Ethnic Issues

Zipporah Sein: ‘We Don’t Accept the Constitution’

By The Irrawaddy 17 July 2015

Negotiations toward reaching a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) in Burma saw setbacks last month, as the nation’s ethnic negotiating bloc was reconstituted with what is viewed as a more critical constitution. The Ethnic Armed Groups Senior Delegation, which replaced the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) as a central party to the talks, has since met several times with the government to get the peace process back on track, and talks will resume in Rangoon next week.

Naw Zipporah Sein,vice chairperson of the Karen National Union, is at the helm of the new ethnic delegation. Tasked with finalizing a draft of the NCA that would be acceptable to Burma’s ethnic groups, she had much to tell The Irrawaddy during a recent interview in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with staff reporters Nyein Nyein and Kyaw Kha.

As the leader of the ethnic armed groups Senior Delegation, what are your main concerns while dealing with the government over the NCA draft, and how were those concerns addressed during your discussion with Union Minister Aung Min [the government’s chief peace negotiator] earlier this month?

Our concern is whether there may be difficulties in discussing our needs, particularly the ethnic leaders’ principles, when we hold talks with the government. We have tried to find a solution, in our aim of reaching a ceasefire. We are working to reach the political dialogue [which will commence shortly after an accord is signed] and for genuine peace in the country after the NCA. We, both sides, must try to find a possible approach that is acceptable.

The delegation initially proposed 15 amendments to the existing draft, which has now been reduced to 12. Did you have to compromise on some of those demands to return to the negotiating table?

At first, we discussed arranging a meeting between [the Special Delegation] and the government. When they came to meet us, the government also had this question in mind, about whether the formation of the delegation would delay the peace process. They have that concern. But we were able to explain our aims and why we formed a new group, as our leaders think that amendments need to be made on the NCA draft text [which was agreed upon in late March by both parties]. Our aim is to make the NCA a firm and strong text.

The government responded to the creation of the delegation with reluctance at first. How did you interpret that, and what do you make of the claim—made by some observers—that the government had trouble accepting the new bloc in part because it is led by a woman?

I think the government could have that kind of thinking about female leadership of the new bloc. It’s obvious that they initially had doubt and did not want to meet with us; they were uncertain about our intentions. We have committed to move forward, which we explained to the minister [Aung Min] when we met. Of course, when we heard [they did not want to meet us at first], it was sad news.

How did you manage to keep negotiations moving despite this lack of trust?

I uphold our ethnic groups’ commitment to move forward for genuine peace and a strong NCA text, and I tried to negotiate for further meetings. We sent a letter to the government requesting a formal meeting, and last week the minister came to meet with us [in Chiang Mai].

There are 16 members of the NCCT, which have all been involved in the peace negotiations thus far. What would you do to guarantee inclusiveness if the government only accepts the 14 armed groups [that have already signed bilateral agreements], plus the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)?

This has to be part of our ongoing discussion. Fourteen and one or 14 and two is [a question] from the government perspective. From our perspective, we uphold the NCCT’s 16 member principle as it is, this is all inclusive of our ethnic groups. We all committed to it and they should also be involved in the process. We see ethnic unity as a platform. When we meet with the government we will both have to find a way to deal with it.

Would you sign the NCA without the amendments recommended at the Law Khee Lar summit? We have heard that some of the changes will be made as appendices.

We have no policy for signing the draft without first amending the text. It shouldn’t be [signed without the changes]; that would be ignoring the ethnics’ desires that we agreed upon in our summit last month. We will continue our discussion, whether some of the amendments are to be included in the appendix or not.

How do you plan to proceed with political dialogue as the current 2008 Constitution is still in place? How will you approach issues like federalism with this charter as your framework?

When we hold the political dialogue, these issues will be included. Negotiations on the issue of power sharing has to go step by step. We don’t accept the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, as it goes against democratic standards. Only after it is amended can reforms in the country become visible. If not, it will hinder efforts to establish federalism and fulfill the transition to democracy.

The Tatmadaw [Burmese Armed Forces] did not welcome the new delegation. Since it was formed, clashes have occurred in Karen, Kachin and Shan States. Do you perceive that as a signal to the ethnic groups to accept the current draft of the NCA?

We are concerned about this, as we have witnessed these ongoing military operations. During the past three years, since we began the talks, the military has not ceased its operations on the ground. The Tatmadaw and the government have a responsibility to uphold their part in ceasefire. They should act with sincerity.

The Karen National Union (KNU) is a key voice among Burma’s ethnic armed groups, and it also enjoys a good relationship with the government. There have been splits, however, among the KNU’s leadership. How have you worked to resolve those differences?

We didn’t split, but we have different views on common goals. The KNU’s priority is to find a way to solve the country’s problems through political means. Our country’s political and military affairs must be solved this way. When we do so, the ethnic side cannot do it alone. The military and the government are also responsible; for genuine peace, all must participate. Having a good relationship with the KNU is not enough for this peace process, as we stand with all of our fellow ethnic minorities and their desire for genuine peace.

Some observers speculate that some actors in the peace process are opportunists who are receiving financial benefits. What does the KNU or related individuals stand to gain from this process?

Since the beginning, we have told the government that economic development was not our first goal in bilateral ceasefire talks. Our agreement was to move toward a political solution. When peace is not guaranteed, this doesn’t help our demands of autonomy and equal rights, even if there is economic development at first. The government might have tried to influence us.

What is the KNU doing to resolve the conflict between the government’s border guard force (BGF) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) that has recently flared along the Asia Highway?

We made an agreement among Karen armed groups [DKBA, KNLA Peace Council and the BGF] not to attack each other, during our 15th congress [in December 2012]. Although we are different groups, we share similar goals about our national cause. As for the BGF, they operate under the Burma Army, the Ministry of Defense, and they have to follow their commander-in-chief. We, the KNU, help to communicate with the military to ease the conflict and to meet with the DKBA for talks.

We think it could be due to the fact that we don’t have a code of conduct to follow after we signed a bilateral agreement at the state level. Many groups do not have a CoC with the government, so the clashes renew over and over. The KNU proposed a CoC [in 2012], after the bilateral agreement, but it was postponed because we are now focusing n the nationwide agreement. The government said discussions about the CoC will continue within a month of signing the NCA.

What is your relationship to Aung San Suu Kyi, and what are your views about her?

We meet when we go inside the country. Sometimes we contact her. I respect her for being a democratic leader, a woman leader and I acknowledge her efforts to bring about democratic changes in the country.