Ethnic Issues

Yawd Serk: ‘Ethnic Groups Will No Longer Be the Stooges of Others’

By Nyein Nyein & Kyaw Kha 21 December 2015

Burma’s ethnic armed groups may have once attacked each other as a result of political ploys, but now they have learned their lesson, claims Lt-Gen Yawd Serk, chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and its militant wing, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S).

 Following a meeting with the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) last week, the RCSS/SSA-S said that it would negotiate with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) to find a solution to end clashes over territorial disputes that first broke out on Nov. 27.

 The Irrawaddy sat down with Yawd Serk to talk about a range of issues, including that conflict, the SSA-S’s military tensions with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), relations with the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) and moving Burma’s peace process forward.

Regarding territorial disputes, the TNLA has accused the SSA-S of joining up with the Burma Army to fight against them after having signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement [NCA] with the government [on Oct. 15].

This is a misunderstanding. The Burma Army did not seem happy that we went back to our region. A couple of days ago, I met with Maj-Gen Yar Pyae [head of Bureau of Special Operations-2], and he talked about this. It seemed that they [the Burma Army] are not quite willing to allow us to go back to our region. We have our own policy. It is totally unacceptable to us to join with this or that group and then attack another ethnic armed group. It is totally false, [claims] that we joined the Burma Army and fought against the TNLA.

What do you have to say about the criticism that the NCA signed in October is not a ‘nationwide’ agreement because it was not signed by all ethnic armed groups?

I don’t quite agree [with this criticism] because the NCA was drafted by all ethnic armed groups and the drafting process took more than two years. In fact, committees have signed the final draft. I don’t think that non-signatories of the NCA actually oppose the NCA since they took part in the drafting of the agreement. If they do not accept the NCA, then it would mean that they want to destroy the very thing that they themselves helped to create.

The problem is that the NCA is still not all inclusive. The government has set certain preconditions for groups such as the TNLA and the Kokang group [the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army]. For example, it says that state- and national-level ceasefire talks have yet to be held with the TNLA. Such talks have only just started. This, however, is not a strong enough reason [for not allowing the TNLA to sign the NCA]. These [state- and national-level talks] are just trivial matters. But we don’t know what the political motivations for them might be.

What is your opinion regarding the criticism that some NCA signatories have signed the agreement out of self-interest rather than out of national interest?

People have a right to criticize and to analyze. But if we did not care for the people, we would still be fighting, and we would not have signed the NCA. We have been fighting for almost six decades now, but we can’t solve any of our problems while everyone is suffering. President U Thein Sein has paved the way for negotiation. It is of the utmost importance that we engage in political dialogue. In fact, we should thank the president for this.

We’ve heard that tensions have arisen between the SSA-S and KIA Brigade 4 in northern Shan State. What is the likelihood that there are clashes there?

The 1947 Panglong Agreement demarcated the borders between Kachin State and Shan State. We believe that everyone ought to understand that there is a clear land boundary. We have never had any problems with the KIA. But at present there are lots of KIA deployments, and in turn, we have received lots complaints of human rights violations. So I would like to ask that the KIA care for the people as well as for Shan State. The KIA has its own clearly defined land. It’s not concerned about Shan State. It has to solve its problem in its own region. If there are increased military deployments and increased tensions, then fighting is inevitable.

The SSA-S has held talks with UNFC representatives, but these representatives are not from the groups that are actually clashing with the SSA-S. What measures will you take to confront what is happening on the ground?

Those discussions were not meant to focus on the problems between the RCSS and TNLA on the one hand and KIA Brigade 4 on the other. They were meant to figure out how the RCSS and UNFC can cooperate within Burma’s future political landscape. We exchanged views on past experiences and future plans. We need further discussions about the conflicts between the TNLA and the RCSS. In the meeting with the UNFC, we just made plain our standpoint.

What is your view on the election victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy? What are your expectations for the new government regarding the peace process?

I am happy about the NLD’s election victory. I met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time during my first trip to Yangon. It was a meeting to build a political relationship. I still remember what she said at the meeting, that a federal union needs to be built and that federalism prevents separation. I agree with her point of view. We hope that she takes the lead role in bringing about changes in line with people’s expectations. I am ready to cooperate with her. I have to wait and see if I can meet with her again after the NLD forms the new government.

What will be the challenges for an NLD-led government regarding peace talks?

 I have no idea, as power has yet to be transferred and the new government has yet to be formed. I also don’t know what the structure of the new government will be.

Does the military play a major role in the ceasefire and peace processes? Do you think that the Burma Army is doing as much as you had expected in the peace process? 

We have only discussed these issues with the current government and the military. We have not yet discussed political matters. However, the military does take a hard line on ceasefire talks, and they are also not considerate of ethnic groups. In fact, the military is largely responsible for ongoing clashes [between the Burma Army and ethnic groups] because it is the military that initiates these attacks. There has been no case of an ethnic group’s opening fire on the military first. Ethnic armed groups are just defending themselves.

The UWSA once told a local media outlet that it would continue demanding [an autonomous] Wa State even when an NLD-led government is formed. As a major ethnic armed group in Shan State, will the SSA-S accept this?

 It will depend on the government. It [the UWSA] has a right to demand this. However, it will depend on the new government and the people [as to whether or not this demand is fulfilled].

What are the latest developments on the relationship between the UWSA and the RCSS?

It is much better compared with in the past. The relationship has been brotherly. There were clashes between Shan and Wa. The clashes have inflicted injuries to both sides. But I think that everyone has learned his lesson now.

In the past, different ethnic groups have fought against each other as a result of political ploys. But now I believe that ethnic groups will no longer be the stooges of others, and I hope that relations between the Wa and Shan people, as well as the RCSS, will get better.

There are several other ethnic armed groups in Shan State, and some of them have forged alliances. There is criticism that the RCSS has not joined any of these alliances because it does not recognize any of the involved ethnic armed groups. What are your thoughts on this?

We haven’t joined because we think that joining would lead to unnecessary problems, while not joining would result in nothing. For example, with the UNFC, some members have signed the NCA and some haven’t. Because we haven’t joined any alliance, we can decide for ourselves whether or not we want to sign the agreement. And we can still hold bilateral talks with ethnic armed groups. This is also a democratic way [to approach the peace process].

In an interview with The Irrawaddy in 2013, you said that the RCSS would be able to eradicate the prevalence of drugs in Shan State in six years, but only if the government cooperates. How are these anti-drug efforts going? What are some obstacles?

We have never received government cooperation, which is necessary. We’ve reached and signed agreements with the government regarding drug eradication, but when it’s come down to implementing these agreements, the government hasn’t cooperated. However, we’ve also failed to take action. We were busy arguing with the military over allowing military personnel to carry guns for security reasons but not wanting us to do the same thing.

Translated by Thet Ko Ko.