‘We Have to Be Careful With the Language of Federalism’

By Samantha Michaels 15 July 2013

In the latest development for Burma’s peace efforts, the government last week signed a trust-building agreement with the country’s biggest ethnic guerrilla force, the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The pact with the ethnic Wa army, which is believed to have up to 30,000 soldiers, is a step in the government’s bid to achieve comprehensive peace pacts with all the country’s ethnic rebel groups after decades of civil war. Officials in Naypyidaw have also reportedly pledged to hold a nationwide ceasefire conference with ethnic rebel groups—in the coming weeks, perhaps, although an exact date remains unclear.

Ashley South is an independent consultant and senior adviser for the Norwegian-led Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), which formed at the request of Burma’s government last year to boost international support and build confidence in the ceasefire and peace processes. He meets regularly with Burma’s government, armed groups and donors, getting an inside look into the country’s complicated road toward national reconciliation.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy, South discusses the significance of the Wa pact, outstanding issues between the government and ethnic rebel groups, the effect of ceasefire talks on education and language instruction, and why he believes Burma should move toward federalism.

Question: Can you comment on the significance of the government’s agreement with the UWSA for the peace process?

Answer: The UWSA has a somewhat different agenda to most other non-state armed groups in the country. Their main objective is decentralization, in the form of recognition for a Wa State under UWSA authority, as part of the union, rather than an autonomous region of Shan State. Friday’s five-point agreement with the government is a positive step, but is unlikely to resolve tensions while the UWSA continues to control significant territory in southern Shan State, on the Thailand border, in an area well outside the traditional Wa homeland.

Q: What were your thoughts on the peace talks in Kachin State in late May? Some optimism came out of those talks, after rebel groups and the government signed a tentative peace agreement, but then clashes continued. What’s your take? Were the talks a big step forward?

A: I think it is a big step forward, yes. But it’s the first of many steps that would be necessary to have peace. So it’s a very significant development, very positive, but there are many things which need to happen before we can really talk about peace in Myanmar, and certainly before there is peace in Kachin [State] or northern Shan State.

Q: What needs to happen?

A: Well, I think it’s necessary to consolidate and strengthen the ceasefire agreements. I’m aware that the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] doesn’t want to use the word ‘ceasefire’ to describe the current situation in Kachin, because they’re not at the stage of a ceasefire yet, and also, of course, the KIO did have a ceasefire with the government back from 1994, so they are very cautious about using that vocabulary. [The 1994 ceasefire broke down in 2011.] I think there are a number of outstanding issues—not only in the Kachin ceasefire, but with most of the other groups—that need to be resolved before we can say these ceasefires have been properly established. There are only preliminary agreements in place at the moment.

Some of the issues that need to be addressed include the behavior of armed elements toward civilians —we’re talking about codes of conduct—both on the government side and also the non-state armed groups. In order for conflict-affected communities to have a sense of trust in the peace process, it would be very helpful if the Myanmar Army could withdraw from some positions which are not strategic militarily, but are perceived as threatening by communities. Also, there are widespread demands for ceasefire monitoring. This is something that was discussed in talks in Myitkyina [the Kachin State capital] in May, and I think in all of the different ceasefire agreements there have been discussions about monitoring but no concrete agreements yet.

Q: Such as international observers monitoring the ceasefires?

A: That’s one possibility. There are many variations, but one type of monitoring would be monitoring by local actors, and the other would be international monitoring. It’s up to the government and the armed groups to decide what’s most appropriate, but given the difficulties with the ceasefire process so far, many stakeholders—and particularly vulnerable communities—would find some kind of monitoring very helpful, to build some trust in the process and some confidence. The fact of repeated military clashes in a number of areas where ceasefires have already been agreed shows that there’s a need for more work to consolidate those agreements.

Q: In the ceasefire agreement in Mon State [in 1995], there was a semi-official concession by the government that educators in the state could teach Mon language after school hours, although classes at government schools were officially still taught in Burmese language. Have you heard of similar arrangements being made for ethnic language instruction in other ceasefire agreements?

A: Most of the other armed groups have made these demands, but in terms of an actual discussion, I don’t believe that has started yet. In the peace process, there are quite a range of issues that have been identified by the armed groups—political, social and cultural concerns that need to be addressed. And that’s an important start. There’s an agenda that’s been mapped out by the armed groups, and civil society and political actors, and education and language use is a priority for many of them. There have been some initial discussions in specific peace talks—for example in Chin State, in talks between the Chin National Front and the government in December last year, there was talk about Chin language use, and I think the KNU [Karen National Union] have talked about this. However, I don’t believe there’s been much progress yet in terms of actually a formal agreement on these issues. But at least the subject is on the agenda.

Probably most progress has been made by the New Mon State Party’s Mon National Education Committee, which administers some 300 schools, about half of which are ‘mixed’ schools—government schools, where the MNEC provides some teachers and curriculum materials. I think this is an important model for other parts of the country. The MNEC system provides education in the mother tongue, in this case Mon, especially at the primary level. In middle and high schools, the MNEC system follows the government curriculum in most respects, with additional units on Mon language and history and culture. This means that Mon National School graduates can sit government matriculation exams, and enter the state higher education system, if they choose, while at the same time retaining their ethnic national identity and culture. The Mon system provides ‘the best of both worlds,’ a locally owned and delivered education system, which is nevertheless integrated with the state system, which itself is undergoing significant reforms.

Q: Leaders of the Kachin Independence Army [KIA] have said that before agreeing to a ceasefire, they want the government to hold a more inclusive meeting with all the ethnic groups. The government has reportedly promised to follow through with a meeting in Naypyidaw, maybe even this month. Do you think it will actually happen?

A: I’d have to ‘no comment’ on that. It’s too sensitive! I could say more, in terms of other things that need to happen in the peace process, in a more general sense. Ceasefires are just the first step toward peace. What also needs to happen is the beginning of substantial political discussions. There are some issues which are of great concern to ethnic communities and to non-state armed groups, and which require quite broad participation in order to have a legitimate dialogue. When we’re talking about ceasefires, I think it’s appropriate for the main discussion to be between the government and the Myanmar Army, and the non-state armed groups, because the subject is security. But when it’s getting on to political issues, there are a wide number of stakeholders who would want to be included in discussions—political parties, civil society groups, conflict-affected communities—really, everyone in Myanmar is a stakeholder for political discussions. That makes the logistics of organizing political talks very difficult.

If political talks do not start soon, this will raise questions about whether the peace process is really serious. What distinguishes the peace process now to the ceasefires of the 1990s is that the earlier round of ceasefires occurred in a situation where there was very little chance of real political dialogue at the national level. What underpins the peace process today is a promise and commitment by the president to have substantial political talks with representatives of ethnic communities. That’s an incredibly positive thing—it’s unprecedented in the history of the country, and should be applauded. But the talks haven’t actually started yet, so while the commitment is hugely symbolic and definitely should be supported, it’s important to start those talks sooner rather than later, in order to maintain the momentum in the peace process. The meeting in Chiang Mai [in north Thailand] on Saturday between the Myanmar Peace Center and the UNFC [theUnited Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of ethnic minority groups] represented a step in the right direction, but can hardly be considered the beginning of substantial political discussions.

There are a number of pressing issues—I think language in schools and government administration is one, but there are also issues, for example, with widespread land-grabbing in a number of areas, and also the proposed implementation of major infrastructure projects in some ethnic areas. Different communities will have their own list of priorities, and armed groups will have their own interests and concerns. One widely held set of concerns relates to the incursion of government authority into previously autonomous, ethnic nationality-populated areas, in the context of the peace process. This is problematic for many communities, and non-state armed groups, who still do not regard the government or Myanmar Army as legitimate. Some of these issues need to be discussed rather urgently.

Q: And with political dialogue, I assume that would encompass discussions about the possibility of creating a federal state? Do you think Burma will likely move along that path, toward federalism?

A: I think it has too, really. Ethnic conflicts in Burma can only be addressed through some kind of federal settlement. However, we have to be careful with the language of federalism for a couple of reasons. There’s a danger that some people from the Myanmar government and the military will hear the language of federalism and think that what is being talked about is the disintegration of the union. I think there needs to be more work done to explain that federalism is something that, for most armed groups and ethnic communities, is a way of strengthening the union. Also, there are many different types of federalism—constitutional politics is quite complex, and any discussion of revising the Constitution will have to involve multiple stakeholders, in a drawn-out and complicated process of negotiation.

In the meantime, it might be useful to explore ways of supporting ethnic education, decentralization and local participation in schooling and other sectors, empowering local agency and communities—which can be achieved by supporting concrete projects on the ground. You don’t necessarily need have to have top-down political change to achieve all these things. So I think federalism is important, but it shouldn’t be considered a panacea, or the only thing that’s necessary in this country.

Q: Critics have said that President Thein Sein has no control of the military, in light of continuing clashes in some areas, such as Kachin State, even though he has called for a ceasefire. Does it seem to you that he lacks control over the military?

A: I wouldn’t say no control. I think there are many different scenarios, but I guess the two main things that people talk about are: Either the government has its reform and peace agendas, and the Myanmar Army has its own responsibilities for security and national defense, and the Myanmar Army might not always have the same priorities or agenda—or interests—as the government. Or there is a conspiracy theory that, actually, behind closed doors the government and the Army have quite well-worked-out “good cop, bad cop” roles: While the government is engaging in reforms and the peace process, the Myanmar Army is at the same time still pursuing a policy of military expansion to defeat the armed groups, one by one. I would not say on the record which one of those I think is more likely, but whichever scenario is correct, I think the reform process has momentum and the peace process has a momentum, which means Myanmar is not going back to a one-party military dictatorship.

Peace and politics are made by doing, and whatever conspiracies, plans or strategies may be in play on the part of the government, the army, the armed groups and international actors—there is a lot of geopolitical interest in Myanmar from different regional and international powers—not any one of those players is really in a position to impose an outcome on the peace process. That makes this an incredibly interesting time to be working in Myanmar. Although there are many substantial problems in the peace process, I don’t think this is a good enough reason to turn one’s back. Rather, I think international support should be undertaken in a way that builds trust and confidence—but at the same time tests—the realities of the peace process, and above all attempts to ‘do no harm,’ by not exposing already vulnerable communities to increased risk. We also have to keep our eyes on the big picture, which is inherently political. Peace will not come to Burma as a result of technical fixes, or even widespread economic development, but only in the context of the discussions between different stakeholders, at different levels, on the relationship between state and society, which, as I said, is an inherently political process.