Ethnic Issues

‘We Need to Enter Political Dialogue’

By Kyaw Kha & Nyein Nyein 2 March 2015

On Union Day, Feb. 12, four ethnic groups signed a deed of commitment to Burma’s peace process and ending decades of civil war. The Karen National Union (KNU), the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) all signed the document, though other ethnic groups abstained as conflict raged in the country’s north. 

Chairman of the RCSS/SSA Lt-Gen Yawd Serk spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Nyein Nyein and Kyaw Kha about the group’s position on the peace process and when and whether I might be ready to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). 

Question: Some observers viewed the Union Day agreement in Naypyidaw as something like a truce, while others maintained that it was a reaffirmation of commitment to political dialogue and reaching a nationwide ceasefire. What is your view?

Answer: President U Thein Sein expected to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Union Day, Feb. 12. We expected [the deed of commitment] to be signed by all concerned parties. So we [the RCSS/SSA] attended the ceremony, but some groups refused to sign [the pledge]. As for us, we signed it.

Q: Does this mean that the RCSS/SSA would accept holding political dialogue separate from the NCA, and will proceed even if it is not signed?

A: Yes, we accept the process of carrying out political dialogue even if the NCA is not signed.

If we hold political dialogue only after peace has been made with all ethnic groups, and after the NCA is signed, it will take a very long time. We should start the political dialogue while making negotiations for the ceasefire. We’ll see results when we hold the dialogue and then we’ll be able to solve all of the problems.

President U Thein Sein has kept the NCA open for any group to sign. Any group can sign it if they are in a position to sign it. Generally, what we—ethnic armed groups—have expected is to solve [problems] through political dialogue. Now the door to political dialogue has been opened and if no group enters the discussion, the blame will be put on the ethnic groups later.

Q: Members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) said they still don’t have firm guarantees for their demands and are therefore unwilling to sign the NCA. How reliable do you think the government is in its signing of the Union Day pledge?

A: This is the point on which we and the UNFC hold different views. We have already ceased fire [with government troops]. To enter into a political dialogue, we don’t need to sign the NCA. The UNFC is unnecessarily talking about the framework for political dialogue while negotiating for the NCA, but that can be handled later. That’s why it’s taking them so long to sign the NCA.

Q: Some say that if even a single group is left out in signing the NCA, it cannot be called a nationwide agreement. What do you think?

 A: We have to look back to the Panglong Agreement and take a lesson from that. The Panglong Agreement was signed by only some ethnic groups, those who were in a position to sign it, and others signed it later. Now, some groups are in situations that make it difficult for everyone to sign the agreement.

But at the same time, it is unacceptable that peace can’t be built because of an individual group. Therefore, the NCA should be kept open and [the government] should work with those groups that are ready to join. Then the rest should join accordingly depending on their conditions.

Q: The RCSS has made 31 demands in negotiating with the government at the Union level, but it has not reached agreement over key issues like military deployment and a political pact. The RCSS has nonetheless committed to entering political dialogue. Does this mean the RCSS has complete trust in the government?

A: At present, the government does not trust us and we also do not have absolute trust in the government. There is still no mutual trust and we have yet to build it. We have to build trust and figure out how to work together.

Q: You have said before that the government needs to amend the 2008 Constitution before entering into political dialogue. What measures has the RCSS/SSA taken toward constitutional reform and what amendments would you like to see?

A: We have been making preparations. We have to meet and ask the people [Shan public] if they will agree to proceed with political dialogue. We have prepared for it.

Q: Will the RCSS eventually transform itself into a political party and join Burma’s politics or engage in social welfare works?

A: We still can’t answer this question about our future plans. Whether to form a party and contest elections is something to be considered later. The most important thing at present is that we need to enter political dialogue.

Q: China has been accused of supporting Kokang rebels, with allegations that foreign mercenaries were involved recent fighting between the MNDAA and the Burma Army. What do you think?  

A: China is a superpower now. I don’t think that it would involve itself in such a small problem. I don’t know about mercenaries, perhaps there may be mercenaries.

Q: You told me during a 2013 interview that the RCSS could eliminate the state’s drug problem within six years if only it had cooperation from the government. How is the fight against drugs progressing now? Is there any progress, or support from the government?

A: Everyday, we are doing as much as we can in the region we control. We rehabilitate drug addicts and take a hard line on drug dealers.

Q: Last year there were clashes between the RCSS/SSA and the Pa’O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) in Shan State over territorial disputes. How would you settle it?

A: Largely, it depends on the PNLO. When the Burma Army put pressure on the PNLO, that’s when they arrived at the border. At that time, we helped them a lot and we had made some agreements. After [the PNLO signed] a ceasefire, they failed to do as they’d agreed. Without coordinating with us, they built military outposts and camps in that region. We told them not to do it, but they did. That’s why clashes broke out.