‘Signing the Ceasefire Does Not Mean Achieving Peace’
By Aung Zaw 27 March 2015
Just as the latest round of peace talks paused for a recess and participants emerged optimistic about reaching a long awaited nationwide ceasefire agreement, news emerged that clashes had again broken out between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the country’s far north. While many stakeholders maintain that an agreement is just around the corner, so many deadlines have come and gone that peace seems a distant mirage to many observers.
As conflict continues and several parts of the country, and as negotiators continue trying to forge a path toward a peaceful Burma, The Irrawaddy’s Editor in Chief Aung Zaw sits down with Gen. Gun Maw, Deputy Chief of Staff to the KIA, for a frank and thorough discussion about recent conflicts in Kachin and Shan states, and the country’s prospects for peace.
KIA delegates recently met with President U Thein Sein for the first time in Naypyidaw, raising hopes that a peace agreement could be reached soon. Could you tell us about the meeting and its outcomes?
We stopped in Naypyidaw on our way to attend the seventh round of peace talks [in Rangoon from March 17 to 22] between the Union Peace-making Work Committee [UPWC] and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team [NCCT]. We had long negotiated to meet with the commander in chief, since December. We made a two-day stop in Naypyidaw and eight of our central committee members met with the president. We delivered a letter from the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the KIA] chairman to the president. [KIO] General Secretary La Jar had a frank discussion [with the president] about the KIO’s position. We expected to achieve good results at the meeting between the UPWC and the NCCT after meeting with the president, and that is what happened.
What is your assessment of the discussion? Do you think it was a further step toward peace?
I think the meeting could have dispelled some doubts that the president had about us, as we were able to express the KIO’s position in person. I hope that if we could reach an understanding it would benefit the nationwide ceasefire process, but we can’t say what the outcomes of the meeting will be at this time.
Many viewed the fact that Commander in Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing received KIO delegates as significant. As the Burma Army is taking a leading role in negotiations with ethnic armed groups, what was the result of this meeting?
When we met with the commander in chief, we talked about solving political problems through political means, and avoiding military means. The second point we discussed was the future of the army. We accept the principle that there must be only one army and only one commander in chief, but we said we would like to discuss during the political dialogue exactly what the army should look like in the future.
What was his response?
I felt like he was satisfied. We mainly talked about two topics. Firstly, one military and one commander in chief. Secondly, we must accomplish a nationwide ceasefire agreement. When we said that we hoped to see a time when there would be no need for military preparations after the NCA is signed, he replied that he was quite happy to hear such words from us.
Was he really happy or was he pretending to be happy?
We have yet to wait and see how he acts. But he said so.
Did you discuss what the future army would look like?
We have not yet discussed it, because the ethnic armed groups themselves do not have a specific principle about it. But the ideal army, in our minds, is an army made up of all ethnicities on equal standing and without discrimination, and it must practice meritocracy with regard to promotion. It must be an army which carries out the main responsibilities of a professional army. I don’t want to blame the existing army. I don’t mean the existing army must be disbanded, I mean we would like to discuss how we can improve it.
Burma is in terrible need of trust, and trust must be built. Do you feel that mutual trust has increased after you met with the country’s leadership?
It takes two to build trust. As we could talk face-to-face with the president and the commander in chief, we have trust in them. But follow-up procedures are important to strengthen this trust. I think it will depend on the extent to which we keep promises and make compromises.
The Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) and peace negotiators told the media that a further step could be made toward the NCA after the talks. Does this reflect the nature of the discussions?
The United Nations and Chinese delegates attended the peace talks as observers, and Mong La, Naga and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) were also present this time. Both the UWPC and the NCCT expressed stronger enthusiasm about finding a solution, compared to previous talks. But regarding the result of the meeting, much remains to be done.
But some newspapers reported that the NCA could be signed within a few days.
The NCA may be signed by both parties soon, but signing it does not mean peace. As I have said earlier, the matters we have to discuss after signing the NCA are much more difficult, so signing the NCA does not mean achieving peace.
I suppose troop deployment is also a key issue.
Yes, it is quite an important issue. This is a topic that is yet to be discussed.
So it could take a long time to reach agreement on that topic?
Yes, we need to discuss some points before signing the NCA and much more remains to be done after signing it. That’s why I say peace can’t be achieved right after the NCA is signed.
MPC told the media that there are only four remaining topics to discuss. People took that to mean that peace is just a few days away. They had false hopes. What would you like to say to them?
Those four topics could be big issues, and there may be sub-topics. So rather than talking about the number, I would like to ask the UWPC to make public the fact that we have yet to discuss important principle issues.
The Myanmar army attacked the KIA while the seventh round of talks was going on, even using air strikes. Isn’t this a step backward?
I was about to report to our central committee about some deadlock issues when the government’s warplanes attacked our Brigade No. 3. The clashes were ordered by the upper levels of power, but the unexpected engagement will not have a serious impact on the talks.
The clashes occurred shortly after you met with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Many have a very pessimistic view about this fight. Do you share this view?
We are systematically studying their intentions now. We are checking if the government army’s attack was meant to put pressure on us to sign the NCA quickly.
Are ongoing conflicts, including clashes with Kokang at the China-Myanmar border, related to the coming election?
As we understand it, the government has officially said that it wants to hold elections, but given the circumstances, it is doubtful that elections can be held nationwide. For example, no preparations have been made so far in conflict regions. We have told the president and the commander in chief that we understand they have difficulties and their time is limited for achieving nationwide peace because of the election.
Was the Kokang fighting on the agenda at the talks?
Yes, it was. We called on the government to discuss the Kokang issue with magnanimity and patience. We have accepted the Kokang as an ethnic group in Myanmar. We proposed settling the issue through negotiation and not militarily.
Don’t you think they are keener on solving the issue by military means, as they are even using warplanes?
Around 60 battalions have been deployed in Kokang and more reinforcements are being sent there. We have proposed both to the commander in chief and to the UPWC not to solve the issue militarily, but to find a solution through political means. Personally, I think it should not be settled by military means.
Do ethnic leaders have a single, united desire for peace?
Genuine political dialogue is the aspiration of all ethnic armed groups. Even if there are flaws in the NCA, if there were true political dialogue we would have no reason not to sign it. We have explicitly told the government that we would sign the NCA if we believe it could lead to true political dialogue. But we won’t sign it if it would force [ethnic minorities] to accept the [military drafted] 2008 Constitution.
You mean ethnic minority groups do not accept the 2008 Constitution?
Yes. We, the KIO, have officially said that the 2008 Constitution is incomplete and does not meet an acceptable standard for all ethnicities. But we are not discussing charter amendment at the talks. We understand that it needs to be discussed by all at some time in the future.
You mean during political dialogue?
Ethnic armed groups, including the KIA/KIO, reached ceasefire agreements during the time of U Ne Win, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the State Peace and Development Council, but none of them were permanent. Compared to previous discussions and truces, do you think the current discussions are more convincing?
Yes, we have hope. Looking back at previous ceasefire agreements, we find two flaws. One is that we could not adopt a future plan. Secondly, we failed to inform the public. This time, we have to correct these mistakes. The NCA must have a future plan and it must be made public. If there is public participation, I believe the NCA will have a guarantee.
Some say that the NCA will be signed during the Myanmar New Year Festival. Is this true?
It is unlikely that it will be signed before the [New Year] Water Festival. If we get the draft agreement we need to inform our leaders first, so it won’t be signed before the water festival.
What about during or after the Water Festival?
We would be able to sign it after the Water Festival if we reach an agreement.