A Kachin Leader Speaks on Peace, Federalism and the Course of Myanmar Politics

By The Irrawaddy 11 December 2019

Dr. Manam Tu Ja is the founder and chairman of the Kachin State People’s Party, a new political party formed in August that has brought together three ethnic Kachin parties: the Kachin Democratic Party, the Kachin State Democracy Party and the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State. In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy’s English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe, Dr. Tu Ja discussed the causes of conflict between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed organizations as well as politics in Myanmar’s ethnic areas and prospects for peace.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Mingalabar! I am now at the office of the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) in Myitkyina, Kachin State in northern Myanmar. I will hold a discussion with KSPP chairman Dr. Tu Ja on the political landscape in Kachin State and the rest of the country, and the potential for achieving the equality and autonomy that [Kachin people] have sought.

On a map of Myanmar, Kachin State is at the top. We will discuss what is happening in Kachin State, the political landscape and the development of the rest of the country below Kachin State. The KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] began its revolution for equality and self determination for Kachin people in 1960-61. Myanmar then went through the Burma Socialist Program Party [BSPP] government led by U Ne Win and the U Thein Sein government before today’s NLD government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. How many of your aspirations for the Kachin people have been fulfilled by now?

Tu Ja: Unless domestic peace is achieved, we can’t say the dark days have ended. Internal peace is critical. The root causes of the armed conflicts must be solved in the right way. The armed conflict in Myanmar is basically a political problem. General Aung San pledged in the 1947 Panglong Agreement that a federal Union guaranteeing self-determination and equality would be established. Armed revolution began because the Panglong Agreement wasn’t fulfilled. As this is a political problem, it is important to solve it properly through political means. We need dialogue. More than 50 years of armed conflict is testament to the fact that solving problems through purely military means is not the answer. The current government accepts that political problems must be solved through political means. So did the government of President U Thein Sein. As a result, dialogue started between ethnic armed organizations and the government under the U Thein Sein administration and has continued. A failure to recognize the root cause of armed conflict is the most basic problem. In the past they failed to identify the real cause of the civil war. But today, they can identify it correctly. The problem is being solved through political means and we have greater prospects for peace compared to the past.

KZM: Internal peace is the most important thing. Dialogue for peace started under the U Thein Sein government and it has been almost nine years now since it started in 2011. The current NLD government is elected by a popular majority. Why is dialogue delayed and not successful? Most people know it is difficult. There is the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] on one hand and the elected government on the other, as well as stakeholder groups in regions and states. What are your suggestions to the government to facilitate dialogue?

TJ: It is important to build trust between the government, the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organizations [EAOs]. There must be trust between them. They are using a strategy that looks like fighting and talking at the same time. When they meet for talks, there should be a ceasefire, at least temporarily. They should hold talks with a cool head but we haven’t seen a dialogue conducted that way. The peace talks are not successful because they negotiate and fight at the same time. This must change. Another thing is that key players must be sincere and reform-minded. They talk about peace and ceasefires, but they do the opposite. This must change. Unless this changes, the situation will not improve. And there are challenges for every organization. There are challenges for the government as well as the EAOs. The challenge facing the government is that it has to build trust to win over the military and the EAOs.

KZM: You said it is important to have negotiations between the Tatmadaw and the government. It appears that there is no coordination between Tatmadaw leaders and government leaders. We can’t predict when collaboration will happen. We are in a vicious cycle of peace talks and fighting: how can that cycle be broken?

TJ: It is important to find a solution. It is important that all the stakeholders work in good faith towards peace and the interests of the people. If not, it will be difficult to build trust between the government and the Tatmadaw. So, it is important to heed the interests of the people and the country. The entire country wants peace. So, to achieve peace, the two sides must work passionately. If they build trust and understanding in good faith, they may solve problems. If the two sides only do what they want to do, they will never get along and build trust.

KZM: How much can ethnic leaders push for the two [the government and the Tatmadaw] to build trust?

TJ: Ethnic leaders are working to achieve peace. We have articulated our stances at conferences and meetings. They already know what we want. Ethnic leaders have held talks with the government and Tatmadaw separately. But I don’t know how much [ethnic leaders] have pushed them to build mutual trust. What we ethnic groups want is to build a federal democratic Union and live together peacefully. For that to happen, the Tatmadaw and the government are the key players. They play the central role.

KZM: It is important that the two have the political will to make reforms and heed the interests of the people. Which side do you think has failed to heed the interests of the people and which side is responsible for the stalemate [in the peace process]?

TJ: It is important that the government adopt clear policies and stick to them. If the Tatmadaw really wants peace, it has to reduce the fighting. Both the government and the Tatmadaw have to fulfill their responsibilities. The main problem at present is that clashes can’t be stopped. But clashes have deescalated, especially in Kachin State, and they are trying to prevent clashes from recurring. There has been progress in that regard. Regarding clashes, the Tatmadaw has a major responsibility. If the Tatmadaw doesn’t show restraint, it will be difficult to achieve a ceasefire. Secondly, the government, being responsible for the Union, should assess the situation of the entire country and ask the Tatmadaw for what is necessary. There are questions as to whether the government has asked the Tatmadaw [for what is necessary for peace] or the Tatmadaw has refused to listen to the government. I’d say the Tatmadaw and the government share responsibility. If both sides acknowledge the need to stop clashes and engage in dialogue and invite all the ethnic groups [for talks], fruitful political negotiations will emerge.

KZM: Apart from the KIO/KIA, there are other armed groups including the Ta’ang and the Arakan Army in Kachin State. As other armed groups are also active in the area, this will further complicate the situation in Kachin State. How much can the KIO or Kachin parties do to mediate between the Tatmadaw and other armed groups? The KIO/KIA and Tatmadaw are barely clashing today and ceasefire talks are ongoing. But at the same time, clashes with the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army] and the AA have escalated. Do you have any plan to negotiate with [the military and the two EAOs] to get on the same line?

TJ: It depends on the standpoints and actions of those revolutionary ethnic armed organizations. If they really desire peace and if the Tatmadaw accepts that, a ceasefire can be achieved anytime. It depends on whether their talks are meaningful. For that to happen, we need a third party—a mediator group. The mediator group must be trusted by both sides. They can either be individuals inside the country or those from abroad. In the international community, foreign countries act as mediators and this practice has been found to be effective. In the case of Myanmar, if we rely only on local mediators, there are individuals inside the country whom both sides can trust. It is good to form a mediator group with these people to broker talks between the two sides. There are also many parties in Myanmar and party affiliation can be a problem. So the mediator group should have people without party affiliation.

KZM: Speaking of a mediator, China, our neighbor which shares a border with Kachin State, has been heavily involved in the issue of armed struggle in Myanmar. China once supplied arms to the Tatmadaw and other armed groups. It also supplied arms to the Communist Party of Burma [CPB] and the KIA. It has now taken the role of mediator to end the clashes. How important is the role of China in the politics of Kachin State and Myanmar as a country? How sincere is their intention to help Myanmar?

TJ: China plays a very important role. It is a neighbor and geopolitically important for us. It is also a world power. The policies of China are important for the future of Myanmar. We need to understand its policies. Personally, I have never seen China as having a policy of interference that would make problems worse or add fuel to the fire in Myanmar. It only wants Myanmar to be peaceful. Yes, it did supply arms to the CPB under Mao Zedong. But later, since the time of Deng Xiaoping, it changed its policy from confrontation to coexistence. It has not [officially] helped armed rebel groups. It has engaged with the government in an understanding. It is important to note that the relationship between the two countries was just government-to-government in the time of the BSPP. But after the 2010 election, China began a government-to-people relationship. By people, I mean the party that represents the people. [China] has changed its policy regarding its relationship with Myanmar in order to understand more about Myanmar and to provide more effective assistance. It tries to maintain good ties with the government, the Tatmadaw, ethnic armed organizations and politicians. It has a policy of not interfering in internal issues of other countries. Today, it says that it is just helping and not interfering [in Myanmar’s internal issues].

The sole, main desire of China is to restore peace in Myanmar. It is like closely watching the fire on a neighbor’s house to extinguish it because it could destroy the entire village if it spreads from one house to another. [China] is not happy to see the fire spreading in its neighbor, Myanmar. It is helping to stop it. This is China’s policy. You said it is helping ethnic armed organizations. In the past, it supported the CPB and now it is the Wa that China is supporting. I have not yet heard whether China is officially supporting other ethnic armed organizations along the border.

KZM: Let’s talk about politics in Kachin State. The NLD won the 2015 general election in the entire country, including in ethnic states such as Kachin State. That was why it was able to form the government in accordance with the Constitution. They formed the government with their party members, who are ethnic people who represented their party and won the election. As far as I know, local ethnic people who won the election representing the NLD in Kachin State were appointed as chief minister and ministers for Kachin State. However, to what extent do you think local residents are satisfied with this?

TJ: Local people voted for [the NLD] in the 2015 general election because they wanted to see changes. Now, different people have different opinions as they witness the current situation. What I would like to say is that we are heading towards federalism in order to restore genuine peace. Therefore, the satisfaction of ethnic groups is very important. Equality is critically important, and we need to change three aspects of dominance.

KZM: What are they?

TJ: Yes: the dominant ethnic group, the dominant religion and the dominant party. Let’s talk about the dominant party. There are parties based in ethnic states and parties based in the center of the country—in other words, parties that operate at the local level and those at the Union level. There is no negotiation or bargaining between the two. Because of this, ethnic people in states are not fully satisfied. Everyone loves his home region. However, as the biggest party is too dominant, it goes against federalism. This is against the federalism that the country is heading towards. I am not blaming any party but, in my opinion, the NLD said that ethnic groups did not need to form their own parties because it represents all ethnic groups. They said local residents should join the NLD if they want to see development in their states. It seems to be true superficially but in reality, ethnic Kachin members in the NLD have to work under the instructions of the headquarters. What we want is autonomy, but what is happening now is that the biggest party rules through Kachin people. In Kachin State, the chief minister is Kachin but he does not have enough power. Power comes down from the headquarters in a centralized system. Therefore, he cannot do enough for local people to satisfy them. It is autonomy that we want. Under a federal system, there are state constitutions and state parliaments. State parliaments will enact laws in accordance with state constitutions. The chief minister may be elected directly [by constituents] or by the state’s parliament. He or she will not need to listen to any headquarters and will have full power to work for the interests of local people independently. As the current situation is a far cry from that, the biggest party, the NLD, should create a situation in which local ethnic people have the right to shape their own destiny. We must change this.

KZM: That was why you founded the Kachin State People’s Party, by merging all three parties in Kachin State.

TJ: Of course.

KZM: Your party contested the by-election [in Myitkyina], but the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] won it. To what extent do you think your party can succeed in the 2020 general election? What is the potential? If we look back at the by-election, there were NLD and USDP candidates on one hand and the alliance of Kachin parties on the other hand. In the end, the NLD and Kachin parties lost the by-election and the USDP, a military-backed party, won it. If such a division of votes [among pro-democracy parties] occurs again in the 2020 election, will the situation for local people get worse?

TJ: Most important is that we must be able to win the hearts of our voters. Voters will cast votes for their local party if we can do so, even if there are electoral irregularities. We must try to win the trust of our voters. Our ways of persuading our people will be different from those of other parties during the campaign. We will not show power or money but instead show our compassion so that they are willing to vote for us. We will show that we are their offspring, who will serve their interests. We explain to them that we are a party they can rely on. If people understand and accept us, they won’t vote for other parties.

Another situation is that the nature of the public changed after the 2010 and 2015 general elections. They say the 2020 general election should be a turn towards ethnic parties. [The public’s] attitudes and perspectives have changed based on their own experiences. People have said they wanted to give a turn for local ethnic parties, but there are too many local parties. If they don’t merge, even if people vote for them, it is useless. So, people have urged us to merge and we did so. This happened not only in Kachin State but also in Kayah, Karen, Chin and Mon states, because they were facing the same situation. This is a turnaround in the history and the ways of thinking of the people.

KZM: Many observers suggest that the NLD’s popularity has declined and that it will suffer in the 2020 general election as ethnic parties and people do not like how the NLD has treated them. Some suggest that if ethnic parties win more seats and the USDP also wins some seats, then there might be a coalition government. Under such circumstances, how would an ethnic party like yours choose between the NLD and the USDP?

TJ: We do not have a policy of partnering with a particular party. Any party that contests the general election may win more or fewer seats. I think the best way is to form an inclusive coalition government. However, it is difficult to say what will happen if such a scenario really happens.

KZM: Do you mean that you won’t choose between them based on which policy—that of the NLD or that of the USDP—is closer to federalism and autonomy?

TJ: Actually, we have our own policy to join hands with any political party that truly accepts democracy and federalism. We will decide based on this.

KZM: Which party is closer to the two concepts, the NLD or the USDP?

TJ: Frankly speaking, everyone says that the NLD is a civilian government and it is a democratic party that does not reject federalism. The NLD is closer.

KZM: As you mentioned three types of dominance—”the dominant ethnic group, the dominant religion and the dominant party”—this reminded me that a lot of Kachin people were unhappy when former prime minister U Nu announced Buddhism as the state religion. It is believed to be one of the reasons that drove Kachin youth to form the KIO and the KIA. This seems like it is related to what you call the dominant religion. Moreover, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited Kachin State before the 1990 elections, she said in Myitkyina that we should not engage in identity politics, but work together in a democratic revolution for the sake of the entire country. How acceptable is her remark to you as a Kachin person and a Kachin leader at present?

TJ: The Union of Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country. Of course, people will love their own race more. It is natural that people love their own region and race. But we can’t live alone—we have to live together with other ethnic groups. This is the essence of the Union. Only when the Union exists will we be able to work together for development. The Union spirit and the ethnic spirit must co-exist. We should value them both.

KZM: She seemed to be referring to the spirit of the Union. But around the world, there is nationalism in every country, and we have nationalism in our country. We have recently seen the rise of nationalism in Myanmar. As the Myanmar government has consistently ruled Kachin State, how much do you think Burmanization has influenced Kachin State? And how deep is the hatred in response to Burmanization in Kachin?

TJ: It depends on the actions of the authorities, and ethnic Bamar are predominant among the authorities. If there is discrimination by the authorities, there will be criticism. I heard that there is discrimination in some places and Buddhist Bamars are preferred for appointments in government offices. There will not be criticism like this over chauvinism if there is equality and all are given equal opportunities. There are criticisms over chauvinism because there is a discriminatory attitude that looks down on all the other races. Other ethnic groups hate the majority ethnic group and criticize them for chauvinism. To get rid of chauvinism, the supposedly chauvinist ethnic group must amend their ways. They have to ensure equal rights for all and should not take advantage of others. Chauvinism will continue to exist if they fail to do so. If this is the case, they will continue to draw criticism.

KZM: My last question! The KIO was formed after 1960 and it fought the military government of the time, the Burma Socialist Program Party government. It has been many years since then. Because of the complexities of politics and the reality in Myanmar, the country has reached an impasse in the peace process. How long do you think it will be until the peace process can go further? How long do you think it will take for things to improve?

TJ: The Union of today emerged according to the 1947 Panglong Agreement as General Aung San promised self-determination and ethnic equality under the “come together” principle. Unless and until what Gen. Aung San pledged is realized, peace can’t be achieved. We should work together to establish a genuine federal Union. All the ethnic groups must work together. But for that to happen, political dialogue must be successful. The process has stalled, but it has not backtracked. There is a need to continue the Panglong [Peace] Conference and adopt principles of federalism in order to establish a federal Union. Problems will remain unsolved unless this is realized. Ethnic groups have continuously advocated for the establishment of a federal Union. In our state, we have started working to end clashes and participating in political dialogue. So, we have to keep working on this. The situation is not yet satisfactory. But there is potential for the Panglong Conference to continue, and I believe we will be able to achieve peace if we keep working in this direction.

KZM: Thank you very much.