‘We Hoped a Bilateral Ceasefire Could Be Implemented’

By Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 27 March 2019

The government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) held talks with eight non-signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in Naypyitaw on March 21.

The delegates of the Arakan Army (AA), which is currently clashing with the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, in northern Rakhine State, also attended the meeting.

Colonel Kyaw Han, a member on the AA’s central committee who attended the meeting, spoke to The Irrawaddy about the results of the meeting and the prospects for peace.

How were the talks in Naypyitaw? Were they friendly?

It has been around six months since we last communicated. The NRPC invited us as a dialogue partner, and the Tatmadaw came and met us as a dialogue partner. It is better to have talks than none at all, so there is a little progress, we’d say.

Talks at the table were friendly, but we have different standpoints and so we were uneasy.

In previous examples, the government has had talks with other ethnic groups, yet clashes have continued to break out between them on the ground. How much can the latest meeting organized by the NRPC contribute to de-escalating conflicts in Rakhine State? Did you reach any agreement?

We didn’t reach the stage of [making] an agreement. We discussed how we can move forward in the peace process. The Rakhine issue today appears to be an international problem and there is a need for negotiations between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army, and the Myanmar government, the Arakan Army and Arakanese political parties to be able to solve the problem ourselves.

We recognize the need to negotiate constructively to find the solution between ourselves, and to prevent it from becoming an internal issue. And we understand that the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw have the same view.

Do you think the latest meeting organized by the NRPC will change the situation on the ground?

We can’t say there will be immediate changes, but I told the military delegates that we, the AA, have not fought in Mrauk-U. We can assure that. There was firing of artillery and small arms both from the ground and mountains in a place where we have not militarized. People suffered and ancient pagodas and stupas were damaged. We asked [the Tatmadaw delegates] to avoid doing such things in the future. We told them that though it is fair to fight fiercely in the battleground, frightening and injuring the people in no-clash areas should be avoided.

What did the AA discuss at the meeting in Naypyitaw?

We discussed the policy of the FPNCC (Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee), and the policy of the Northern Alliance. Perhaps on Jan. 1, we the Northern Alliance (the AA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) reached an agreement with [the Myanmar military] to sign a bilateral [ceasefire] agreement. We came to [the Naypyitaw meeting with the NRPC] in the hope that that agreement could be implemented at the meeting.

What did the AA learn about the standpoints of the Myanmar military at the meeting?

Rather than what was said by the Tatmadaw, we can conclude from the opening address by U Zaw Htay that they mean that our presence in Rakhine State can negatively impact the state which is graded as a white state (a term for a peaceful and stable area). [The military] is fighting with small arms on the ground, and artillery on mountains, and jet fighters in the air in northern Rakhine State’s battlefields. If an area with dense gun smoke is labelled a white area, we wonder what color Naypyitaw and Yangon is.

Rakhine used to be a white area, but there are clashes there now. That reality needs to be seen. And there is a need to find out how to negotiate to make it white again. I can assure you that at least 90 percent of [Arakanese] people support the AA. It is not reasonable to say the white status has gone because of the AA which is supported by the people in Rakhine. I’d like to urge both the government and the military to find a solution for the sake of truth.

Did the AA discuss a bilateral ceasefire agreement or a deed of commitment (DoC)?

When we met in [China’s] Kunming on Feb. 25, we said we could not accept a deed of commitment because we have made compromises regarding our standpoints and released statements about signing a bilateral agreement. We released those statements because the other side promised to sign bilateral agreements if we did so. Then they said that they would not keep that promise because we attacked four border police outposts on Jan. 4.

We have to find an answer because there is a conflict. If there is no conflict, we need neither a DoC nor the bilateral agreement. A conflict erupted, but there were promises made prior to that. There is a need to resolve conflict as it is, and keep the promise as it was made. Therefore, we—the four-member Northern Alliance—called for a bilateral agreement at the (Naypyitaw) meeting. We’d like to sign a bilateral agreement because we will be able to discuss and implement others only after ceasing fire.

It’s been said that the government is concerned that after signing the bilateral ceasefire agreement, the Northern Alliance would stick to the FPNCC-proposed ceasefire agreement and not sign the NCA. Is this correct?

Armed conflict happens when political problems can’t be solved politically. To hold political talks, the Tatmadaw has its NCA policy, and the Northern Alliance has the FPNCC policy. We need to hold talks on it. If the two sides are unwilling to talk about each other’s policies, then we can get no answer. To find out an answer, we need to cease fire first.

The government, the military and the AA have started talks. Have you discussed the AA’s presence in Rakhine State at these talks?

We haven’t talked about that. For that to happen, first [both sides] need to push for the talks [to take place]. Then we can both share our views of [the AA’s presence] at formal talks to find an answer.

Has the military accepted the presence of the AA in Rakhine and Chin states?

We haven’t talked about it. Whether they accept it or not, they need to see the reality. If they don’t correctly see the reality, then we won’t be able to find an answer. There is a Kachin army in Kachin State and a Karen army in Karen State and we need to find out objectively why the Arakan Army is not allowed in Rakhine State. And speaking of public support for the AA, their support [is expected to reach] over 100 percent. If the current government and the current Tatmadaw say we can’t stay there, aren’t they saying and doing what people don’t like? If they are the people’s Tatmadaw and the people’s government, they are obliged to fulfill the wishes of the people. I dare say at least 90 percent of the people in Rakhine State support the AA. I can assure you that we can gain more support than the NLD has.

How would the AA like to reach an agreement about its troop deployment in Rakhine State?

It is early to say. There will be give-and-take at the talks around the table. But what we want to say is we have given a lot and we can’t compromise any further.

Constitutional amendments are underway at the Parliament. My understanding is that leaders of the Northern Alliance want to enjoy ethnic rights legally. Have the Northern Alliance leaders spoken with the government about amending certain provisions in the Constitution?

We heartily welcome that the government is taking the lead role to amend the Constitution. The NLD came to power with its campaign promises to change the Constitution. We don’t complain that it has only recently directed its efforts toward it. We welcome that it has got the opportunity and it is taking steps now to amend the Constitution. We welcome that they are taking a lead role in amending the 2008 Constitution which doesn’t meet either democratic or federal norms. It is a good step for the whole country.

Have Northern Alliance leaders tried to participate in amending the Constitution through the peace process?

It will be concerned with the NCA process. According to the NCA process, only when we sign it will we be allowed to participate in the Panglong [Peace] Conference and hold public consultations with local communities. So rather than talking about the changes that we’d like to see, we need to get into that process first. There are steps that we have yet to go through in order to officially attend Panglong before talking about the changes that we’d like to see. It is still early to talk about that.

So you mean the Northern Alliance still has some intentions of signing the NCA?

We didn’t say that we don’t accept the NCA. We said we want to add provisions to the NCA and that we will be allowed to withdraw from the NCA if and when the agreements in it are not implemented. The policy of the FPNCC is not much different from that of the NCA. We need to negotiate these two policies. If each side sticks to its policy, then we will get nowhere.

Have you negotiated with leaders of the NCA signatories?

As we follow the FPNCC, we haven’t. But you can see that some ethnic signatories such as the RCSS (Restoration Council of Shan State) and the KNU (Karen National Union) have ceased [negotiations with the government] because agreements in the NCA are not implemented. Authorities should think about why even the NCA signatories can’t move forward. Why has it stalled? They need to find out the answer. If they don’t move the obstacle away, they can’t move forward.

The United Wa State Army and Mongla’s National Democratic Alliance Army which both support the FPNCC enjoy greater power and status though they are not officially legitimate. Do FPNCC leaders want to make compromises with the government to change the Constitution for equality and the sharing of power?

It is still early to say.

If the leaders of the FPNCC, including the AA, could negotiate a result over either a bilateral ceasefire agreement or a DoC, is it possible for them to be signed under the 2008 Constitution or will they have to wait for the amended constitution to be in place?

It is not that we are not interested in the 2008 Constitution. But before talking about constitutional amendment, we can’t attend any conference or propose any change if we can’t implement a ceasefire. We can’t reach the second day without going through the first day. That’s why we don’t want to talk about the second day. However, we have already prepared for the second day.

Political analysts assess that the NCA is too rigid to be changed to achieve federalism. What is your assessment of it?

Yes, we have the same view. But [the government] promised throughout the meetings with the NCCT (National Ceasefire Coordination Team) that it can be changed outside the Parliament, and then the amendment will be sent to the Parliament to seek its approval. They asked us not to worry. If they honor their promise, we won’t worry. But if they want to draw the wool over our eyes, we are worried.

To what extent can the Arakanese people expect that the conflict will be resolved?

Despite the serious clashes, they invited us to talks and we attended the talks so this is a step forward. How much further we will go or where we will stop will depend on the results of future dialogue.

Will the clashes de-escalate in Rakhine after you return there?

We have told military leaders [about how the fighting can be stopped]. It depends on how much they are willing to implement [our request], and we will reduce attacks depending on their extent of measures to avoid fighting. Only when there is a strong desire to stop the fighting, it will stop. There is a need to walk the walk.

Has the AA figured out the government’s and the military’s stance towards them from the meeting in Naypyitaw?

I’m afraid we can’t tell the media this. At the moment, the government and the Tatmadaw stick to the NCA and we stick to the FPNCC. We need to find an answer between these two. While we need to assess the pros and cons of the NCA, the Tatmadaw and government should also see what they can accept in the FPNCC. Only then will we be able to negotiate on these two frameworks and move forward. I hope leaders of the two sides will do so.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko