Toward a Federal Tatmadaw

By The Irrawaddy 11 January 2014

Over the past two and a half years, Myanmar has made unprecedented progress toward ending its long history of civil conflict. During the same period, however, fighting has resumed between the government army, or Tatmadaw, and the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), demonstrating that a permanent peace is far from assured.

Recently, The Irrawaddy’s Lin Thant had a chance to speak to Maj-Gen Gun Maw, the deputy chief of the Kachin Independence Army and a key negotiator in talks with the government and Tatmadaw, about what the country’s ethnic armed groups hope to achieve in the ongoing peace process—including their vision of a more inclusive federal armed forces, which many see as central to ending endemic armed conflict in Myanmar.

Question: The KIO and other ethnic groups say they want to transform the Tatmadaw into a federal army. How do you propose to do that?

Answer: We haven’t reached the “how” stage yet. What we want is a Tatmadaw that includes all nationalities, because we all live in this country together. That’s why we are calling for a Federal Union Army. But how to transform the current Tatmadaw is something that we have to discuss with everyone concerned.

The role of the Tatmadaw is very important and we can’t eradicate its history, which began with Myanmar’s independence struggle. The structure of the future federal Tatmadaw will be different from that of the existing one, but that doesn’t mean that we are going to destroy it and replace it with something new. The main thing is how we will transform and participate in it.

Q: The government has called on the KIO to submit a list of all its members, as well as figures detailing how many weapons it has and how much ammunition. It also wants you to stop building new camps and recruiting new soldiers. What is your response to this?

A: It depends on the code of conduct, which both the government and the ethnic armed groups have to adhere to. For example, if the government tells the ethnic armed groups not to recruit new soldiers, it also has to create conditions under which they will not need to do so.

It will be impossible for us stop recruiting if fighting continues and we are still under repression. We have to prepare for coming battles. But if the government created conditions conducive to improving the situation, we are ready to do our part.

Q: China has been very involved in the peace process, especially in matters related to ethnic armed groups based along the Myanmar-China border. What role does China play between the KIO and the Myanmar government?

A: Kachin State and the Kachin people have always had strong ties with China, because there are Kachin people on both sides of the border, and this is something that can’t be changed. There are also things that bring Myanmar and China together, including border trade, so they can’t be separated either, since they are neighbors. However, Beijing’s relationship with the KIO is very different from its ties to the Myanmar government. It doesn’t communicate with or provide assistance to the KIO directly. Nor has it pressured the KIO, so far.

Q: But didn’t China push the KIO to engage in ceasefire talks with the Myanmar government?

A: A ceasefire is important for China’s interests because clashes between the KIO and government troops mainly take place in border areas adjacent to China. So whenever fighting breaks out on our side of the border, it causes problems on their side. Consequently, China asked the KIO not to engage in battles in these areas. But we have also heard that they made the same request to the government. So I don’t think we can consider such acts as pressure.

Q: What do you think of the peace process in Myanmar today?

A: We see it in a positive light. Before, it was difficult for both parties to meet in person, but now we can meet often and build up greater understanding. The government and ethnic armed groups have been able to share their positions on each other, which is a good sign.

Q: Many Kachin people have been critical of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What is your opinion, or the KIO’s opinion, of her?

A: Kachin people started criticizing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after armed clashes erupted again in our land in June 2011. Before that, all Kachin people spoke of her in very positive terms. They also put a great deal of hope in her, so when, because of the political situation she was in, she didn’t show as much sympathy for them as they had expected, they were very disappointed.

The leaders of the KIO have always regarded Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a capable and competent leader. When we get to the point that we start talking about issues related to the whole nation, she needs to be included. Other prominent individuals have to be there as well. Some people within the country and in the international community seem to think that she will be able to resolve all ethnic issues, but I would say that the ethnic nationalities won’t entrust their fate to her. Instead, they will join hands with her in finding solutions.

Q: What do you think about U Tay Za’s economic role in Kachin State, where he is said to have acquired a large amount of land for businesses ranging from mining to resorts?

A: I recently met him in Yangon, where I asked him to provide information about his business activities in Kachin State. He said he would. When we know more about how these activities will affect our people, we can discuss this with him. We welcome businesspeople who can contribute to the well-being of our people. But we have to speak out against anything that hurts their interests.

As far as we know, Tay Za is currently engaged in mining, including gold excavation and small-scale copper mining, and logging in our land. We’ve heard that he has acquired a lot of land in the Putao area. When we asked him about this, he said he will focus on environmental conservation there. So we need to know if he will keep his word on this.

Q: What is the KIO’s position on the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project, which the government suspended in September 2011?

A: We wrote an official letter to both Snr-Gen Than Shwe and the Chinese government rejecting the construction of the Myitsone Dam after the project was first reported. The Myitsone area is historically important for local people, and is also the lifeline of the whole country. That’s why we opposed it. We still hold that position.

Q: Some have accused President U Thein Sein and the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) of engaging not in a peace process but in a “peace business” that seeks to exploit ethnic groups. What are your thoughts on this?

A: There may be problems with the way the process is being implemented, but we don’t interpret these problems in the way that you described. There are several peace-making committees involved in this process, but to be frank, from the KIO’s point of view, the MPC is the body that is really working.

Q: You’ve noted that the Tatmadaw has played a central role in Myanmar since the days of the country’s independence struggle. At the same time, it has been accused of committing countless human rights violations over the years. How can these two—the Tatmadaw as a central institution, and the Tatmadaw as a serial violator of human rights—be reconciled?

A: From the time of the independence struggle until state power was seized by Gen Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council, there were Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan people in the Tatmadaw. So we can say that historically, the Tatmadaw was a product of the efforts of all ethnic nationalities.

However, the role of non-Burman ethnic groups gradually declined after the Revolutionary Council took over. After this, members of ethnic minorities couldn’t even reach the level of mid-ranking officers. In the future, the Tatmadaw shouldn’t be like this. If it is reformed, its positive role can be restored.

This story was first published in the January 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.