'When the Guns Stop, the Talks Can Begin'

By The Irrawaddy 12 January 2013

Last week, a Karen National Union (KNU) delegation led by the ethnic armed group’s new chairman, Gen Mutu Say Poe, traveled to Naypyidaw to meet President Thein Sein and the commander-in-chief of Burma’s armed forces, Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. KNU General Secretary Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win, was also a part of the delegation. On Thursday, he spoke to The Irrawaddy‘s Nyein Nyein by telephone to discuss his views on the high-level meetings held on Jan. 5-6, and on Burma’s ongoing peace process.

What did your delegation say when you met Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] Commander-in-Chief Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw last Sunday?

We told him that the escalation of fighting in Kachin State damages not only the dignity of the state and the Tatmadaw, but also public trust. They said that the Tatmadaw is working to defend national and public security. They said that Kachin troops have been threatening public servants and attacking convoys carrying supplies to a government army base near Laiza. To this we reiterated that the ongoing fighting in Kachin State would be an obstacle to the national peace-building initiated by the government.

What was the government’s attitude to the peace-building and ceasefire process? Were they pragmatic?

Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s words were in accordance with the government’s policy on the peace process. But we still need to learn about the situation on the ground [in Kachin State]. Only those who are actually there really know what is going on. But what we want to see is a ceasefire, and for both sides to negotiate.

Do you think the peace process can continue moving forward successfully this year?

We can’t say that we have complete peace yet—all we have is an agreement to stop fighting. The main problem is political. If we can’t reach a political agreement, there won’t be any lasting peace. As we start the year, there is still fighting in Kachin State, so we still have a long way to go. If there were a nationwide ceasefire, the peace process would be better, as we could then begin to engage in political talks. There are ceasefires in place in some ethnic areas, but in Kachin State and Shan State, the fighting continues. When the guns stop, the political talks can begin. I think that could happen by the end of the year, but I’m not so sure. The Kachin issue affects all ethnic affairs, so it very much depends on the situation there.

Kachin civil society groups and others, including the United Nationalities Federal Council [UNFC], have also called for the fighting to end. The KNU and the Kachin Independence Organization [KIO] are both members of the UNFC. What is your advice to the KIO?

We want both sides to stop. They need to stop at whatever position they are in. And then they should meet again and find a solution to the problem. If they want to proceed to a political dialogue, that’s what they have to do. The best solution is to stop shooting and meet for political talks.

The KIA says that it can’t return to the negotiating table right now because the government army has stepped up its offensive against them since the end of last year. So what is your advice to the Burmese government about what it could do to end the conflict?

We talked about this when we met. There cannot be peace just with the Karen—all other ethnic groups must also be part of the process. Our ceasefire will only be meaningful when we have built peace throughout the nation. We will keep repeating this whenever we meet in the future. To achieve real peace, the gunfire must stop and all the ethnic groups can begin a political dialogue. But we can’t reach that stage yet because the fighting is continuing in Kachin State.

Judging from the photo of your meeting by Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, it seems that the KNU delegation received a very warm welcome. How did you feel about it? Was this a positive sign for the peace process?

Being friendly can make it easier to speak more openly. We have communicated with the government many times [since January 2012], so we have built up our friendship and can talk openly. We now have overcome the past situation, when we did not want to face each other, but just fought. A closer relationship enables us to share our views more easily. It is a good sign. This new friendship doesn’t mean that we have abandoned our beliefs. But through this friendship, we can say what we want.

When will formal peace talks between the KNU and the government resume?

We just completed our congress and are still busy assigning people to different tasks within our organization, so I think the talks may resume around the end of February or at the beginning of March. We also discussed this during our recent trip. We said we want to move forward from our last meeting, which was in September last year.

Is there change in the KNU’s policy on the peace talks?

No. We will just move forward in accordance with the peace policy we have already set. There is a need for a strong ceasefire agreement, and then we can move on to political talks. But the KNU can’t engage in political talks alone. They must be inclusive of all all parties in the conflicts. Unless the fighting with other groups ends, we cannot go forward.

Will you attend this year’s Karen New Year celebrations inside Burma?

In the past, the KNU was not able to join the celebrations. But this year, some of our members have been invited to events being held in Rangoon, Pantanaw, Kyaukgyi [in Pegu Division] and even Dawei [in Tenasserim Division]. Some leaders will also attend these festivals in Karen State. I will join the celebrations in nearby towns, as every towns and villages is organizing some events. But I haven’t made any specific plans yet.