In Person

Our Goal is Federalism and Democracy for All Ethnicities: KNU

By Nyein Nyein 30 August 2019

CHIANG MAI—The Irrawaddy’s English edition associate editor Nyein Nyein spoke with Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo, general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), about the KNU’s stance on Myanmar’s current peace negotiation process and its challenges.

Under this National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the Karen KNU has proposed that the peace process be reviewed and has constantly said that ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) should review the process among themselves and with the government. The KNU has itself briefly stopped participating in peace talks. What needs to be reviewed in particular?  

There are two parts in particular that we need to review and legitimize. The first is to implement the things that can’t still be realized in the ceasefire process. Because we have signed [the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA)], we have made a commitment. And [the agreement] needs to be implemented. A ceasefire agreement, if not implemented, is a failed agreement. So, we have to make sure it is implemented.

The second is about the political dialogue, which is an important part of the NCA.

We have designed the framework for political dialogue, but the framework at most outlines how to manage the meetings. It doesn’t outline how to discuss or reach [agreement on] federalism. So, we are now discussing it. At the latest meeting [on Aug. 20], they [the government] accepted this principle, but we have yet to hold further informal meetings.

We presented the four-stage proposal to the NRPC [National Reconciliation and Peace Center] in Naypyitaw on April 11. The government said it would discuss it and submit it to the higher-ups, but in June they (the government) presented a counter proposal at an informal meeting of the UPDJC [Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee] secretarial meeting. I am a UPDJC secretary, but I had a meeting in my organization that day and I could not attend that UPDJC secretarial meeting.

We got that [the government’s] proposal through the EAOs, so we asked if it is a counter proposal. And they [the government delegation] said yes. They said it is based on our proposal.

In our proposal, we simplify who we can implement federalism, but their proposal is not clear. It just focuses on holding a UPC [Union Peace Conference]. We don’t want just a single meeting, but will discuss what we have prepared to establish a federal Union that can guarantee genuine and durable peace, through many rounds of the UPC.

Since the KNU said it would back out of political dialogues in October, you have led most of the informal meetings. What do you say in short have been achieved in the talks over the past ten months?

In brief, we seek to work out a framework for federalism that can shape the durable peace which we wish for.

We have heard that there have been engagements between the Myanmar military and the KNU in areas under the control of KNU Brigade No. 5. How is the situation on the ground at present?

Not just in Brigade No. 5 [Papun distric, Karen State], there are ongoing engagements now in areas under the control of Brigade No. 3 [in Bago Region]. There were five new [Myanmar military] outposts deployed in two months. After [the Tatmadaw] built a road in the area under the control of Brigade No. 5, they started to build a road in the area under the control of Brigade No. 3. Our troops on the ground exercised restraints, but there have been some sporadic clashes between two sides. But both sides are trying to exercise restraint.

If you go from Kyaukkyi [in Bago Region] east to the Bago Yoma Mountain range there is a road called Muthae. Proceeding from Muthae, you will get into the area under the control of KNU Brigade No 5. Brigade No 3 borders with Brigade No 5. Brigade No. 5 lies ahead of Brigade No 3. [The military] built a road in Brigade No. 5’s area. They [the military] rebuilt the road.

But according to the NCA, there should be coordination [with us if they are to rebuild the road]. They just informed us [about their plan to rebuild the road], and did not coordinate, so we have complained about it.

The military said they did it for development, but if it is meant for development, the military should have nothing to do with it. It is the government that is responsible for it. But then, even if it is really done by the government, it must be done with the approval of local people, and there must be careful consultation, particularly because it is in a ceasefire area.

Because the road was built without such prerequisites, it has led to different views on the ground. We are faced with their militarization, so we are trying to hold talks on troop deployment as soon as possible, but so far the talks have not taken place.

Locals had to flee and were displaced again when KNU and government troops clashed over road construction in 2018. Does the KNU take responsibility for the security of locals at present?

Yes, we do. Firstly, locals had their land damaged by road construction. Farms by the roadside were damaged. As the negotiations between the two sides failed, there were skirmishes on the ground. They [displaced persons in the area] are now called NCA-IDP [internally displaced persons]. This happened in the Kyaukkyi and Muthae areas some two months ago. It is not good that there are NCA-IDPs.

Can you explain the NCA-IDP? In which areas have people suffered?

The Muthae area. There are about two or three villages there with a population of around 400 people. Muthae is a village-tract under KNU administration. There is a village on a mountain in the east of Kyaukkyi. There are villages around it. The motor road passes Muthae. [People] from some villages in Muthae and from those villages have fled. Because they’ve have suffered from fighting before, they flee when a clash is likely.

It is said that the NCA was signed for the people to enjoy a peace dividend, but people are experiencing the opposite. What would you like to say about that?

I am frustrated and sad. We signed the NCA and have committed ourselves to implementing it together [with the government and military], but in reality we still can’t discuss important parts and the process has reached a stalemate. That they define [the terms] differently seriously impacts trust building.

In particular, it is difficult to control the troops on the ground but we try, and our troops on the ground listen to us. We exercise restraints and are trying to hold talks. I want to stress that a ceasefire is a crucial stage in the four-stage proposal mentioned.

Regarding the peace process, the government listens to the KNU among the ten signatories to the NCA. KNU chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe has frequently met with the military chief. Everyone is watching what the KNU says. All decisions made by the KNU impact the peace talks. What role does the KNU think it is playing in Myanmar’s peace process?

To put it simply—and the charter of the KNU also states this—our political ambition is to ensure democracy and federalism for all ethnicities. As our Karen people are spread across Myanmar, especially in lower Myanmar, the political ambitions of the Karen people are the same as Myanmar people.

And we need to work together based on that common ground. While we can take pride in Karen people and the KNU playing an important role in rebuilding the nation, it is too tiring. It is not an easy task. We all have ambitions for which we work hard with commitment.

What is the main challenge you have faced in your capacity as KNU general secretary?

The main challenge is negotiating ideological differences. This is however a normal part of the peace process in international countries. Negotiations are quite stressful. There is stress in negotiating with the government. These are the challenges to overcome.

The NCA states that the resettlement, health and development of displaced persons must be provided if they return. How does the KNU assist with their settlement, livelihoods and lands when they have to flee due to renewed clashes?

We, the KNU, have also adopted a land distribution policy. Based on this policy, we are trying to negotiate with the government. Although we have no problems concerning land management in our controlled areas, there are many challenges in areas which we are sharing with the government.

Specifically, we have received news from Bago Region that the pasture lands of local people, which has been designated so for generations, were redistributed by government authorities. To be frank, it is very inappropriate for the authorities to interfere in such cases during a period of instability when we can’t find a solution to the problems under the NCA.

This has something directly to do with the 2018 land reform law [the 2018 amendment to the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law]. We have called on the government to discuss such issues. These are issues highlighting the lack of accountability of the government and the parliament.

What I would like to point out is that we reached an agreement at the Third 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference which stipulates the right of people to possess and manage land. We have given the people this right.

However, when the 2018 land reform was enacted, it stipulated that all land shall be registered with the authorities and the government may confiscate unregistered land. This means that the government owns all the land. The government has the authority to management it. Such laws, which contradict previous agreements, should be postponed. This forced me to think that institutions like Parliament, the government and the Tatmadaw have failed to respect their accountability even though their representatives had participated in the UPC meetings.

Although they are doing this as functions of a government, the peace process, the government and the Parliament should have a common goal. Their objectives should not be parallel. We should make corrections for such situations. Therefore, we have called on the government to discuss such issues, to put the peace process on the right path again.

As you said, land issues and the livelihoods of the public are directly related to peace. There is the NCA that is implemented to achieve peace and also there is a push for holding another round of UPC. However, the tenure of the NLD government lasts only about one more year. Do you think the government will be able to tackle such issues in one year’s time? What does the KNU expect from that one year?

What we expect is not significant progress but something we should achieve before 2020. We all need to discuss this.

We are discussing how to proceed with the peace process steadily, clearly, correctly and justly after 2020. This is the foundation. Building such a foundation is more precious than amending one or two insignificant provisions of the Constitution. This is the foundation for the future federal union.

We have offered that proposal to the government and the Tatmadaw. As they have also accepted it to some extent and agreed to discuss the issue, the peace process and reconciliation will steadily and progressively proceed step by step. If we manage to strike a deal on the proposal, we expect that this will be a significant achievement that will lead us to a stable future.

Another question is that some people said that the NLD government is pushing constitutional amendment and economic growth because of the delays in the peace process. How does the KNU view that?

We support every amendment to the Constitution. The Constitution must be amended. We are also trying to amend it from outside the Parliament. However, as a government, it is responsible not only for the amendment of the Constitution in the Parliament but also for charter changes through the peace process outside the Parliament.

More importantly, there should be a common goal between the amendment processes both at the Parliament and outside of it.

As a negotiator who comes face to face with negotiation partners, do you think the government or the Tatmadaw understands the proposals, discussions and concerns made by ethnic minorities?

I want them first to be interested in [those concerns] rather than understanding them first. If they are interested, they will understand. Current circumstances reveal that they do not seem to be interested in [ethnic minorities’ concerns].

The most recent example is the Karen Martyr’s Day ceremony. We hope it was not the policy of the government. It is stated in about three provisions of the NCA that we will accept unity and diversity by recognizing different backgrounds, cultures and histories of different ethnic groups.

It is important to recognize (different backgrounds, cultures and histories of different ethnic groups) to build unity in our country based on diversity. One should not reject (another’s background, culture or history) just because it is not his or her own. There are weaknesses in accountability at every level of the government.

Frankly speaking, the NCA was singed by leaders representing different institutions. During the term of the NLD government, there is the NRPC at the national level. Its policy concerning the peace process does not influence the lower levels. As a result, people at lower levels are working on situations they are in. We optimistically think that such gaps have affected our Karen Martyr’s Day commemoration.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko and Myint Win Thein.