Latest Peace Talks with EAOs ‘Quite Successful’: Gov’t Spokesman

By Nyein Nyein 16 January 2019

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—The government peace delegation led by Peace Commission secretary U Khin Zaw Oo held separate, informal talks with four ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Chiang Mai, Thailand early this week. Negotiators met with representatives of the Karen National Union (KNU), the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

After the series of informal talks, The Irrawaddy reporter Nyein Nyein spoke to government spokesman U Zaw Htay about future peace negotiations, internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled the current conflict in Rakhine State between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army (AA), as well as the government’s view of the AA.

What can you tell us about the results of this series of informal talks with the different ethnic armed groups, held over two days? 

Our talks here in Chiang Mai in November were an attempt at damage control for the peace process, following the release of statements [by the KNU and RCSS]. We are worried about getting caught in a cycle of conflict. And our priority is to limit the damage in these situations. We conduct informal negotiations with the groups in order to bring them back to the normal path [of the peace process].

This time is a continuation of that effort. With the KNU, we had three informal talks, first in November and then in Yangon with [the group’s military and security adviser] Colonel Htoo Htoo Lay. This week’s talks were much more constructive. The KNU will hold discussions with its members and then they will meet other EAOs, and then they will meet with us. So we expect we will be back on the formal path soon and [the process] will be normalized.

The RCSS will meet separately with National Reconciliation and Peace Center leaders and with military leaders in Naypyitaw soon, to settle issues raised in their statement [suspending their participation in both the Union and state levels of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee]. From there, they will discuss the issues thoroughly; after that we will be in the normalization stage.

As with the KNPP, we have held informal talks five times. We, both sides, are trying to move forward [toward signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA)] and to reach that milestone. But we cannot specify a time frame, as we need to keep negotiating.

We will also meet with another non-signatory of the NCA [the KIA], on how they will participate in the NCA. Thus we are not able to say anything about that yet. [Note: This interview was conducted before the Peace Commission delegation’s meeting with the KIA, which was not open to the media.]

Our aim in coming to Chiang Mai for informal talks is purely to get back to normalization [of the peace process]. Also [it is an effort to keep negotiating] with non-signatories to the NCA, in order to get them to sign. It has been quite a successful trip.

What does the government expect from the KNPP, a non-signatory to the NCA, if it is to participate in the upcoming session of the Union Peace Conference, assuming one is held this year? 

Both sides are trying. Not only the government, but also the KNPP is trying to achieve that [getting the KNPP  on the formal NCA path]. Currently, that is it; we can say no more.

In November, you met informally with KIA representatives. After that, the government’s peace delegation went to northern Myanmar to hold talks with three EAOs—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the AA and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army—but we did not hear of any meeting with the KIA. What is the government doing to meet KIA leaders at the decision-making level? 

After this trip, the PC [Peace Commission] secretary, [retired] General Khin Zaw Oo, will travel to the northern region to hold more talks. We will not stop negotiating with signatories and non-signatories of the NCA, and we are continuously moving forward.

The AA is currently engaged in clashes with the Tatmadaw in western Myanmar. What impact does that have on its participation in the peace process? Will you hold bilateral talks with the AA? Last month’s announcement from these groups included a willingness to hold such talks. 

No, it is for the Peace Commission to decide whether talks continue with these three groups. Only when the commissioners go there again [this month] and listen to their responses will we know for sure how this will proceed.

Currently, what we can say for sure is that we do not exclude the AA from the peace process. We have opened the door to the AA to join us at the peace table, where we can all negotiate.

For years, people have been affected by the civil war in the states where ethnic armed groups are based. These groups are now trying to cease fighting and end the cycle of conflict. On the other hand, in Rakhine State—which has also faced violence from ARSA [the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army]—the conflict is escalating. So it is the reverse situation. It is moving in the opposite direction from the current peace process, and there will be negative impacts from this. We have urged the AA to get back on track, as the group is also holding talks with the Peace Commission.

Specifically, negotiation is the best approach to any problem. We have to find the way through peaceful negotiation. We won’t get the answer through armed conflict, because we have had that for more than 70 years.

This armed struggle [in Rakhine State] will yield no answers and benefit no one. First, the people suffer, and secondly the state suffers. And thirdly, there are many consequences for the Union [the country as a whole] and it doesn’t benefit anyone. Thus, we urge [them] to choose the path of negotiation to end these conflicts.

Conflict causes suffering; no one wins. It is a [no-win situation]. Currently we are seeing and hearing that many local people are being forced to flee their homes. Our government is deeply sorry about this.

To help those displaced, our government is prioritizing their resettlement, the opening of IDP camps. Social Welfare and Resettlement Minister Dr. Win Myat Aye is working on it. We are trying to help the displaced people get access to humanitarian assistance, including shelter and food. Then, when their basic needs have been met, we will try to help children get access to formal education. [Primary and middle school students’ year-end exams are only a couple of months away.]

Meanwhile, we are in talks with the Ministry of Health and Sports to be able to provide healthcare to them. Some of this assistance is under way. Medical staff are being sent to provide care; these are more like mobile clinics providing mobile healthcare.

I would like to emphasize that we are arranging assistance for those civilians affected by the armed conflict.

During your last press briefing, in the wake of the latest flare-up in the conflict in Rakhine, you told Rakhine State people not to support the AA. This was interpreted as a kind of threat against the public. Has this perception affected your ability to resolve the conflict in the state? 

We urged this because not all of the people [in Rakhine] believe that “We are all AA” or are supporters of the organization. We have some information on the AA’s supporters, but we cannot say exactly who they are.

What is important is that peace be achieved in Rakhine State as quickly as possible; everyone in the state must contribute to its stability. Another important thing is to move forward with development. We have a lot of projects in Rakhine and we need stability in the area for the projects to be implemented. These projects will help to develop the region and the public will benefit. Therefore, we are focusing on stability.

Only when the area is stable will we be able to implement our support for IDPs to get access to humanitarian aid and healthcare, and for children to get access to formal education. Meanwhile, the communities must collaborate with us to keep the conflict from escalating.

We understand that everyone wants Rakhine State to be peaceful. For that to be achieved, every stakeholder—the governments and the local residents—must work together.

Therefore, we are asking [the EAOs] to join the negotiations to settle the problems. For that to happen, we need to meet at the political [negotiation] table. And the negotiations with the Peace Commission need to be effective and need to see improvement so that we can sort things out through political means. We have had this armed approach for many eras, and there has been no answer. Thus, it is a difficult problem to solve and we need to move on and settle things through political means.

(This interview has been edited for clarity.)