Ethnic Issues

‘We Have No Option But to Defend’

By Kyaw Kha & Nyein Nyein 5 October 2015

Nineteen ethnic armed groups attended a summit of ethnic armed organizations held in Thailand late last month, at which seven of them, including the influential Karen National Union (KNU), agreed to sign a long-sought nationwide ceasefire accord with the government. The rest have opted not to sign the agreement at this time, however, pending the inclusion of all ethnic armed groups seeking to be signatories. 

Among the groups that have indicated they will not initially sign the agreement are major ethnic armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP). The holdouts say the continued exclusion of three groups engaged in ongoing conflict with the government—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Arakan Army—is the primary reason for their abstention.

With an Oct. 15 date set for the accord’s signing, The Irrawaddy recently sat down with Gen. Gun Maw, the KIA’s deputy chief of staff, for an exclusive interview.

What is your view on the seven ethnic armed groups that have decided to sign the ceasefire accord with the government?

I think they made the decision with consideration for the situations of their respective organizations.

The KIA is among the groups that will not initially sign and we have been hearing that this does not mean they will not ever sign, but rather that they need more time. Is that right?

In fact, by saying we need time we mean we need to negotiate mainly on the point of all inclusion. We mean we would sign [the NCA] if the government accepts the inclusion of all. So, we mean that [all-inclusivity] needs to be negotiated and that takes time.

The government said it would sign with some groups first and sign with others stage by stage. We heard that the government put forward the plan when the president received some ethnic armed groups on Sept. 9. Will ethnic armed groups follow that plan or will there be changes?

It is the government that says it will go stage by stage and therefore it is responsible for it. If the government puts forward the plan to us and we think it is acceptable, we will implement it. Now, the government only says that it will go ‘stage by stage,’ but it does not explain how to do that and we don’t see its implementation.

Clashes are still going on. If the NCA is signed, will the regions controlled by those groups that are declining to sign be used as training grounds for the military? 

They could be. Clashes have become more intense. If the government would fight us because we don’t sign the NCA, we have no option but to defend.

Even as ceasefire negotiations have been taking place, there have been reports of Burma Army attacks in Kachin and Shan states. Do you have any comment on that?

There have been more [military] assaults and clashes. We don’t want to assume that we are being forced to sign, because we’ve already told the government time and again at meetings not to ever think that the KIO would sign because of military pressures.

We heard that you would take different approach regarding all inclusion. What is that approach?

I was not talking about all inclusion. I mean there may be two different approaches between the groups that sign and that don’t. We have called for all inclusion, but the government said it would handle separately. So far, we haven’t seen and don’t know if the government is going to do that or not.

You mean the government has not put its words into practice to negotiate ceasefires with groups like the Kokang [MNDAA] and TNLA?

The Kokang group, MNDAA, and AA [Arakan Army] attended the summit and I found neither of them were holding separate talks with the government. So, I think the government has done nothing.

Some say that the deal can’t be called a ‘nationwide’ ceasefire if ethnic groups sign it separately, in stages. What are your thoughts?

We have talked about this two, three times at [ethnic armed organizations’] summits. The NCA is incomplete if only some groups sign it. We have only signed the NCA draft. Only when all ethnic armed groups sign it can it be called an NCA.

We have heard that the Senior Delegation was dissolved at the summit. Why?

The SD took responsibility for negotiations on the parts of the agreement that the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team [NCCT] failed to work out. The SD presented that [their] negotiations [with government peace negotiators] has reached an impasse. However, the NCCT and SD will continue to hold meetings on their future plans. We have said generally that the SD is dissolved. But we have not yet officially released a statement [about it].

So, the SD will continue to exist?

Rather than discussing its existence, I would say SD has done as much as it can. We don’t need to disband the SD, which we formed out of necessity.

If that is the case, what will be the future role of the NCCT?

The NCCT was formed according to principles and policies adopted by our [ethnic] conferences and we therefore need to discuss it separately. Representatives of would-be signatories [to the nationwide ceasefire] are still in the NCCT. If the NCCT continues to exist, we doubt if those groups will be able to accept and follow the principles adopted at the Law Khee Lar and Laiza conferences. So, we need another round of talks with would-be signatories to discuss what we are going to do with the NCCT.

What will the remaining groups do if those seven groups sign ceasefire agreement with the government?

Roughly, we plan to hold talks with would-be signatories when it is convenient for them. We will only know what to do then.

Will you, the groups that abstain, deal with the government individually or collectively?

We don’t know yet. But those groups that decline to sign are planning to hold talks with the government separately.

When will the groups that decline to sign the deal meet with each other?

We have not decided yet, but I am sure the meeting will be held.

Ethnic armed groups previously held talks with the government collectively. But now, some groups have planned to sign deal with the government. Does this have impact on unity among the ethnic armed groups?

I am afraid it is no longer easy to hold talks collectively as it was in the past. But we, revolutionary groups, share the same goal—introduction of federalism. We agreed at the summit to build peace as much as we can, based on that goal.