Following the first meeting of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference in August, fighting intensified in northeastern Burma, and negotiations between the government and the ethnic alliance United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) stalled. Informal talks between the two sides resumed last Friday, but it remains to be seen whether the non-signatories of the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) will attend the next Panglong meeting, which is slated for February.
The Burma Army continues to wage an offensive against ethnic armed groups, adding to the number of lives lost and people displaced from their homes in Kachin and northern Shan states near the China border.
General Sumlut Gun Maw, vice chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), recently met with The Irrawaddy’s reporters Nyein Nyein and Kyaw Kha in Chiang Mai, Thailand for an exclusive interview, in which he discussed the ongoing conflict and ethnic perspectives on the peace process. This is the first interview granted by the KIO since intense fighting broke out on Nov. 20 in northern Shan State.
What can you say about the loss of key Kachin Independence Army (KIA) outposts such as Gideon and Lai Hpawng during the Burma Army’s offensive?
The Tatmadaw [Burma Army] has waged a military offensive against us for more than four months, and we’ve lost some of our positions. It seems like they are forcing us to decisively choose between engaging in military or political affairs.
Have you reached a decision about that?
We are discussing it in the [KIO] central committee. If needed, we will call for a party conference to consider it.
What is your view on the criticism that State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Htin Kyaw have been silent about the Tatmadaw offensives in Kachin and northern Shan states?
We think the government should be talking about it. I don’t want to make any critical comments. But as the government does not say anything, it appears that it is encouraging the offensives.
Could you explain why the KIA, together with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), initiated the Northern Alliance attack on Nov. 20?
We call the groups that are included in northern region operations the Northern Alliance. But also there is another collaboration known as the “Northern Alliance Army” in which three groups—the TNLA, AA, and Kokang [Ta’ang]—are members. The whole KIA has not joined them; only KIA Brigade 4 and Brigade 6 are in the alliance, because we [Brigades 4 and 6] are their allies, and also our regions are connected. Most importantly, if we did not join this operation, it could affect the trust between groups and could lead to an unnecessary political mess.
Ethnic leaders have always said they want to solve political problems through political means. Isn’t the current fighting the reverse of that?
If we look at one particular clash, then yes, the meaning could be reversed. But we have said that we will try to avoid using military pressure in our many press releases and public statements on the negotiations and in peace talks with the government.
Gideon, for example, had been under Tatmadaw attack for almost three months, and so we conducted a counter-offensive in one place, which lasted only 15 days, and which started on Nov. 20. If you criticize this particular KIA counter-attack, then you also must be aware of how the government army has been initiating offensives in the region for many months and with much greater military strength. It is important to not look only at one particular place.
Following the Nov. 20 attacks, the government and Tatmadaw have started using the terms “terrorists” and “insurgents” widely. What do you think about this?
I would like to answer this in two parts. At the moment, the government is not officially defining us as insurgents. But the Tatmadaw, including the commander-in-chief, is using the term everywhere. Still, the term is not becoming real even though they are saying it all the time.
Only the people can decide whether or not we are a terrorist group. Therefore, we are not terrorists or insurgents as long as our ethnic Kachin people and all the local people do not consider us terrorists. And we, the KIO, do not commit any violent acts, so I can courageously guarantee that the people support us.
Do you think that peace is becoming more distant? Given the “terrorist” term that the Tatmadaw is using—including army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing himself—is it harder to negotiate for peace in Burma when your main negotiating partner is the Tatmadaw?
This is the main cause of the standstill in negotiations. When we met U Aung Kyi [advisor to the government Peace Commission, on Friday, Jan. 13], we raised this issue. We told him that it was impossible for us to participate in peace talks because the commander-in-chief himself has been calling us terrorists.
In that meeting, you also reiterated the UNFC’s eight-point proposal, which mentioned a potential “unilateral ceasefire.” What kind of unilateral ceasefire do you want?
Our main point was that the UNFC demands that all of its members be included as signatories. [This would include the TNLA and the MNDAA, groups that are currently excluded by the Tatmadaw. The AA, which is not a member of the UNFC, is also excluded from signing the NCA.]
Our demand is that when all of our members have signed [the NCA], then the government will announce a unilateral ceasefire within 24 hours. Then we, the ethnic armed organizations, will also announce our cessations within 48 hours. The government says they can’t do that—they will only announce a ceasefire with the groups who they allow to sign.
The government’s delegation repeated this point in the meeting on Friday. We said, on the subject of the NCA, the government must allow all groups into the process. The government would not agree to that, so it’s become an obstacle to signing the NCA.
What is your reaction to the criticism that the current fighting is more about protecting the personal benefits of ethnic armed group leaders rather than fighting for the ethnic groups’ original aim of equality?
It is groundless to say we are fighting for personal benefits. In the KIO, for instance, tax collections are handled through a specific department. There is no one man who controls it. So if someone talks about “protecting benefits,” we are protecting benefits for our nationality. These are not personal benefits.
Following the capture of your KIA outposts and the subsequent fighting, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the border areas attempted to escape into China. Allegedly, these IDPs were beaten and pushed away by the Chinese. What is the KIO doing about this, and do you have any channel through which you can talk with the Chinese authorities?
We negotiate with the local Chinese authorities, not with the national government. And when the Kachin locals faced these hardships, we could not deter them from fleeing to China. They tried to cross the border to protect themselves. We could only approach the Chinese authorities to offer assistance.
Last week, two people—including a child—died when a stray artillery shell landed on a civilian house in Namhsan Township during a clash between TNLA soldiers and the Tatmadaw. Regarding such incidents, the public wants to know, can ethnic national liberation only be achieved through armed conflict?
For the KIO, we have our policy. We strive to solve our problems through the political process. On that basis, we came to the negotiation talks, despite the fact that there was intense fighting still happening on the ground. If we did not have this policy, then I would not have come to negotiate.
Why should the armed struggle still continue?
The key things are equality and federalism. We must have equal rights. We need equal treatment and equality in negotiations. Then we must continue genuine political negotiation. The result of that genuine political talk must be stated officially in the Constitution. Now, the current deadlock is that no one is talking about the amendments of the [2008 military-drafted] Constitution.
We also talked about this on Friday—whether we can follow the example of Chile, as they worked to amend their Constitution for 16 years. If we signed the NCA, then how do we amend or change the Constitution? Or do we draft a new Constitution? We raised this issue, and we have not received an answer.
As a negotiator, do you believe the current peace process led by the NLD government is fading away? Or do you have hope that it will work?
We believe the new government has the will, but they have no ability yet for the implementation. For instance, when the first 21st Century Panglong was held in August, we joined the talks in order to show respect to the new government. We attended because we want to reach the point where we are having genuine political talks. But we were not satisfied with the first 21st Century Panglong conference. So, we see the implementation of the process as being very weak.
Why were you not satisfied with the first Panglong meeting?
First, if a conference is held, it must correspond to the normal characteristics of a conference. Second, as the name is “21st Century Panglong Peace Conference,” Union affairs should be prioritized, and we must discuss the Panglong promises and the Panglong Agreement. If those terms that were agreed to at the  Panglong are not acknowledged and not discussed, then we need to delete the word “Panglong” from the title. We suggested other names.
The government wants you to sign the NCA first, and then to join the second 21st Century Panglong meeting in February. Will you attend? And if you attend, what should the government do to include you in the peace process?
This answer comes in two parts. Now everyone is trying to say there is one issue, but really there are two issues: One—the 21st Panglong, and two—the signing of the NCA.
Actually, signing the NCA is an ordinary issue. It is true that we have to move forward after signing, but we have to first carefully discuss how we are going forward because we want to see this agreement last a long time.
As I said before, if the 21st Century Panglong is a conference, there must be genuine delegates who attend, and the conference must be held with its full characteristics. If the conference is not meaningful and does not meet these requirements, then we won’t attend.
What is your view on the framework for political dialogue?
Regarding the framework, I think political dialogue should only happen after reviews are done on the whole framework. It should not be done piece by piece.
In the beginning of [drafting] the NCA, we specifically requested a point about building a democratic federal union. But the [then] government representatives said that it would be in the agenda of the political dialogue. Then we thought about it, and we hoped that we would have the tripartite-talks, after we signed the NCA and formed the joint committee. But now things are different, and there is no joint leadership and no tripartite talks.
So we have to reflect on how we are moving forward with this framework. I think only after the framework is done should we convene the conference. Right now we are doing both things in parallel—convening the conference and doing the framework review—so there are difficulties.
Do you think your stances might prove difficult for the government, since the State Counselor has said she will act as the negotiator between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups?
It is complete nonsense to say the government and the Tatmadaw are separate. We believe when we say “the government,” that means the government and the Tatmadaw together. But Burma is different, and we have two separate sectors.
If you asked me who wants peace more, I think the answer would be “all of us.” Our differences are in regards to how we approach the peace process. We, the ethnic armed groups, talk about equality—to talk as equals and to live as equals. I think that is genuine peace.
If there is no equality, there is no genuine peace. This is how we measure it.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
People want to know why the UNFC members have not signed the NCA yet. This is not the right question to ask, and we do not have a direct answer. Instead, we have our own criteria for the conditions in which we would sign a ceasefire.
For instance, as you all know, the UNFC has put forward nine points (originally eight but one more was added), and we told the government—both in writing and verbally—that we would sign all of the points. The ninth point says the UNFC will sign the NCA when both sides agree to all eight demands. We want to sign a substantial agreement; and for that we must negotiate carefully for the long-term future.
Therefore, I don’t want people to think that we do not have the will to sign. We do, but we are negotiating to reach long-term, sustainable peace.