Secession: Tackling the Main Obstacle to Peace

By The Irrawaddy 20 October 2018

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! The special meeting or summit in Naypyitaw on Monday between leaders of the government, Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] and ethnic armed organizations [EAOs] was the first of its kind under the government led by the National League for Democracy [NLD]. The meeting focused on peace. We’ll discuss whether the meeting’s outcome will be positive, or if it will just fuel the tensions. I’m joined by ethnic affairs and peace analyst Ko Maung Maung Soe and journalist and peace commentator Ko Thiha. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

The summit was attended by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and leaders of EAOs like the KNU [Karen National Union]. What do you expect from this summit, Ko Maung Maung Soe?

Maung Maung Soe: The summit comes at a time when people say the peace process has reached a deadlock. In fact, the peace process has been deadlocked for some time; more than one year elapsed between the second and third sessions of the Panglong [Union peace conference]. The main problem is that political negotiations have stalled. There is a need to continue negotiations on self-determination and federalism. Despite this, the negotiations could not be continued. This problem arose from the [Tatmadaw’s] demand that [EAOs] must first promise not to secede [from the country] before discussing state constitutions. On Monday, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Army chief and the KNU chairman delivered speeches. Their speeches focused on secession.

KZM: Did you notice any disagreements [regarding secession] in their speeches?

MMS: The Army chief insisted that EAOs must guarantee non-secession if talks on enacting state constitutions are to be continued, and that this guarantee must be included in the Union Accord. KNU chairman General Mutu Say Poe said the state constitutions relate to the structure of a state inside the Union, and that there is no need to link the [issues of] secession and state constitutions. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said secession or non-secession is not a problem if [stakeholders] accept the reality of the Union. What is needed is to establish a Union from which no one wishes to secede, she said. So, there are some disagreements between the three sides. One concept is to focus on secession, and another is not to do so. We’ll see what the results of the meeting will be. If there is a result that is acceptable to all three sides, they will be able to continue political negotiations, I think.

KZM: [The right to secession] is the main stumbling block to the peace process. The Tatmadaw wants to add a provision that guarantees [ethnic regions’] non-secession from the Union. The other side insists that this is not necessary. So, it is a deadlock. Ko Thiha, what is your assessment? What other problems do you notice?

Thiha: This is the inevitable confrontation that results from the different concepts and concerns of the ethnicities and the Tatmadaw—which is predominantly Bamar—and successive military-backed governments throughout history. In my view, EAOs refuse to guarantee non-secession not because they want to secede, but because they want to highlight their ownership [of their respective regions]. For example, the Shan armed groups want to demonstrate the fundamental fact that Shan State is part of the Union—and the contribution of Shan State to the Union. This problem will continue to exist if [the Tatmadaw assumes that the guarantee of non-secession] is necessary. What Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said is not wrong. There is no need to talk about secession while the Union already exists. Then again, this still does not provide a solution [to the problem].

KZM: The 2008 Constitution clearly prohibits secession.

Thiha: Yes, it does.

KZM: The NLD-led government initiated the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference. It will hold another session of the peace conference this year, and expects to conclude [a final agreement] by 2019 or 2020. The Army chief is talking about achieving peace by 2020. Is that possible? With the deadlock over secession, it seems progress will be difficult.

MMS: Further steps can be taken only when this issue is settled.

KZM: Only when there is an agreement.

MMS: Yes, it is possible. I think of it as a “Union marriage agreement”; if they have agreed to stay married for life, it’s OK. There is no need to stipulate that divorce is not allowed in the agreement. If this deadlock can be broken, [the different parties] have things in common. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in her speech that ethnicities have their own federal norms, and so has the government, but the 2008 Constitution is the reality. She pointed out that changes need to be made step by step. General Mutu Say Poe spoke generally about adopting basic federal principles based on four political objectives in the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.] According to the Army chief’s speech, [the Tatmadaw] has agreed to amend and supplement some provisions in the Constitution about federal rights. To mention specific provisions—for example Article 261, which relates to the election of the state governments by the [residents of] states. While such opportunities exist, we will be able to move to the next stage if we can break the deadlock over secession. If we fail to move to the next stage, those opportunities will be wasted.

KZM: EAO leaders want a guarantee in black and white, because of past events in the country’s history. But there might be other hurdles to clear in order to achieve peace by the Army chief’s goal of 2020, or to wrap up peace talks in 2019 as outlined by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What other difficulties do you foresee?

Thiha: The speeches by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Army chief showed some common ground. Both of them accept that the 2008 Constitution will not be scrapped wholesale, but changed bit by bit until their two positions converge. Both seem to have decided on this. On the other hand, ethnicities want a virtual rewrite of the Constitution. They don’t feel secure working under it. Leaders of the EAOs don’t feel secure working within a framework designed by the other side. This is the problem of military-minded people. The thinking of people following a political ideology is different from that of people following a military ideology. So, the military wants assurances about non-secession. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, being a politician, is bolder in this regard, saying there is no need to discuss it, as the Union already exists. We will only be able to move forward when the views are the same. There are a lot of challenges facing them. As Ko Maung Maung Soe said, there is a good chance of a breakthrough if this problem can be settled. But it has been made difficult by terminologies and ideologies.

KZM: Though the meeting was called a summit, it was just a meeting with NCA signatories. There are EAOs based along the north-eastern border [which have not yet signed the NCA]. Do you think it is likely that they will also join [the peace talks]? Both the Tatmadaw and the government have urged them to participate. At the same time, China is pushing them. How probable is it that they will join?

MMS: For the time being, China is mediating as much as it can. It is always ready to host meetings [of EAOs]. The main problem is that the fighting still hasn’t stopped. Bilateral [ceasefire agreements] have yet to be signed with the four groups including the KIA [Kachin Independence Army].

KZM: The armed groups based in the northern areas are bigger than their counterparts based in the southern areas of the country, aren’t they?

MMS: 80 percent [of armed groups are based in northern areas].

KZM: Yes, they are bigger. Wa [United Wa State Army] leaders said they welcomed the summit [this week]. But, how likely is it that they will sign [the NCA]?

MMS: In their statement, [USWA] welcomed the summit and also called for a tripartite meeting including them. But the Tatmadaw doesn’t recognize the seven-member alliance [the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee]. This will be another problem that has to be overcome.

KZM: Will this be more difficult?

MMS: Yes, it will. Besides that, we don’t know if the seven-member alliance will accept all the agreements made with the 10 NCA signatories. There are many problems that have to be overcome. The meeting this week focused on the problem of secession, and didn’t discuss security matters. If the deadlock over secession can be broken, another deadlock will be reached in the security sector. So, there are problems that have to be overcome for both NCA signatories and non-signatories. Greater efforts will be needed if peace is to be handed to the people in 2020 [as the Army chief has said].

KZM: So, there should be more intense negotiations.

MMS: Yes, there must be more direct negotiations.

KZM: And regarding the security matters, the negotiations will be mainly between Tatmadaw leaders and EAO leaders.

MMS: Yes, that’s right.

KZM: Some topics were suspended for discussion at the third Panglong session. When do you think discussions on those topics will resume?

MMS: In my opinion, it is better to discuss security matters only after reaching agreement on self-determination. If discussions are held at the same time, it will be difficult to achieve progress on either of them. It is better to go step by step. It will be easier to negotiate on the security sector after reaching agreement on the self-determination and federalism demanded by ethnicities.

KZM: Yes, the ethnicities will be willing to discuss security matters only when they have a guarantee of self-determination.

Thiha: They take up arms for political reasons. If there are firm political agreements and guarantees, it is easier to discuss the security sector. It is just a technical issue. According to my research, all have accepted the concept of a single army. They all accept it. If they all accept the single army concept and accept that there is political security and a political guarantee, then security reform becomes a technical matter. I don’t think it would be that difficult.

KZM: I doubt it is that easy. While there is no trust between the two sides, the disarmament of EAOs would be even more difficult.

MMS: In theory, what Ko Thiha said is true; that the next stage becomes easier if there is trust in political agreements. But in reality, there is no trust.

KZM: And there are many groups.

MMS: Yes, there are. It will take time to restore trust. It is hard to go to the DDR stage [disarmament, demobilization and reintegration] at once. So, I’ve always called for finding a middle stage. There are many armed organizations like the BGF [Border Guard Force] and people’s militias in the country. They [have emerged and] can stand due to the trust [that exists between them and the Army]. There is a need to think from various perspectives about a middle stage before going to DDR with the EAOs. We don’t want this to ruin [the peace process] after a set of political agreements has been reached.

KZM: It is critically important to achieve peace. Failure to do so will negatively impact the democratic transition.