A Minister without Borders

By The Irrawaddy 19 September 2012

Aung Min is a former head of the Ministry of Railways and the key player in Burma’s peace process. He was recently appointed to the President’s Office, and also serves as vice-chairman of the Union Peace Working Committee.

In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw in Naypyidaw, Aung Min spoke frankly about his duties, the potential challenges in peace negotiations with ethnic groups, the role of the Burmese army in the peace process, and the repatriation of refugees.

Question: What is your next plan? What kind of responsibilities will you have as a minister for the President’s office?

Answer: My ministry focuses on national security, which mainly involves ethnic affairs. When we began the peace process with the ethnic groups, we did everything with only four, five or six people. However, we could not handle the workload and had to increase our manpower following the unexpected signing [of ceasefire agreements] with many different groups. That’s why my ministry works primarily on ethnic issues in which national unity and resolving ethnic armed conflicts are key aspects.

The additional responsibility I have been given is related to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). People didn’t understand much about the role and value of NGOs before. Today, on behalf of governments around the world, NGOs have been involved in different issues and their broad participation has brought about many successes. That’s why I also have to manage and oversee the NGOs.

Another issue is with regard to natural disasters. I have to cooperate with other ministries in the President’s Office whenever such disasters occur.

Q: You have been much recognized by people in the international community and inside Burma for your success in peace negotiation efforts. So, under your current position, what will you continue to do for peace and national reconciliation?

A: The president assigned me to focus on ethnic issues when I was serving as the Minister for Railways. He and I fought together at the frontlines when we were young. So, when it comes to resolving ethnic issues, someone who doesn’t have the direct knowledge about their customs and the areas where they live may find that it takes longer to achieve success.

I thought it was a relatively minor task when we were first assigned to it. I also thought that my duty was done when I completed the mission. However, I found it really challenging when I got my teeth into it. According to the president’s policy, we were assigned to bring about eternal and genuine peace with the ethnic groups. Therefore, we had to deal with a great many processes.

Q: Fighting is still going on in Kachin State and has resumed in some parts of Shan State. What are the biggest challenges you face in pursuing peace with ethnic groups?
A: What the ethnic groups mainly want is equality. They want equality at every level—politically, socially, etc. They want equal rights, which cannot be guaranteed just by signing a ceasefire agreement alone. What we have to do next is to deal with the issues which have been unfair to them for the past 60 years. Of course, they should voice their feelings and talk about their sufferings. And they have the right to issue demands.

We have to solve their problems one after another. Only when this is done to their satisfaction will there be genuine and eternal peace. It will take a lot of time to fulfill the demands of all the ethnic groups in Burma. These are the challenges we face together.

Q: There has been a degree of success in negotiating with the Karen National Union (KNU). You have talked about a Code of Conduct for both parties. Can you please elaborate?

A: If fact, the Burma army has its own moral code of 60 points. When we looked at the issues the KNU presented, it was more or less similar to those included in international conventions. For instance, issues related to human rights and child soldiers are already covered in those conventions. The KNU’s Code of Conduct was about 40 pages long as it was written in legal terminology. After negotiating, however, there were about 14 pages left. What I can say is that the Code of Conduct the KNU presented is not much different from the one our army currently practices.

The Code of Conduct is not something that can be adhered to only by one side. It must be adhered to by both parties. In that vein, we presented our 60-point moral code and the KNU came up with their Code of Conduct. We must now combine them into one. So far, we have agreed those 14 pages in principle and signed accordingly. We also gave them the opportunity to add or amend the points.

Q: From Burmese army point of view, is it fighting an offensive or defensive war in Kachin State?

A: That is somewhat difficult to answer. Troops from both sides have gone beyond their boundaries, so it can be offensive in one area and defensive in another. For us, we have to send food rations to our troops who are based in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and rotate them every six to eight months. Also, whenever we have injuries we have to evacuate them.

When I look at the hostilities in Kachin State I deduce that they take place because of the unclear positioning of troops from both sides. There are never any incidents where one side tries to capture a hill from the other.

Q: Previous talks with the KIA were unsuccessful and over a thousand of battles have reportedly taken place. What is the main problem between the KIA and the government which cannot be solved?

A: The problem with the KIA has been ongoing since the previous military government was in power. The signing of ceasefire agreements with other ethnic groups started in our [this government’s] time, which I want to define metaphorically—I consider that I began this post at a stage we will call ‘zero’ when I first entered negotiations with the said ethnic groups. Since then I have now gained some successes in signing ceasefires and making agreements. If we agree on one point, we sign it. Likewise, if we agree on two, we do the same. So, from zero, it has climbed up to levels 1, 2, 3 and then 4.

But, in the Kachin case, it was at a ‘minus’ level when I became involved. It probably started
at around ‘minus 4.’ The previous government asked them to transform into a border guard force and fighting broke out ultimately because the KIA couldn’t accept that. So, when I took over I had to get in amid the fighting. On this scale, I had to start from a minus 4 or 5. I have tried very hard and I believe I have reached a ‘minus 1’ level now.

I have traveled to the KIA area three times and met informally with the Kachin leaders. The fourth time will be very important for me because I must address the situation on the ground. To do so, troops from both sides have to move back from their current positions. It would be a bit rude to ask the KIA to withdraw their troops alone. If both sides can move back their troops little by little, they will reach their original positions and can focus on a ceasefire. At the moment, fighting can break out at any time because both sides have exceeded their boundaries.

The KIA told me there are 40 columns of government troops currently stationed within their territory, and asked me to have them removed. I reported back to those responsible persons in the army, and they pledged that they would remove some of the columns. So, like I said earlier, after our fourth meeting troops can gradually move back to their original positions.

But I cannot personally make the government troops withdraw. I can only assume responsibility for political and economic issues. The withdrawal is something that the commanders of from both armies must agree upon.

Gen. Soe Win, the deputy Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, is alongside me dealing with army-related issues. I am the ‘Minister without a Border’ so I go wherever I want. I have been to the KIA camp as well. However, Gen. Soe Win is not like me, he has another responsibility, and he cannot do as I do. He can’t even go to the other side of the border. That’s why I suggested to the KIA that we meet in Bhamo in Kachin State. They said they wanted to hold the meeting in a village in their territory, so I suggested Muse in northern Shan State. They said Ruili, China.

We clearly have some sort of hitch in negotiating a meeting place. But if they come, the situation will rise from a ‘minus 1’ to a ‘zero’ level. After that we can move toward stages 1, 2 and 3.

Q: Journalists, including those at The Irrawaddy, have reported that the government troops disobeyed the president’s order to stand down, and they continued fighting in Kachin State. Is that true?

A: No, it is not true. Soldiers must be more disciplined than civilians. An ordinary citizen only needs to follow civic rules, but a soldier must follow both civic and army rules. Obeying orders is very important for a soldier because he can be shot dead for not obeying his superiors at the front line. So, it is impossible that troops in Kachin State didn’t obey the president’s order to stop fighting. Like I said earlier, since troops from both sides are in unclear positions, shooting can break out at any time. If one side doesn’t shoot, the other side might still shoot. You can’t say sorry at the front line. That’s why I am trying to persuade both sides to move back. If they do, there will be no reason to fight.

So, it is not true that the army disobeyed the order. I think the fighting broke out because of the current complicated situation.