace. Dr. Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, and human rights activist Cheery Zahau join me to discuss the issue. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe.

The third session of the Peace Conference has ended. A lot was discussed and some statements aroused controversy. Ko Min Zaw Oo, what stood out to you? The military chief drew criticism for saying that the Tatmadaw represents all Myanmar nationals. How would you summarize the conference?

Min Zaw Oo: I’d like to talk about two aspects: firstly, the content of the conference. There were fewer principles [discussed at the third session] than at the previous session. In terms of their essence, some of the principles are already enshrined in the 2008 [Constitution], but were rewritten [in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA)] with clearer definitions to avoid ambiguity. The conference also discussed some principles not included in the 2008 [Constitution] but which are necessary for changing the system—for example, provisions that allow state governments to adopt and implement their own economic policies. Essentially, it is a move toward decentralization. Some critics said the small number of principles discussed is insufficient for a switch to a federal Union system. Fundamentally…. one of the objectives of organizing this conference, I think, is that the government, Tatmadaw, ethnic armed organizations [EAOs] and political parties want to show that the peace process is still alive, that it is still going, and hasn’t stalled, and that they are building trust and have reached agreement on this or that point, despite the difficulties. So, in my opinion, they all joined hands to organize the conference to send a message to the people that the process is still going.

KZM: [State Counselor] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in her closing address, said the number [of principles agreed] was smaller, but the peace process is moving forward. From her speech, it seems that extra caution has to be exercised in discussing security matters. Ma Cheery, what is your take on this? When it comes to security matters, the Tatmadaw plays the biggest role in the peace process. At the same time, EAOs play a large role. What is your assessment of the Tatmadaw and EAOs?

Cheery Zahau: Before I discuss the third session of the Panglong Conference, I’d like to take a look back at the recent past. When EAOs submitted a proposal to hold a political discussion on the NCA in 2013, many ethnic political parties also participated in the discussion. Our line of reasoning was that, because of the 2008 Constitution, progress is impossible if discussions are held in Parliament, while the Tatmadaw would have less veto power if discussions were held outside the [dictates of the] 2008 Constitution. But, as the process of drafting the framework for political dialogue continued, we found that it still gave the Tatmadaw veto power.

The situation has returned to the status quo and nothing can be done without the agreement of the Tatmadaw. That’s why some EAOs are still reluctant to sign the NCA and join the peace process. So far, four rounds of peace talks—three sessions of the 21st-Century Panglong and a Union Peace Conference under U Thein Sein’s administration—have been held. At all those talks, just setting the agenda required the approval of the Tatmadaw. [The EAOs] proposed discussing 11 principles in the economic sector [at the third Panglong session], but only a principle that the Tatmadaw agreed with was allowed for discussion. Similarly, [the EAOs] were not allowed to discuss separatism, self-determination, human rights or citizen’s rights. Only the topic of gender equality, which is a soft issue, was approved for discussion. Nothing can be done without the approval of the Tatmadaw. So the EAOs find it quite difficult to move forward.

KZM: Leaders of EAOs based along the northeastern border attended the third session of the conference. Many viewed that as a sign of progress. Ko Min Zaw Oo, according to Ma Cheery Zahau, the military seems to be the major problem facing the peace process. Do you think the military is the main obstacle to peace, as it plays a major role and has the biggest say? What’s your view?

MZO: Since preliminary negotiations were made to draft the NCA, the EAOs, the government and the Parliament have all treated the Tatmadaw as [an independent] entity. It is not as if the Tatmadaw only recently became a separate entity. We have all regarded the military as a separate entity since negotiations to draft the NCA began. The EAOs’ refusal to sign the NCA was not due to the military’s overwhelming decision-making power, but because of troubles with the all-inclusion policy. We studied the reasoning behind the Tatmadaw’s discussions and found that it links the security sector to other issues. The Tatmadaw’s reasoning is: “Armed conflict is the result of a lack of political agreement, so why would [EAOs] still need arms once we have political agreements?” The Tatmadaw deals with the security sector on this basis.

So, the Tatmadaw asks the EAOs whether they will lay down their arms if political agreements are reached. Whereas the EAOs say that after the political system is changed, they would be willing to discuss a security system that is suitable for the new political system. So the two sides have been unable to reach agreement on what agenda to discuss first. Discussion of the security sector was postponed at both the second and third sessions. It will be difficult to make progress on other topics in the absence of progress in security sector discussions. Our assessment is that in discussions, the Tatmadaw links security with other issues. So, if we keep on discussing those issues separately in the future, it will be difficult to move forward. To overcome this difficulty, the Tatmadaw needs to consider offering a package [deal] to change the entire landscape. So should the government and the EAOs. Negotiating a single package will lead to greater progress, I think.

KZM: So far, there has been none.

MZO: Right — there has been no progress.

KZM: Let’s go back to the topic of the role of the Tatmadaw. The government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said it would hold three more sessions of the Peace Conference by 2020. It hopes to adopt certain principles relating to federalism by then. Currently, signing the NCA is a precondition for political dialogue. Ma Cheery, what do you think of that process? Is it the only way forward?

CZ: In my opinion, sticking exclusively to the NCA will pose difficulties.

KZM: Why do you think so?

CZ:  Because as I’ve said, there is an elephant in the room. If we keep silent under its influence and discuss only the things that are allowed by it, and if over 700 people hold discussions [referring to the 700 delegates who attended the third Panglong session], one day people will lose patience and decide the discussions will lead to nothing. We can’t stick to the NCA alone, but should seek other options.

KZM: What other options would you suggest?

CZ: Bilateral talks should be held continuously with non-signatories of the NCA, and their voices should be heard. Their frameworks and roadmaps should be considered too. This is an option. Another option is to find ways to reduce a particular group’s ability to always dictate terms in the NCA and political negotiations. The government should think about what the best option is.

KZM: Ko Min Zaw Oo, you have been continuously engaged in the peace process since U Thein Sein’s administration. Do you think this process can deliver good results? If so, how long do you think it will take?

MZO: The number one problem is that the government and Tatmadaw still do not have a common strategy on how to achieve peace. Another problem lies in the transition to a federal system. The government and Tatmadaw should negotiate a package on how the Tatmadaw will reform and how it will withdraw from politics once the country transitions to a federal democracy. Another problem is… in the beginning, the Tatmadaw didn’t accept the concept of the NCA. It didn’t like it because under successive military governments it had only negotiated bilaterally with EAOs. It had never engaged in collective negotiation before. At that time, senior military officers involved in the peace process criticized us, saying that collective negotiation was impossible, and that it would never happen. But we have been holding collective negotiation and we’re now faced with difficulties.

Ma Cheery Zahau has suggested holding bilateral talks. And we do have to consider holding bilateral talks, as the military government did in the past. For example, suppose we hold bilateral talks with the United Wa Sate Army [UWSA]. But in reality, there are many political problems that can’t be solved through a bilateral agreement between the UWSA and the government. The UWSA demands [an autonomous] state. In fact, the state they are asking for is part of Shan State. So, we will need to negotiate with other stakeholders in Shan State. We switched from bilateral negotiation to collective negotiation. But collective negotiation hasn’t made much progress and we need to consider going back to bilateral negotiations.

CZ: I don’t mean [that we should aim for] bilateral agreements. What I mean is that bilateral talks should be held frequently. An annual meeting in Naypyitaw is simply not enough. Meetings should be held with EAOs based along the northeastern border monthly or bimonthly.

MZO: Informal meetings?

CZ: Yes, informal meetings. Then, new options will emerge at those meetings.

KZM: The government has heard such suggestions and seems to accept them. In her closing speech, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urged the government to start informal talks as soon as possible.  So, it seems the government has heard the criticism, and accepted it. Ma Cheery, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the ongoing peace process?

CZ: At successive peace conferences, the Tatmadaw [delegation] came not to negotiate; they simply arrived with orders [from their leaders]. When there is a disagreement, they say they need to report to their superiors, and it usually takes several months. They always make reference to the “green book” [the 2008 Constitution]. It is very funny. They say there is no need to discuss a certain issue because it is already covered by the 2008 Constitution. On the other hand, they say we are not allowed to discuss another issue because it is not included in the 2008 Constitution. They use the 2008 Constitution as a weapon or tool, and remove from the agenda any items they don’t like. It is unacceptable, I think. Talks will get nowhere if they use the green book as a tool on the negotiation table. And whenever it doesn’t like something [as a topic of discussion], it resorts to violence. EAOs do not use violence in Yangon, where many Bamar live. Only the Tatmadaw does this, attacking in the EAO regions. They have to change their mindset. It is the Tatmadaw that tries to colonize. Ethnicities live only in their regions, and don’t colonize. The Tatmadaw needs to seriously consider these things. They should not always refer to the green book in negotiations. And it is wasting time to come and insist on an order [from their leaders]. And resorting to violence whenever it is unhappy will only hamper peace efforts, I’d say.

KZM: So, the Tatmadaw is using the constitution it draft to hinder the peace process.

CZ: They need to change.

KZM: Ko Min Zaw Oo, what is your take on the peace process?

MZO: To get an answer that is acceptable to all in the peace process, there is a need to negotiate security and political matters simultaneously. Otherwise, there won’t be an answer. And the top concern of the Tatmadaw is separatism [by EAOs]. The Tatmadaw assumes that it is necessary to discuss security matters because the EAOs might secede if federalism is established in the country. In the opinion of ethnic groups, as Ma Cheery has said, federalism can’t be established as long as the Tatmadaw sticks to the 2008 Constitution. These two things need to be negotiated simultaneously. Only when there is progress on discussions of security, politics and federalism will we be able to move forward.

It is not that the Tatmadaw hasn’t changed its attitude at all. The topic of state constitutions was discussed during the second session of the Panglong Conference. Ultimately, the Tatmadaw accepted the idea. The 2008 Constitution doesn’t provide for state constitutions. But the Tatmadaw accepted it. But it has not been officially approved because it is linked with separatism, [discussion of] which has not yet been approved. If a decision is made about separatism, it will also decide the fate of state constitutions. It is not that the Tatmadaw only sticks to the 2008 Constitution. It does have some flexibility. But generally speaking, if there is no progress in discussions on the security sector, it will be difficult to make progress in discussions on the political sector.

Secondly, it is unlikely that fresh clashes will break out if talks fail. Today, neither the Tatmadaw nor EAOs want to be blamed for the failure of the peace process. Again, they fought for a long time until the recent ceasefire. If they fight again, no matter which side initiates the fighting, losses are inevitable. So, neither side wants to fight again. Usually, a ceasefire agreement lasts for three years. Unless there is further agreement within three years, fighting is likely to recur. The situation is different here. Under the military government, truces lasted for over 20 years without any official agreement. There may not be political answers until 2020. But by then, a certain degree of trust should have been established, and ways for moving forward should also have appeared. There may not be a breakthrough, but renewed clashes are unlikely.

KZM: When it comes to Myanmar’s peace process, it is always hard to distinguish causes from effects. But the process is ongoing and we’ll have to wait and see how successful it will be.