‘We Don’t Expect a Single Amendment Will Be Made’

By The Irrawaddy 18 March 2019

Ethnic groups expect to see changes to the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, now that the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has led the way in forming a parliamentary committee to draft amendments to the charter.

While the Tatmadaw’s four-month unilateral ceasefire is not due to end until next month, there have been increasingly frequent clashes between ethnic groups themselves, especially between the Shan and the Palaung.

Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) General Secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin recently talked to The Irrawaddy about the importance of charter amendment in ensuring sustainable peace and federalism in Myanmar, as well as the SNLD’s view on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Shan State borders China.

What is the SNLD doing regarding constitutional amendment? To what degree does the party expect the Constitution to be amended?

We are participating in discussions on constitutional amendment according to party policy. To answer your second question, we don’t expect that even a single amendment will be made. We are just participating in discussions as we think we should.

Does the party agree that Article 261 should be changed to allow local legislatures to elect their own chief ministers? What provisions need to be changed to achieve federal status?

To achieve federal status, all the provisions need to be changed including the basic principles. In principle, we agree that Article 261 should be changed for chief ministers to be elected by the concerned local parliaments. Some think that all the ethnicities would support amending that article. But, due to their past experiences, they have learned lessons. If chief ministers are to be elected by concerned parliaments, 25 percent of military-appointed lawmakers, who [currently do not] have any say in appointing chief ministers, will have that right, as they will be involved in electing chief ministers. So, though we agree to amending Article 261 in principle, other restrictions need to be considered.

Three years after ethnic groups signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), clashes erupted again, and internally displaced persons still can’t return to their homes. Do you think the NCA can solve the armed conflict?

So far the NCA hasn’t been able to settle the armed conflict. And there is still no sign of peace being brought about by the NCA. Fresh clashes have happened. There have been only setbacks, and no progress, over the past three years. The entire process should be reviewed thoroughly.

The Tatmadaw’s four-month ceasefire will end in less than two months. But there has still been no significant negotiation, and armed conflict has not ceased at all in northern Shan State. How long will people have to wait to lead a peaceful life in northern Shan State?

Two months after the Tatmadaw declared its ceasefire, some negotiations are going on, but most of them are informal talks. Far from achieving significant momentum, there have been renewed clashes in the NCA signatories, especially in northern Shan State, where the Tatmadaw has declared a four-month ceasefire. It seems that people in northern Shan will have to wait a long time for the clashes to end.

There have been increased clashes between Shan armed groups. How is the Shan community mediating between the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)?

Yes, there are increased clashes between ethnic armed groups, which is not a good thing. Everyone thinks there shouldn’t be fighting between them, and I share this view. The SSPP has signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government, and the RCSS has signed both the NCA and a bilateral agreement. They have already been removed from the list of unlawful associations. Their problem is they are experiencing territorial disputes. And we have mediated for quite a long time. Perhaps the mediation is not effective; we have not been able to stop them from fighting. But we are still trying to mediate.

Are the territorial disputes between the Shan and Palaung armed groups stoking ethnic tensions between local Shan and Palaung people? What can be done to provide security for civilians?

I can’t understand how this happened. Previously, the Shan and Palaung were brothers and comrades. But not long ago allegations of torture emerged. It is so sad. But there are no serious tensions between the two peoples on the ground. It is important that military leaders be far-sighted in their vision. I’d like to urge all military leaders to be aware that hatred and military operations can’t solve the problem.

Some say the Arakanese have taken up armed struggle because they no longer believe that the government, Parliament and judicial system that emerged under the 2008 Constitution can bring about change. Do you agree with this argument?

It is difficult to say. Government figures say the overwhelming majority of the people supported the 2008 Constitution in the national referendum, but most people do not like it in reality. If there is doubt about this, another independent referendum can be held, as suggested by [political analyst] Saya Yan Myo Thein. Then it will become clear. My personal view is that the fighting in Rakhine State may be concerned with the 2008 Constitution, though not 100 percent.

China is increasingly involved in Myanmar’s peace process, and the BRI will go through Myanmar. Do you think special economic zones and road and rail links have the potential to spur development in Shan State?

It is a project done by the other side and Myanmar has no choice and can’t avoid it. We are too weak to reject it. And what’s worse, there is no reconciliation between us. At best we can only try not to be swept away by the tide. To quote some of my friends, we can only try to strive for as many benefits as we can from a bad situation. That would be better than just taking what we’re given.