Look at Myanmar’s Illusory ‘Peace Process’

By The Irrawaddy 30 May 2022

The Irrawaddy’s editor-in-chief Aung Zaw recently spoke to Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist and author of several books on Myanmar, on the peace process in the country. Here are excerpts.

Aung Zaw: Since the coup, there are endless tragic stories in Burma, or Myanmar. And the coup has faced very strong resistance in the country; the regime still tries to consolidate their power within the country but still, they are failing. And even a year after the military staged the coup, the regime keeps facing strong resistance; people take up the form of armed-resistance known as PDF [People’s Defense Force] and we now have a government in exile.

Recently, the regime leader [Senior General] Min Aung Hlaing invited ethnic armed organizations to attend the peace talks in Naypyitaw. So, there are EAOs, ethnic armed organizations, who have decided to go there and who are not going there—they are still divided. It seems to me that many major ethnic armed groups are not going there. So, but at the same time on the ground, we see a lot of fighting taking place in Chin State, Kayah State, Karen State; and a lot of clashes in Shan and Arakan [Rakhine] states. So what is your thought? I want to pick your brain. What is your thought on this—Min Aung Hlaing’s invitation and then the ongoing, very fragile peace process in the country?

Bertil Lintner: Well, basically so far, for him, it’s for a military government’s attempt to get a legitimacy that they want to invite these armed groups for talks to discuss peace and this sort of thing. But I think we’ll have to look at the so-called “peace process” and how it began and how it’s developed. Ah, I will also argue that the whole timetable—the way the talks are being conducted—is wrong. Normally, in any kind of peace process, the government will announce its desires, the armed groups will respond, ‘OK, we are not going to fight’; you meet, you talk, you reach a political consensus about the future of the country; and you sign an agreement. That’s a normal procedure anywhere in the world. But here, the whole idea was everyone has to come and sign it—the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA]—first, before they could have a real talk. It’s like, you know, putting the cart before the horse. And of course it’s never going to work. And if you look at the groups that checked and signed the so-called NCA—we have altogether 10 by now, isn’t it?

So how many of those actually have any armies? I mean, if you take, for instance, the Pa-O [the Pa-O National Liberation Army]; there was no army before they signed the NCA, but suddenly, it’s known; for them to become more credible, they created an army. The same with the Arakan Liberation Party or the Arakan Liberation Army that’s based on the Thai border with the Karen. […] And they are not having any armed activity for years, for decades, really. And suddenly, they have become a signatory, and therefore a player. The Chin National Front was also non-existent until the so-called peace process began. You have the ABSDF [All Burma Students’ Democratic Front], which gave up the armed struggle a long time ago. You have two small Karen breakaway factions which are insignificant. And they have the Lahu, basically an NGO, based in Thailand and they don’t have any army either. So, that leaves I would say two-and-a-half armies among the so-called signatories. It’s the Shan State Army of the Restoration Council of Shan State, and they do have an army; and then it’s the Karen National Liberation Army or the Karen National Union; and then the new Mon State Party and its army; which is so-so, they lost most of their strength but still they have a small force. All the major groups in the country, like the Wa, like Kokang, like Kachin, like the Shan State Army, or the SSPP—the Shan State Progress Party; they haven’t signed this agreement. I would say that […] 80 percent of all the armed non-state actors, if I may use that term, in the country belong to groups that never signed the NCA. So, the whole thing was a joke from the very beginning.

KAZ: Why they did not sign the ceasefire [the NCA]? Those groups, the TNLA, KIA, Wa? The Wa signed an informal agreement in 1989.

BL: They wanted to see some political progress first. I mean what they want is basically a federal union. Or even in some cases, a confederate mixture of states or union of states. And before they reach that, why should they sign anything? It’s like surrender, really. And it is the way, the groups that did not sign the agreement, the way they think. And if you look at two of the major armies today which are the most active, [they] are the Arakan Army and the TNLA in the Palaung area. They’re new armies. But still they’ve grown from nothing, really, to several thousand today during this so-called peace process.

KAZ: It is estimated that the EAOs, the troops, the strengths, they have total numbers of about 80,000 fighters all over the country. And they have controlled roughly 30 percent, more than 30 percent of the country’s national territory. They have more political influence than in the past, since the coup. A lot of Burman people look up to them and there are a lot of expectations over which EAO, which ethnic groups are coming to join the fight against the military regime. But the peace process; the so-called peace process seems to create more problems than solutions. Why is that?

BL: Well, there’s a split between those who signed the agreement and those who didn’t. Even if most of the groups who signed it are small and insignificant, they are still groups that are recognized as signatories of the NCA. They get access—this is in the past—the got access to a special office in Yangon. They got lots of money from the international community to continue so-called talks about nothing really, so it gave them some kind of prestige and legitimacy. And then of course they split with the groups who said, “Wait a minute, what they’re doing here is they are not talking about the future of the country; not talking about the Constitution, about what kind of country Myanmar or Burma should be in the future.” And this created a split.

KAZ: Now after the coup, there’s more talk on, not just of a federal union, but about a confederation. AA [Arakan Army] leader Tun Myat Naing told us in 2019, he said, “We prefer a confederation of states, like Wa State, which has a larger share of power in line with the Constitution.” He said, “Confederation is better than federalism.” And then he said, “We think confederation is more appropriate to the history of Rakhine State and the hopes of Arakanese people.” What do you think?

BL: Well, if you first look at the question of splits, one of the main signatories, one of the groups that actually had an army, the Karen, they have split after the coup. Because there’s certain parts, brigades of the Karen National Liberation Army that are actively fighting the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military], or whatever you want to call it, and there are others that are not, and they have some kind of peace agreement or ceasefire agreement with the central authorities. So it’s even caused splits within the organizations. And many of the Burman dissident groups, dissidents who have fled […] after the coup, have sought shelter in areas controlled by the Karen rebels, who supposedly are a signatory to the so-called NCA. So it has created a lot of problems and it hasn’t solved a single one. But then the question is, this is very interesting question but, I cannot really comment before I know exactly what is meant by confederation. How should the powers be divided? But these are exactly the kind of issues that should be discussed, and that should be talked about during the peace process.

KAZ: Yeah. Tun Myat Naing said, in the same context, in the same interview in 2019, “We [would] have authority to make decisions on our own. But there will be a common defense system, there would be cooperation on market regulations and foreign affairs. To have control over our own destiny, self-determination, is an inspiration of every ethnic group. We can try.”

BL: Well again, this comes back to question of power sharing, which would be the responsibility of the central government—because after all, they would need a central government—and then the confederate states. But then another problem arises naturally. If you look at the various states, the current states of the Union of Myanmar or Burma, there’s actually no state that has only one ethnic group. Chin State is probably the most cohesive in that sense, that there are very few outsiders, but then again, the Chin speak 20-30 different languages. They don’t even understand each other and sometimes they have to use Burmese to talk to each other sometimes, right? And Arakan State has a very large Muslim minority, Rohingya in the north and Kaman Muslims elsewhere in the state, and the hill tribes in the Arakan Yoma, right? In Shan State maybe 50-60 percent are Shan, hard to say, but you have large communities, other communities, ethnic communities there: Wa, Palaung, Pa-O, and Kachin; and would they want to be part of Shan State? Wouldn’t they like their own states? If you look at Kachin State, are the Kachin even the majority there? I doubt it. I would think that there are more Shan, Shanni, and Burman, actually living in Kachin State than Kachins. Then you have the question of the Rawang and the Lisu, they don’t really feel like they are Kachin so, so they would have a separate, kind-of, status or identity. Even in Karen State, Kayah State you have a mixture of various nationalities. So how do you solve that problem? But this are exactly, precisely the kind of issues any kind of peace talks should be focusing on: power sharing between the center and the states; and how to solve the minority problems within the minority areas; and what kind of solution should be found to that problem.

KAZ: When we say ‘peace talks’, my question back to you is, peace talks with whom?

Because this current military regime lacks legitimacy. They have no public mandate or public support inside and outside the country. The military is the sole problem and cause of division in the ethnically diverse country. It’s the military that’s the source of the division in our country.

BL: Yeah, that’s the main problem. If you look at what the military has said since the beginning of the so-called peace process, it’s that they have the duty to uphold and defend the Constitution. In other words, they don’t want to change the Constitution. They don’t want to change the status of the various states or the various nationalities within the boundaries of the country. And this of course is a problem if you want to talk peace. It is a non-starter basically, and I think the whole peace process, so-called peace process, was a non-starter from the very beginning.

KAZ: I want to ask you, since the coup, there were arguments that some powerful EAOs have an advantage in terms of promoting their political agenda and their inspirations for either the federal [Union] or confederation. They also get more support from the Burmese people.

BL: If you go back to what the situation was like a year ago, in 2021, the case was very similar after the 1988 uprising. The ethnic armed organizations were very slow to react. And I talked to people from the various ethnic groups after the military intervention a year ago here. They said, it is a fight between the Burmans, it doesn’t concern us. What did the Burmans do when we were under attack up in Kachin state, for instance? But then that kind of attitude disappeared quite quickly when they realized that they do have something in common with all these urban dissidents and the people resisting the new military government […] It seems to me that the KIO, the KIA is cooperating with several of the PDFs even outside Kachin State—that’s in Mandalay and Sagaing, and so on; they even send troops there to fight.

[…] It was nothing like that in 1988. And in the Karen area, parts of the Karen area, there’s a lot of different groups from the cities and the towns – which are not based there. And they cooperate with the Karen rebels.