Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘No Party Can Fully Represent the People’

By The Irrawaddy 3 September 2016

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week we’ll discuss to what extent the current Panglong peace conference can fulfill the wishes of the Burmese people. U Thwin Lin Aung, member of the temporary committee to organize the 21st Century Panglong civil society organization (CSO) forum, and ethnic Chin human rights activist Mai Cheery Zahau will join me for the discussion. I’m editor of The Irrawaddy’s Burmese edition Ye Ni.

The 21st Century Panglong Conference is going on now. Except for four groups—the Kokang [MNDAA], Palaung [TNLA], Arakan [AA] and Naga (NSCN-K) —all other NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement] signatories and non-signatories are attending the conference. We have seen events supporting the peace conference here and there. Mai Cheery, as an ethnic Chin who is continuously engaged in ethnic issues, what do you think of the peace conference?

Cheery Zahau: The 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference is part of the peace process initiated in 2011. Both NCA signatories and non-signatories were invited to it and it is fair to say that there is greater inclusion in terms of ethnic armed groups. But in terms of the inclusion of political parties—which played a role in the peace process from 2011 to 2016—it is not inclusive.

The government has set the criteria that only the political parties that won seats in the 2015 election could attend the conference. This is problematic. You can’t use the election as the single yardstick to determine who should participate in the peace process. The election is about electing representatives to Parliament. But the peace conference is about finding a solution through all-inclusive dialogue, and including people who don’t have parliamentary representatives and who have different views from the mainstream.

Excluding political parties makes them think that they need to take up arms to be recognized. The government needs to be aware of this. In a democracy, no party can fully represent the people. In the November election, people voted for other parties. They did not only vote for the National League for Democracy [NLD].

In some states, the NLD won by a margin of 30 percent, and in Chin State, by about 70 percent. So, where are the voices of the remaining 30 percent? Chin ethnic armed groups alone can’t represent the voices of that 30 percent; the parties need to be included.  Currently, the representation of many people is lost because of a criterion that allows only the winning parties to participate. If this continues, I’m concerned that the saying “might makes right” could become justifiable in a democratic crisis.

YN: As you have said, most of the delegates to the conference are ethnic armed groups. Throughout the entire peace process, it is the people who have been suffering. Ko Thwin Lin Aung, we heard that a forum would be held to represent the voices of the people. How is progress on that forum, which will represent civil society and community based organizations?

Thwin Lin Aung: The government informed us in July that we could organize a CSO forum so we started to make preparations. At that time, we did not have division of responsibility (DOR) guidelines for holding the forum. We started to work out a DOR. Then, the government said that it would draw up the DOR and we could present our requirements.

The problem is that we are not allowed to discuss all topics. The government prohibits CSOs from discussing political or security issues. Another question was how we could send the results of the CSO forum to the Panglong conference. We were only allowed to present the forum results by mail or as recommendations to Panglong conference committees. This frustrates us.

We told the Panglong Conference organizing committees that we would like to discuss all topics.  People should be allowed to discuss any problems they are concerned with. On the surface, politics and security seem unrelated to the people, but it is because of political and security issues that ordinary people are suffering. It is ordinary people—people without guns—who have to bear the brunt of wars. I told the organizing committees that the forum should represent the voice of the people.

We said that rather than sending the forum results by mail, we would like to send representatives. We had good reason to make this demand, because Article 22(g) of the NCA states that CSOs should be included in the peace process. But when the framework for political dialogue was adopted, CSOs were left out. So we pressed for our demands and waited for approval. But the review of the political framework has reached an impasse and since the DOR can’t be developed without a firm framework, we are still waiting.

YN: I heard that CSOs released a statement about the conference and the CSO forum, which remains undecided. Can you tell me about it?

TLA: I heard that about 50 CSOs were invited to the first round of the conference, but most of them were invited as observers to witness the opening ceremony. I also heard that participants would not make decisions at the conference.

We are happy that the conference is spearheaded by the government—which was elected by popular vote in the 2015 election—and hope that there will be good prospects. But much remains to be done if a truly peaceful democratic federal Union that can guarantee equal rights for all is to be built. We have pointed out six things to them.

First, clashes were still going on just days before the peace conference and we suggested that military and ethnic armed groups release a joint ceasefire statement on the day when the peace conference convened.

Second, we demanded a guarantee of security for people who were affected by clashes.

Third, we welcome that many NCA non-signatories were included in the conference, but there are groups that are not yet included. So, it can’t be said that it is inclusive. If these groups can’t join the conference this time, they should be allowed to join next time.

Fourth, we demanded that CSOs be allowed to discuss all issues. There are some barriers—for example Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act—which bar us from discussing certain subjects and being involved in the peace process. Suppose we hold discussions with an ethnic armed group and are charged with Article 17(1). We demanded the abolition of this article.

As far as I am concerned, there have been about five similar peace talks so far. This conference has improved a lot in terms of the form.  Previously, for example during the peace negotiations in 1980, general amnesty was granted to political prisoners ahead of the conference. We demanded such a general amnesty be granted this time also.

Fifth, we called for coordination to create the landscape needed to build a federal Union, which the nation aspires to.

Sixth, we called for equality. But sadly, when we were about to release a statement to demand these six points, we found that [state-run newspapers] had mentioned the titles of Burma Army representatives but not the titles of ethnic armed group leaders.

I’m concerned by this negative trend. It reminds me of a horrible past. In prisons, the authorities do not use honorifics for the inmates, as a way of degrading them. I am shocked to see this practice. I don’t want to see it.

YN: It has been said that women are playing a very limited role in Burma’s peace process. It is women and children who are hit hardest in wars. What do you want to say about their voices not being reflected in the peace process?

CZ: Of Burma’s 51 million people, more than 26 million are women. They constitute more than half of the country’s population. Therefore, women must be included in all of the country’s affairs—whether politics, social issues or the peace process.

Unless and until the voices of half of the country’s population are reflected, democracy won’t be real. The government, ethnic armed groups and political parties need to recognize this fact.

We have seen that women’s voices were starting to be heard after the Mai Ja Yang ethnic summit. Previously women could only hold informal discussions; now they can hold some formal discussions.

I want women to be included in all sectors, but not just for show. Women who can really represent the voices of the people should be included. They will be able to link upper level discussions with what is happening on the ground. For the time being, I still do not see effective representation of women, but there has been some improvement.

YN: We have many things to discuss, but the duration of this program is limited so let us conclude here. Thank you for your contributions.