Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Upper Levels Get the Benefits, the Lower Levels Do Not’

By The Irrawaddy 17 October 2015

On this week’s edition of Dateline, the panel discusses this week’s signing of the nationwide ceasefire accord in Naypyidaw.

Aung Zaw: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll be discussing the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). The Irrawaddy’s senior reporters Lawi Weng and Kyaw Kha will join me for the discussion. I’m Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine.

Ko Lawi and Ko Kyaw Kha, the nationwide ceasefire accord will be signed in Naypyidaw on Oct. 15. But some question if the accord is a truly nationwide, because it will not be signed by all armed groups nationwide, but only by some groups. The major group is the Karen National Union (KNU). But then as we are about to record today, we heard that KNU vice-chair Naw Zipporah Sein sent a letter addressed to Union Minister and Vice-Chairman of Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC) U Aung Min. Ko Kyaw Kha, is the ceasefire agreement a national agreement and why did a KNU leader refuse to attend the signing ceremony?

Kyaw Kha: In her letter, Naw Zipporah Sein said she would not attend the meeting because the accord does not include all groups.

AZ: It is not all-inclusive.

KK: Yes. She said it is not all-inclusive. She said she stands on the principle of all groups being included and therefore will not attend the signing. The government tried to make it appear that this is just her personal standpoint. But in fact, as she is the vice-chair of the KNU…she said she stands on the principle of all-inclusiveness and chooses not to attend. She said if she attends the signing in Naypyidaw on Oct. 15 while the government troops are attacking the Wanhai Headquarters of Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) in northern Shan State, it will look like she is supporting the fighting there. She points out that not all ethnic armed groups are able to sign.

AZ: She wants to say the NCA is not all-inclusive, as the sounds of guns have not yet fallen silent and therefore she will not attend. Is there any possibility that that KNU and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) will split when the accord is signed?

KK: KNU leaders have said that there are different views among major KNU brigades. The commander-in-chief of the KNU’s military wing, the KNLA, and his group are in Naypyidaw to sign the accord.

AZ: Who is the commander-in-chief in Naypyidaw?

KK: Maj-Gen Saw Johnny. He and Gen. Mutu Sae Poe will sign. Some powerful brigades (of the KNU) share the same views as Naw Zipporah Sein and have stood on the principle of all-inclusiveness. Given the circumstances, their future with the KNU is uncertain.

AZ: Ko Lawi, we’ve learned that eight ethnic armed groups will sign the accord, would you explain to viewers these groups?

Lawi Weng: Mainly, there are factions within the KNU, the ABSDF—

AZ: The All Burma Students’ Democratic Front.

LW: There is another group—

KK: The DKBA (Democratic Karen Benevolent Army).

LW: Yes, the DKBA. The KNU has seven brigades. And three of them—Brigades 2, 3 and 5—are on the side of Naw Zipporah Sein. The rest are on the side of General Mutu Sae Poe. I hear that Brigade 7 is rather strong. Naw Zipporah Sein has a lot to consider if she separates from the KNU, as Brigade 7 is not on her side. But there is a widespread perception that the KNU will split once the accord is signed on Oct. 15. This is about the factions within the KNU.

AZ: Among them, which are the ethnic groups which have played a big political, military and historical role?

LW: Mainly the KNU.

AZ: Are there any group apart from the KNU?

KK: The KNU and the RCSS.

AZ: The Restoration Council of Shan State.

LW: But the RCSS is not among the groups that had signed ceasefires in the past. It is fair to say that the truce is a new thing for them. For example, Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) signed a truce that lasted for 14 years. They have that experience.

AZ: The KIO are not among the groups that will sign the accord.

LW: They are not.

AZ: As far as I understand, international observer groups and representatives of world’s countries, as well as leaders in our country such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Shan leader U Khun Tun Oo, are also invited to witness the signing. Would you explain?

KK: The NCA signing ceremony will start at 9am in Naypyidaw on Oct 15. Eight ethnic armed groups will attend the signing, and President U Thein Sein, a vice-president, UPWC vice-chair U Aung Min—

AZ: What about the military?

KK: The Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy Gen. Soe Win, and the attorney general will attend the signing. As international observers, UN, EU, India, Thailand, China, and Japan are invited. But, it is not yet clear which countries will attend and which won’t. People such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Khun Tun Oo, who have political influence in the country, are also invited. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has not said clearly if or not she will attend the signing, but we hear she is unlikely to attend. U Khun Tun Oo has however said firmly that he would not attend if he was invited to attend the signing on Oct. 15 as an observer because the would-be signatories do not represent the entire country, and that though it is called a nationwide ceasefire agreement, in reality it is just for show—that ethnic forces across the country are not included and he therefore he will not attend nor sign the accord.

AZ: Would you discuss the groups that refuse to sign the accord? As far as I understand, the Kachin (Independence Organization) are the major group among them.

LW: The Kachin—

AZ: The Kachin and also the Mon (New Mon State Party) —

LW: The Mon and the KNPP (Karenni National Progressive Party). The main question is how large the are benefits for would-be signatories—

AZ: Yes.

LW: And how about those groups that do not sign?

AZ: Why won’t they sign?

LW: It is fair to say that it is mainly because they have had experiences. I’m an ethnic Mon. When the New Mon State Party made peace, the government gave businesses to them. There then emerged self-interest against national interest.

AZ: Self-interest and national interest.

LW: Yes. Mostly self-interest. For example, generals and those who had some power got businesses.

AZ: As far as I know, there have been cases of issuance of illegal car licenses since the ceasefire process is initiated.

LW: Some can now export rubber overseas to Penang.

AZ: The KIO signed (a truce with the government) in 1994. And now, they are fighting again.

LW: The problem is that the upper levels get the benefits, the lower levels do not. They therefore left their groups and consequently, their strength has declined. That is the problem. Some Mon leaders understand that. This also plays a part in their decision to not sign the accord. Regarding the political dialogue, both sides still have suspicions. Ethnic groups have deep suspicion as nothing has happened in the past, although the previous governments talked about political dialogue. So, they are unwilling to sign it.

AZ: I have met the KIO and KIA leaders and as far as I understand, KIA leaders including Gen, Gun Maw find the accord acceptable, though they think the agreed NCA text is weak. Kachin leaders told me that they would not sign mainly because they have little trust in the government, and because the accord is not all-inclusive.

KK: Among the major groups that will not sign the truce are the SSPP, KIO, NMSP and KNPP. Among the groups which are clashing with the government are the AA (Arakan Army), the MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

AZ: Again, there is a group we have not yet mentioned in our discussion—the Wa, the strongest force with strongest firepower, on the Chinese border. The Wa and the Mongla.

KK: The would-be signatories are not groups that are clashing with the government, and those who refuse to sign are the groups that are clashing with government and are relatively strong.

AZ: President U Thein Seins governemnt has pushed for the ceasefire agreement since 2011. There was some international support. But as the election draws near, we found that there are suspicions, clashes and unwillingness to accept the agreement. U Thein Sein wants to notch up the peace trophy before the November election. That’s why he has been pushing for the signing of the NCA. Peace observers, peace specialists and international newspapers that support U Thein Sein have called for for signing of the NCA. What will be the difference between signing and not signing?

LW: In terms of the advantages and disadvantages, the government will give the ethnic signatories business. But it will adversely reduce their strength, as the lower echelons will leave the group when they do not get benefits like the upper echelons. This is what happened in the case of the NMSP. The advantage (of signing the NCA) is political dialogue. We have to wait and see if this will take place.

AZ: But then, international observers say that it is the first time in history that the government itself has attempted to discuss federalism and political dialogue on a national level. They blame the ethnic armed groups for not wanting to sign.

LW: The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) released a statement on Oct 8. It harshly criticized the government’s maneuvers. The statement talked about good causes and bad causes. That the military is attacking is a bad cause and the government’s call to sign NCA is good cause. But the UNFC thinks the government does not genuinely want peace. It wants the military to stop all fighting across the country.

AZ: What do you think, Ko Kyaw Kha?

KK: Ethnic leaders have criticized (the NCA signing). The government’s term is ending soon and it seems that the government really wants to make peace and will push ahead if not all groups join. For example, Gen. N Banla said—

AZ: Kachin leader Gen. N Banla.

KK: Yes, he said the government is like a dying person, and if ethnic armed groups sign the accord and help it prolong its life, the government will get political gain, but it will bring no benefit to ethnic armed groups. Again, the framework for political dialogue must be drawn up within 60 days after signing the accord. And political dialogue must be held within 90 days. This process will take place without the participation of all stakeholders. Those who do not sign the accord will continue to violate the Unlawful Association Law and they do not have the right to attend and participate in decision-making process.

AZ: The signatories will become lawful associations. Those who do not sign remain unlawful association. Ethnic armed groups, the would-be signatories to NCA themselves do not have trust in the 2008 Constitution. Other groups have decided not to sign because they are concerned that their signing might imply giving the government the credit before the election. Thank you both for your contributions.