Is Naypyidaw Learning From Sri Lanka to End Civil War?

By Saw Yan Naing 29 January 2014

The Karen National Union (KNU) signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in January 2012. Since then, there have been disagreements within the KNU leadership over the ceasefire and the peace process. Some leaders, described as “pragmatists,” want to move quickly forward with the peace process, while others want to exercise caution.

Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh is vice commander-in-chief of the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and is often described as “hardliner” as he advocates a slower approach due to his doubts over peace process. He is a former commander of the KNLA’s Brigade 5.

The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter, Saw Yan Naing traveled to the KNLA Brigade 5 area and met Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh to discuss the peace process.

Question: What is your opinion on the peace process between the Burmese government and the ethnic armed groups so far?

Answer: In my opinion it is time for the Burmese government to transition and develop the country like other developing nations. They have been criticized for their administration that has for a longtime made no progress. That’s why they certainly have plans to reform, so that they are not criticized and pressured any longer. In a series of reforms, they will also try as much as they can to end the civil war and move forward to develop the country. But, they might have different way of thinking and approach to ending the war.

They want the ethnic groups to get involved into a “game” that they have set up. So, if we don’t think carefully, we are at risk of falling into the trap they set, and we will miss the goal that we want. We have to make sure that we don’t miss our target when we agree a ceasefire with the government. We must lay down a systematic plan and implement it precisely, step by step. We know that they have their own plans; for example to what degree they will categorize us and how much they will give us what we want. If we don’t go straight toward the target we want, we will fall in the trap they set for us.

Q: So what is the government’s plan for the ethnic groups? What do you think the Burmese government has in mind?

A: For example, we have to form parties and enter into Parliament in 2015. There must be one army in the country, and we are supposed to fight alongside the government against terrorists. So, we understand that we will be combined into one armed force under their [Tatmadaw] control.

I think the military is trying to come up with a new tactic to end armed conflicts with the ethnic minorities. In this case, I think they want to copy Thailand. They want to turn the ethnic armies into border guard forces. They will give some reasonable opportunities to the ethnic minorities, like Thailand gives to hill tribe ethnic people who live in Thailand. If ethnic groups get those opportunities, there might be no war. So, the Burmese government thinks again about giving opportunities to ethnic minorities that they didn’t give in the past. They will give us opportunities to disarm voluntarily. But, they will retain sovereignty. They won’t give the Karen a mandate to govern Karen State.

Q: Is there any positive change that has been emerging after the ceasefire between the government and the KNU?

A: Positive and negative matters always come along. There are positive consequences after we reached a ceasefire. For example, fear and concerns about being attacked have been reducing among villagers. And people can speak and share information without fear. These are visible positive points. But, we don’t see invisible negative elements that might be behind the positive ones.

While they [government troops] cease firing at us, they have been trying to influence our communities and territories by means of social and political engagements. They spread their people in a friendly way among Karen communities and get themselves connected not only with civilians but also our soldiers. I see it as their tactic to expand their influence and control in our territories, but in a soft way. It seems the blood of some of our soldiers is getting cold, but among them [the government troops], it’s not. They divide their duties and roles and implement it very systematically. The government and the army acts precisely in accordance with their roles. So, if we take the ceasefire as a “business deal,” I think they won and we lost.

Q: Aung Min is the key peace negotiator for the Burmese government. He leads the peace negotiation team on behalf of the government. What do you think of Aung Min and his words?

A: I think he plays his role very well. He talks very cleverly. He speaks very lightly and makes promises very easily. To me, those who promise easily do not keep their word. So, the more flexibly he speaks, the more I doubt it. I don’t trust those who are sweet talkers. When we talk about important and serious issues, we have to talk seriously. Only those who talk seriously are serious and sincere in their words.

Q: Some say that KNLA Brigade 5 is stubborn. Others described its leaders as “hardliners.” What are your comments on that?

A: While other leaders are following plans that are set up by Aung Min or the Burmese government, I’m not following it. To me, I want to move very carefully and slowly to make things go according to our plan. I am cautious. So I am often against their plans, which I disagree with. They think that I don’t support the peace process and some even worry that I’m going to break it.

For example, Charles Petrie [the head of Norway-backed Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, or MPSI] came to meet me and asked me not to destroy the peace process. He questioned me repeatedly, “You won’t break the peace process, right?” He asked me three times. I told him that I won’t destroy it. I want to do it in appropriate way to secure a lasting peace. Then he said he will write a letter to Aung Min to let him know that I told him I won’t break the peace process.

Q: MPSI pilot projects are often criticized by community-based organizations. What do you think about these activities in war-affected ethnic areas including the KNU territories?

A: I didn’t accept the pilot projects from early on because we have experienced that the government army strengthened its troops during ceasefires with us in the past. And I worry that the government will exploit the development projects and NGOs as tools to strengthen its control in our communities, like has happened in some other countries.

Q: Which country and experiences you are talking about?

A: In my knowledge, I will say the Tamil rebels and the Sri Lanka government. I understand that Norway also get involved in Sri Lanka’s transition. The Tamil rebels lost their territory and bases after a ceasefire [in 2002] with the government as NGO projects, development, education, schools and health care operations came in into their areas.

It is like a cold war. You turn off your weapons, but you strengthen your control through social developments. So, I’m worried that the conditions here will be like that. The situation of Tamil rebels might not be the same as the Karen and the Sri Lanka government might not like the Burmese government. But, the theory of defeating rebels is the same.

Q: Burma is a multiethnic nation and has different armed groups. Apart from the government armed forces, there are more than a dozen ethnic armed groups. Burma’s Constitution says that one country must have one national army. But, ethnic minorities want a “federal army.” How Burma can fix its military structure?

A: It will be difficult to structure all ethnic troops and the government army into one armed force because all ethnic minorities want to govern their states. There should be a state guard [made up of the ethnic armed groups] and a union army. We can cooperate with the government army. But, state guards must not be centralized by the union army.

Q: We know that KNLA Brigade 5 has significant military strength. How do you get financial support to run your army?

A: The KNU has economic, taxation and forest departments. Financial support for our needs comes from those departments. And for our survival, we give some permits to those who want to come and conduct small-scale mining in our areas. We also permit some small-scale logging. We rely on taxation.

Q: In the late 1970s, ethnic minority armed groups formed the National Democratic Front (NDF). They vowed to fight and work together until they reach their common goal. But, some ethnic groups signed ceasefire agreements with the government in the 1990s individually. Now, they team up again and vow to come up with one voice in demanding their rights. Do you think it will work this time?

A: None of us are perfect. We all have strengths and weaknesses. So, we shouldn’t blame each other. I think when the Kachin went and signed ceasefire with the government in 1994, they might have had their own difficulties.

But, overall, the cooperation and unity within ethnic groups right now is not encouraging enough to me. We have to work a lot to make it better. We have been meeting and talking again and again, time has passed year by year, but unity among us is up and down. That’s why the Burmese government divided us into pieces. It is not that the Burmese government is so smart, but we ourselves also are not smart enough.