Little progress has been made in the peace process since the Myanmar Army (or Tatmadaw) announced a unilateral four-month ceasefire in December.
The ceasefire, which the Tatmadaw said was intended to facilitate peace talks with the non-signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), comes to an end on April 30.
Vice-chairman of the Kachin Independence Council General Gun Maw talked to The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint about the prospects for peace talks between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Tatmadaw, whose 17-year-long bilateral truce collapsed in June 2011.
NAN LWIN HNIN PWINT: Your group wants to sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement, but the government insists that you sign the NCA. How will you negotiate the difference?
GEN. GUN MAW: We still think there is a need to make the NCA more comprehensive. We didn’t sign it because our discussions are not yet over, and we have not yet found common ground. So we are demanding a bilateral ceasefire agreement to end the clashes. We wish to discuss signing the NCA in a stable environment without clashes.
What provisions does the KIA want to include in the bilateral agreement?
We want a bilateral agreement without many restrictions. It has been eight years since clashes resumed. I think it is difficult to sign an agreement in which many demands are made. So we want to have a ceasefire agreement that doesn’t press many demands but which can end the fighting and create a stable environment. So, we will try to negotiate a ceasefire. And we will try to collaborate on the return of IDPs [internally displaced persons] in a stable environment. And we will discuss the difficulties facing the NCA signing process. We want to find a starting point without pressing too many demands.
Allies of the KIA clashed with the Tatmadaw during its four-month ceasefire. The fighting with the Arakan Army (AA) was the most serious, but I heard that the KIA managed to avoid getting into clashes. How was this negotiated?
There was no special negotiation. We have instructed our KIA troops not to launch assaults and not to attack military outposts on public roads. We have issued this instruction since 2013. But things are different in the case of the AA, and there have been many clashes due to the circumstances there [Rakhine State]. But there have been fewer clashes in our area [Kachin State]. However, there have been some clashes in Shan State where our Brigade No. 4 is active.
If discussions are to be held on signing bilateral ceasefire agreements, will each group sign one separately, or will the members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) sign the agreement collectively as a bloc?
Of the seven members of the FPNCC, four groups have not yet signed bilateral agreements. Three other groups have signed bilateral agreements. If we consider signing the NCA, we first need to sign a ceasefire agreement at the state level. So, our plan is that the four groups should sign bilateral agreements separately.
The KIA insists on holding dialogue together with your three allies, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the AA. But the AA has been clashing seriously with the Tatmadaw. Doesn’t this hamper the KIA’s prospects for peace talks with the government?
I don’t think it would be difficult if we really desire to stop the clashes. [The government] needs to think about how to avoid clashes in Rakhine, rather than assigning blame for them. The government said the AA [caused instability when it] entered Rakhine, which is a “white area” [the government’s color code for a stable area under its control]. It is true to a certain extent. But then, the Arakanese people would welcome Arakanese troops entering their areas. So, to be fair, I don’t think the AA entering Rakhine State is the main problem, if efforts are to be focused on ending clashes. There is a need to consider both sides fairly if we want to achieve a stable environment.
In its statements, the Tatmadaw has accused the KIA of assisting the AA. What is your comment on this?
The KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] has given only limited assistance to the AA. The KIO provided help for the AA in its earliest days. The AA has grown due to their capability and the participation of their people. It is not as if the AA grew that big and has such high morale because of our backing. We have only given them a little assistance. [Their expansion] is attributable to their decisions, leadership and the participation of their people. The AA grew out of its internal strength, and not because of external assistance.
How do you think the problems in Rakhine should be addressed?
There is a need to negotiate. Rather than saying the AA should not enter Rakhine State, [the government] should negotiate with any group that enters Rakhine. It is more important to figure out how [the AA] can participate in building the country according to the wishes of the Arakanese people, and how [the government] can cooperate [with the AA]. It is no solution to ask the AA not to enter Rakhine; it is more important to figure out how to build the country.
Do the KIA and the AA have an alliance agreement establishing political common ground?
No. We have never negotiated common ground. But basically, all of us want a federal system that guarantees self-determination and equal rights. It is impossible that two groups would have exactly the same opinion. There is a need to negotiate a common ground that is acceptable to the government and each revolutionary group. As I’ve said, we can first sign the bilateral ceasefire agreements and then discuss the NCA. At the same time, we should discuss how to build the country. This I think is the basic solution to the problems.
The KIO participated in the entire process of drafting the NCA, but later said it would follow the policies adopted by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which leads the FPNCC. What will be the KIO’s policy going forward?
The KIO participated in the NCA from the time it was proposed until the end of March 2015. In fact, there were four drafts prior to the final NCA. So, we called the fifth draft the final one. But then, we could discuss nothing about military matters even after we got the fifth draft. There were 35 points left to discuss, and some groups signed the NCA without discussing those 35 points.
We didn’t sign the NCA because we did not think we could engage in comprehensive discussions. So, we are calling for the NCA to be more comprehensive. I don’t want each group to still have to prepare for military action after signing the NCA. So, we will sign the NCA if it is more comprehensive. We won’t sign it unless and until it is more comprehensive and complete.
So, will the KIO sign the NCA if the remaining 35 points can be discussed?
Yes. We would sign the NCA if it were more comprehensive and acceptable to us. The FPNCC has principles. So, we are saying that we should also discuss the principles of the FPNCC. The government has adopted the NCA as a path to peace. Our view is that there is also a need to discuss the principles proposed by the FPNCC along with the NCA path. They should not say the FPNCC principles are unacceptable when they have not even discussed them. The FPNCC’s principles may be seen by the government and some ethnic revolutionary groups as unrealistic demands. There is a need for both sides to discuss both the NCA and the principles of the FPNCC.
Has your group proposed discussing the remaining 35 points with the government?
We have always called for discussing them. When the ethnic summit was held in Mai Jayang, NCA non-signatories also participated in it, and we pressed eight demands through the FPNCC. Those demands are mainly about improving the NCA and making it more comprehensive.
The Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services said the NCA could not be changed, but we are not seeking to amend it, just supplement it and make it better. We have asked them why they can’t accept this.
So, is that why the KIA allied with the UWSA and joined the FPNCC?
Yes, that is partially true. At that time, more of the NCA signatories were based in the southern area of Myanmar. The KIO is based in the northern area, and there were serious clashes there at that time. So, there was a need for the groups in the northern area to be united. So, we resigned from the UNFC (United Nationalities Federal Council) and joined the FPNCC.
The FPNCC plan is more ambitious politically than that envisioned in the NCA. If the KIO were to hold direct talks with the government, would it adhere to the NCA or the principles of the FPNCC?
The policy of the KIO is to discuss both principles, and hold to the principles that are suitable and that we can all be in harmony with. Even if it is true that the FPNCC’s principles are ambitious and do not match those of other [armed] groups, why didn’t the government and Tatmadaw accept the very good proposals submitted by the FPNCC and NCA signatories? Whether or not the FPNCC’s principles are reasonable is one part of the question, but why did they reject the very good proposals? So, based on the current situation, we, the KIO, will hold to the path that can guarantee a federal Union with equality for ethnicities.
Ethnic leaders, the government and the Tatmadaw agree on the goal of establishing federalism in the future. Why can’t they negotiate a pact?
It is a little complicated. In the preamble of the NCA, we ethnic armed groups demanded a promise that the country will be established as a federal Union, but the promise the Tatmadaw and the government gave was to discuss this through political dialogue. They didn’t say that they would establish a federal Union.
And, assuming we did sign the NCA, the government and Tatmadaw won’t accept us sharing the lead role with them in implementing it. They say they will make the decisions on all issues. So, I asked them at a meeting why they should decide our fate. I have a record of it. If we can’t jointly implement the NCA, and if our fate will be decided solely by the National Defense and Security Council [NDSC] and the UPDJC [Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee], this makes it more difficult for us to sign the NCA.
How is the trust building process going between the KIO and the Tatmadaw?
Frankly speaking, there is no trust at all. We met the Kachin State government in the first month after the fresh clashes broke out in 2011. The first question we asked was whether they consider the Panglong Agreement to be legitimate. And we still haven’t received an answer.
In August 2009, we sent a letter directly to [now retired] Senior General Than Shwe and said that we, the KIO, would abandon the armed struggle if the Panglong pledges were honored and implemented. So, what we want to say is there must be give and take when speaking of trust building. There is a need to recognize the Panglong Agreement, and the recognition of the Panglong Agreement  must be officially announced, and stated in the Constitution. Unless and until it is officially stated in the Constitution, there is no political guarantee. This is what we call trust building.
We don’t have trust in the Tatmadaw, and vice versa. To display trust, the fighting must be stopped, and discussions must be held. And agreements must be officially stated in the Constitution. Only then will there be trust.
What are the KIO’s expectations of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?
We have always had trust in the caliber and performance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We understand that she has many difficulties. Soon after fresh clashes broke out in Kachin State in 2011, we told the military not to deploy more troops in Kachin State, and that if the Tatmadaw sent more troops, we would take it to mean the Tatmadaw and government had no desire to find a peaceful solution. But then, they deployed more troops. Rather than sitting down to peace talks, they design plans to launch large-scale attacks, send in reinforcements and increase their firepower. So, we doubt the Tatmadaw and government really want to solve the problems peacefully.
However, we have no doubt that some other leaders including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi want to carry out reforms peacefully. How far they can go depends on the political situation. We understand this.
The Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services said he would deliver peace to the people in 2020, and I have often heard that China is applying pressure. How is the KIA’s relationship with China?
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she would try to reach an agreement on basic principles by 2020, and the commander-in-chief said the peace process must be complete in 2020, which we think is impossible. If the commander-in-chief truly believes that the peace process will be complete in 2020, the 2008 Constitution must be rewritten. When a new constitution emerges after the 2008 Constitution is scrapped—if the new constitution came out today—the country would be peaceful within a couple of days.
China has concerns over its stability and projects. Though it can’t push for nationwide peace, it is concerned about clashes along the border. So, it puts pressure on the government and Tatmadaw as well as on us. Their key message is to build peace, and to avoid clashes on the border. As China asks both sides [to avoid clashes] and not a particular side, we think it is reasonable, and we don’t see it as putting pressure. These are China’s interests.
Last month, the Yunnan government summoned the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) and said it would close the border gate and withdraw Chinese weapons experts from the KIA’s ordnance factories if the KIA does not sign the NCA. Does this have an impact on the KIA?
They didn’t tell us directly. They didn’t close the border gates, but they imposed stricter restrictions on all border gates with Myanmar. As far as I know, the [Yunnan] government didn’t say directly that it would withdraw weapons experts. It was certain individuals. Again, Chinese citizens are working in our factories. They are operated by ourselves. So, it might have been a misinterpretation. And [the Chinese government] didn’t directly tell us that.
Public concerns are growing due to recent Chinese actions regarding the Myitsone Dam. What does the KIO want to say about the dam project?
Chinese companies want to resume the Myitsone Dam. We have openly told them that, firstly, we the KIO can’t give orders to the Kachin people; secondly, the project was not approved by the KIO, but by the government, so we don’t have responsibility for that. We told them that what the KIO can do is to deliver their message to the Kachin people, and similarly, we will deliver the message of the Kachin people to the Chinese companies. This is where we can help.
Thirdly, we suggest that the Myanmar government and Chinese companies conduct negotiations, and organize public consultations in Myitkyina so that people can directly express their concerns, and the companies can directly address their concerns. By doing so, [the Myanmar government and Chinese companies] will understand how to handle it and they can directly hear the voices of the people. And people can also hear the message of the Chinese companies directly.
Fourthly, we don’t oppose the project if people accept it. But if people don’t accept it, we can’t force them to accept it. We have conveyed these four points to the Chinese companies.
What is the KIO’s stance on the Myitsone Dam project?
When there were reports in newspapers about the project, we sent suggestions to the Chinese government. You can find the letter online. And we also sent the letter to [now retired] Sen-Gen. Than Shwe [asking him not to implement the dam project]. The KIO’s stance is unchanged.
How are negotiations going between the KIO and the government regarding the civilians displaced by clashes over the past seven years?
The message we sent to the government before the end of 2018 was that internally displaced persons [IDPs] from 65 villages who were taking shelter in camps could go back to their homes. The government said that we could discuss it after signing the NCA.
We requested the government to allow the return of [IDPs from] those 65 villages without preconditions. We will focus on it when we meet next time. We told them by letter that it is disgraceful not to help them, and not to allow their return because we haven’t signed the NCA.
Does the government view those displaced persons as KIO sympathizers? Aren’t they Myanmar citizens? What is your view?
At the first session of the 21st Century Panglong [Union Peace Conference], the Tatmadaw delegation said that IDP camps in KIO-controlled areas are not legal because we haven’t signed the NCA. We have raised objections to that. And we have told the UN agencies that they should provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs whether we sign or not. We said they need to facilitate their return.
We have tasked the KBC and Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee (KHCC) with designing policies for the return of IDPs. I heard that they are working to hold talks with the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC).
So, can the KIA guarantee security for those villages militarily?
Yes, we can.
The four-month ceasefire declared by the Tatmadaw ends on April 30. There are concerns that fresh clashes will erupt beyond that period. To which of the KIA’s frontier outposts does the Tatmadaw pose a threat?
As we have clashed for around eight years, there are threats everywhere. So, there are no particular areas [that are under threat], in our view. April 30 is the timeframe set by the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services. We need to review it. Four months is not enough to build peace or stability. As the problem has existed for many years, we need to extend it; four months is not enough. And we will make a request for that.
Do you see potential for renewed clashes after the four-month ceasefire?
Clashes can break out anytime. Clashes are taking place in northern Shan State, and places where KIO troops are present. Only the magnitude [of the clashes] varies from place to place. If both sides can properly control [the situation], troops on the ground will obey the order [not to fight].
What is your assessment of the prospects for a ceasefire, as the talks have been on-and-off?
It depends on the promises we make to each other. We demand they promise to establish a federal democratic country with equality. But without making that promise, the Tatmadaw and the government instead told us to discuss it in a political dialogue.
But if they promise to build such a country, we think, the talks will be more realistic than the ongoing political dialogue and the 21st-Century Panglong [conference]. If [that happened], there wouldn’t be a stalemate in talks, and the time [for dialogue] would be shortened, and a clear-cut answer could be found.
The Kachin people have borne the brunt of the clashes over the past seven years. What do you want to say to them? Will they have to continue suffering in the camps?
The KIO demands a Union with equality for all ethnic groups, including the Kachin people. We will try to achieve that ambition. We believe we will achieve permanent peace only when there is equality for all. And we will try to make that happen. And we will inform the people whenever we take a step toward it.