Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘Ethnic Groups’ Faith in Parliament Has Somehow Been Dashed’

By The Irrawaddy 18 June 2016

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the internal peace process—a must for the new civilian government. Irrawaddy English edition ethnic affairs reporters Ko Saw Yan Naing and Ko Lawi Weng will join me for the discussion. I am Irrawaddy Burmese edition reporter Kyaw Kha.

The new civilian government has said they would give priority to internal peace and ethnic issues. Late last month, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi formed two sub-committees responsible for preparations for the ‘21st Century Panglong Conference’. Sub-committee 1 is led by Lt-Gen Yar Pyae and is tasked with holding talks with ethnic signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA]. Sub-committee 2 is led by Dr. Tin Myo Win and is tasked with holding talks with the NCA non-signatories. Sub-committee 2 met for the first time with non-signatories in Chiang Mai, Thailand earlier this month. Ko Saw Yan Naing, you covered the meeting. What significant things did you notice there?

Saw Yan Naing: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi formed the sub-committee led by Tin Myo Win and therefore they have greater confidence and more transparency than the military-backed peace negotiation team led by U Aung Min. But then again, Tin Myo Win’s team could not make decisions immediately regarding sensitive issues, so important decisions could not be made at the meeting. Mainly, they invited non-signatories to attend the 21st Century Panglong Conference and participate in the political dialogue framework reviewing process. The United Nationalities Federal Council [UNFC] leadership said they would make a decision on whether they would attend the meeting, but it seems they have not decided yet. They want to understand clearly how Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will hold the conference, and they want to take their time. Some analysts said the UNFC might be concerned that they will miss the opportunity to negotiate their demands if they don’t participate in the Panglong Conference, because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi does not want to postpone it. She wants it to take place soon. Some people have pointed out that if the UNFC does not participate in the conference, its role might be downplayed.

KK: NCA signatories met the sub-committee led by Lt-Gen Yar Pyae a few days ago in Yangon. It was an informal meeting about the political dialogue framework review. I covered the meeting and found differences between the previous government and the new government. The previous government held the Union Peace Conference and invited NCA-signatories. Although NCA non-signatories were also invited to the conference, they could only attend as observers and were not allowed to participate in discussions. But the new government has taken a different approach. It will allow NCA non-signatories to participate in discussions during the conference and in reviewing the framework for political dialogue. It looks like there a good outlook for talks between the government and NCA non-signatories. What do you think, Ko Lawi?

Lawi Weng: Yes, and that is because of the differences between U Aung Min and U Thein Sein from the previous government and Dr. Tin Myo Win from the new government. The developments are encouraging. Given the circumstances, it is likely that the Arakan Army [AA], Ta’ang National Liberation Army [TNLA] and Kokang may join the peace conference. If the military does not intervene and allows them to participate, it will do a lot for the process. We always write news stories about these three groups—who are non-signatories and members of the UNFC. It is possible that if these three groups join the peace conference, the rest may automatically come along. But then again, it greatly depends on the decision of the military. If the military stays silent and says nothing, it is a good sign. If they speak out against it, the situation might be different.

KK: The Palaung [Ta’ang] and Kokang submitted their official resignations to the UNFC last month, but the UNFC has not made a decision yet. We have also heard talk that the Palaung and Kokang may resign from the UNFC in order to join the United Wa State Army [UWSA], and that the Wa might lead allied forces in northern Burma along the Burma-China border. If that is true, it will be a tough challenge for the new government. What do you think?

SYN: If the military agrees with the way paved by the NLD and allows NCA non-signatories—the AA, TNLA and Kokang—to sign the NCA, the peace process is almost a done deal. But if the military does not allow these three groups to sign, forces in northern Shan State—the Mongla Army, Kokang, Shan State Progressive Party [SSPP], AA and UWSA might ally. All of them are big forces and will pose grave danger together. Military tensions might arise then. In Shan State, ethnic groups are even fighting against each other—there are renewed clashes between the Restoration Council of Shan State [RCSS] and the TNLA. It could lead to a very complicated situation if the military does not accept those three groups.

LW: Speaking of the military, we have talked about a federal army. The UNFC has tried to establish a federal army—an inclusive army that ethnic minority groups could join, but it has been quite difficult. Mainly, there are budget problems. The UNFC has tried hard to translate its idea of a federal army into a reality, but it has not happened. The UWSA is the strongest ethnic armed group in Burma. If those three groups are not allowed to sign the NCA, they will probably join the Wa, which will pose a serious challenge to the ongoing peace process. The UWSA has money and can take the helm with that money.

KK: What people expect in the time of the new civilian government is a ceasefire and permanent peace. So far, their expectations are far from being fulfilled. Local people measure peace against a yardstick of clashes. There are clashes in Kachin State, and in northern and southern Shan State.  It seems like there are more clashes now than under the previous government. There are even clashes between ethnic armed groups—the RCSS and the TNLA. Both sides have suffered heavy casualties and locals have also seen their homes destroyed or suffered injury or death. People in war zones wonder what Parliament, under the civilian government, can do for them. Ko Lawi, how much do you think Parliament will be able to solve this problem?

LW: Ethnic minority groups had high hopes for the National League for Democracy [NLD], but the NLD-dominated parliament has made no significant effort to help resolve their problems. Ethnic groups expected Parliament to seek a resolution. Ethnic issues were only permitted as questions in Parliament. In the case of Arakan issues, their proposal was rejected by Parliament. Ethnic groups’ faith in Parliament has somehow been dashed. Lawmakers from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy [SNLD] and the Arakan National Party [ANP] have been informally talking at Parliament about merging the two parties. I spoke with a Palaung lawmaker a few days ago and he said they are thinking about how the TNLA could join that merger. He said the NLD is forced to make political maneuvers depending on the moves of the military. It is not that the NLD does not bother to solve the problems, but it can’t make moves without military approval—some ethnic groups are fed up with it.

KK: The new government is already taking steps in the peace process. What are some of the improvements and challenges, Ko Yan Naing?

SYN: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said she would give priority to peacebuilding. Then, her government took a series of steps. Tin Myo Win invited UNFC leaders to hold talks in Rangoon. He is also set to meet with the Wa group. There were also some improvements under the previous government; for example, guns almost fell silent in most of the regions controlled by the Karen National Union [KNU].

The challenge is Shan State. Fierce clashes have erupted there in spite of the ongoing peace process and there were even air strikes. According to consultancy IHS Jane’s intelligence report, modern military equipment [drones] was deployed. There are renewed clashes in Arakan State. The AA was not strong before but they have become bigger and more active throughout the peace process. While there are some improvements, there are many challenges. It will depend on how effectively Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can handle the situation and how willing the military is to cooperate.

KK: Assessing what you two have said, most of the ethnic policies of the new government and the ethnic groups are the same, which is a positive sign for peace. The military plays a major role in the peace process under the current government. If the military will cooperate with the government, we can expect good news for peace. Ko Saw Yan Naing, Ko Lawi, thanks for your contributions.