In Person

Harn Yawnghwe: ‘The UNFC Will Continue to Exist as Long as it Continues to be Useful to its Members’

By Saw Yan Naing 4 April 2017

Harn Yawnghwe is the executive director of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office (EBO), a development and democracy advocacy group. He is seen as an influential figure in Burma’s ethnic political affairs and EBO has been a major source of financial support to ethnic civil society and opposition organizations. As the youngest son of Sao Shwe Thaike, the first President of Burma, he closely follows the country’s peace process.

The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Saw Yan Naing interviews Harn Yawnghwe about his views on ethnic politics and the ongoing peace process.  

You are seen as one of the most interesting and experienced players in Burma’s peace process in support of ethnic armed groups. Due to your involvement, you have received both praise and criticism. Some observers have even said that you masterminded the peace process yourself. What do you have to say about that? 

People tend to overestimate my role and influence. I did not start the peace process. President Thein Sein did. I got involved in the peace process because ethnic leaders like Gen Mutu Say Poe, Gen Yawd Serk and Gen N’Ban La asked me to help when Minister Aung Min requested an introduction. Minister Aung Min came to see me in Bangkok in Sept. 2011 because the late Dr. Nay Win Maung [of Myanmar Egress] recommended me. EBO and Egress had been collaborating since 2004 to try and find ways to bring democracy back to Burma. We would meet on a regular basis and brainstorm with like-minded people – exiles and those from Burma – but we did not expect Snr-Gen Than Shwe to appoint Thein Sein as president, or that he would push reforms through so quickly.

There are disagreements emerging among ethnic leaders in the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which could lead to a major division within the bloc. What are the problems within the UNFC and what do you see for the bloc in the future?

EBO has been supporting and funding the Burmese democracy movement since 1997. But because the Tatmadaw seized power in 1962 due to its fear of federalism, we realized that it would not agree to democracy unless the ethnic problem could be resolved. So we started engaging with ethnic armed organizations to see how they saw things. They finally decided that a political solution was needed and that they need to have a dialogue with the Tatmadaw to find such a solution. EBO funding and assistance was, therefore, directed towards finding a solution that is beneficial to all parties.

The Karen National Union was the first organization that quit the UNFC. Then, the Chin National Front and the Pa-O National Liberation Organization were also expelled for signing the NCA. Later, the TNLA, MNDAA, and AA have distanced themselves from the UNFC. Now five members reportedly want to sign the NCA while its chairman, the KIO, and the SSPP want to ally themselves with powerful ethnic forces like the UWSA in Shan State. What is your opinion of this? How will it affect the UNFC?

The KNU quit the UNFC because it did not agree with the concept that the KNU had to agree to the decisions of the UNFC leadership, especially if it had not been consulted first. The CNF and PNLO were expelled because they signed the NCA without waiting for the decision of the UNFC. The TNLA, AA and MNDAA distanced themselves because they felt that the UNFC was not protecting them and was not pushing the government hard enough to include them in the NCA.

People forget that the UNFC was founded in 2010 and that not all groups were members even at the height of its popularity. Ethnic unity has always been an elusive goal because each group lives in very different geographical and economic circumstances, and their survival strategies are different. The UNFC will continue to exist as long as it continues to be useful to its members.

You are very close to leaders of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Karen National Union (KNU), the two largest ethnic armed organizations who signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Some critics have said that you and your colleague Saw Tu Tu Lay were key players in making the RCSS and the KNU sign the NCA. Is that correct?

Both Saw Htoo Htoo Lay and I are advisers. We give the leaders the best advice we can. But neither of us can force them to do anything that they do not want to do. Gen Yawd Serk and Gen [Saw] Mutu [Say Poe] are leaders of armed men. If their men, who are all volunteers, do not agree with their leaders, the leaders could be in trouble or they may find that they no longer have an army to lead. Before signing the NCA, both leaders consulted with their people. There were strong disagreements and arguments, but in the end the majority agreed that it was better to sign.

You participated in peace talks and ethnic meetings as well as provided funding for peace-related activities. What developments have occurred so far and what are the remaining challenges to the peace process? 

I have personally participated in only five official peace talks or peace-related activities between Nov. 2011 and Oct. 2015, when I went to Naypyidaw with the KNU chairman and the RCSS delegation to persuade President Thein Sein to sign the NCA even if all EAOs [ethnic armed organizations] did not sign.

Under the new government, I have not participated in any official meetings, except the recent meeting in Kunming between the KNU chair and Chinese Special Envoy Sun Guoxiang. Five more EAOs have recently decided to sign the NCA. It would be good if the remainder also decide to sign. If this happens, the government will have to ensure that all EAOs are treated equally with respect, and that their aspirations are carefully considered. The next 21st Century Panglong will then be the opportunity for the whole nation to consider how we can live together in unity while recognizing and accepting our diversity.

What differences do you see in the peace process under U Thein Sein’s government and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government? 

The first and most important difference is that under Thein Sein’s government, the peace process was a political matter which came under the mandate of the president. It impacted security but the commander-in-chief had to take into account the president’s wishes and make sure that security operations did not negatively impact the peace process. It was an internal tug-of-war and a tightrope to balance political and security issues. The commander-in-chief has now managed to make the peace process a security matter and the civilian government has to take into account the Tamadaw’s wishes and make sure that the peace process does not impact security.

The second difference is that Thein Sein established an 11-person Union Peacemaking Central Committee (UPCC), which he headed, and a 52-person Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) headed by the vice-president. The Myanmar Peace Center was responsible to 10 ministers headed by Minister Aung Min and had a staff of more than 120 people. Whether the committees actually worked effectively or not, it was commendable in that it was an inclusive infrastructure that represented a wide range of interests.

The current government cannot match the above in terms of manpower. The State Counselor, who also serves as the Minister of the Office of the President, Foreign Minister, and head of the NLD, is chair of the 11-person National Reconciliation and Peace Center. A six-member Peace Commission under Dr. Tin Myo Win, was formed to implement the work of the NRPC.  They are assisted by a 3-member Advisory Team (2 from the former MPC) and a 7-member Assistance Team.

The third difference is that Minister Aung Min was an ex-combat general who fought against and was familiar with the ethnic armed organizations. He was senior to many of the serving Tatmadaw commanders in the field. He was also senior to the ministers in the Thein Sein government. He could persuade many of them to comply with his requests. If necessary, he could also persuade the president and the commander-in-chief. Dr. Tin Myo Win is a well-known surgeon but he has not, in the past, had any interaction with the Tatmadaw commanders in the field, let alone the ethnic armed organizations. He can advise Aung San Suu Kyi on her health but I doubt that he has ever treated Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

China is actively involved in ethnic politics in Burma, especially in the peace process. What do you think China’s role is in the peace process?

From 1968-88, China politically, financially and militarily supported the Burmese Communist Party. But Chinese policy changed in 1988.  After that, most of the support to EAOs came from businesses – Chinese, Myanmar and ethnic – and the Yunnan Government, which took advantage of the then ceasefire agreements to build up their fortunes. Beijing woke up to how local support to EAOs on the border was damaging Chinese national interest when President Thein Sein cancelled the Myitsone Dam.

As far as Beijing is now concerned, it has more to gain in the long-term from stability and development in Myanmar, especially regarding the deep sea-port in Rakhine State, the oil & gas pipelines, the high-speed rail-link, and investment in dams, mines and plantations, than in a militarized prosperous land-locked enclave on its border. This realization is tempered only by the fact that China cannot afford to antagonize domestic ethnic communities by totally abandoning support for the EAOs.

Also given its past, China cannot ignore what is happening on its border. For one thing, if the peace process breaks down, there will be an influx of refugees which China does not want. If the fighting intensifies, there are also no guarantees that other foreign powers will not step in. Therefore, as a preventative measure, China sees that it has to step in to try and broker a peace deal, and keep foreigners out of Myanmar and away from its border.

Some observers think that China is behind ethnic armed organizations in northern and eastern Burma that are engaging in conflict with the Burma Army (Tatmadaw). What is your prediction on both the political climate and military activities in the north and east of the country? 

As mentioned earlier, there is no active support of EAOs from Beijing. Support and involvement these days are limited to facilitating travel and persuading the EAOs to negotiate for peace. Because it suits their agenda, some entities promote the idea that China is behind the renewed fighting in the north. For example, when MPC claimed that China was behind the renewed fighting in Kokang in 2015, the public came out in support of the Tatmadaw. Similarly, many people are against the proposed UN fact-finding mission into human rights abuses in Rakhine State because it is seen as foreign interference. The Chinese will become more involved in the peace process if the EAOs in the north and the government cannot come up with a practical solution that is acceptable to all parties.