Spokesperson for Burma’s State Counselor’s Office U Zaw Htay, spoke to The Irrawaddy about the 21st Century Panglong peace conference, which convened in Naypyidaw on Wednesday, including on the Northern Alliance’s presence and the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)’s absence, as well as China’s role in the peace process.
Under what agreements did members of the Northern Alliance attend the peace conference?
Mainly, we invited Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA] non-signatories as special guests according to the decision of the 10th meeting of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee [UPDJC]. Ethnic armed groups that signed the Deed of Commitment can discuss [issues] at the peace conference, and those that sign the NCA can join UDPJC meetings.
So, we invited them according to the UPDJC decision. Regarding the three members of the Northern Alliance [Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Arakan Army], we have been negotiating with them over participation. Previously, we demanded that they issue a statement declaring they would abandon their armed struggle to join the peace conference. But, we’ve invited them as special guests as a way of welcoming them.
As these three groups will only attend the opening ceremony, can it really be called inclusiveness? Can the conference really be expected to deliver peace?
Their attendance at the opening ceremony shows participation. The essence lies in the political dialogue to be held over the next four days during which federal principles will be discussed. The solution to political problems is a federal system that is acceptable to all. This is what ethnicities have said when they talk about solving the political problems through political means. If we can work out a federal system that is acceptable to all, then it can be said that the political problem is solved. So, our approach is to solve the political problems.
Now, many people are criticizing the NCA. But the NCA is not the end. It is just a stage toward political dialogue, which is the most critical part. Our approach is to address the underlying grievances. The on-going conference will discuss drafting constitutions for ethnic states, an issue which was never discussed before. Mainly there will be discussion about the definition of self-determination.
To what extent will the UNFC’s absence impact the conference?
We talked to Saya Khu Oo Reh [head of UNFC’s peace negotiation team] by phone up until yesterday. We are very sad that they could not come. We have held talks regularly with the UNFC’s Delegation for Political Negotiation for almost a year. They participated in reviewing the framework for the political dialogue in the peace process together with the government, other ethnic armed groups, and political parties. Again, they also joined the discussions on reinforcing the ceasefire.
We feel very sorry that they could not come at the last minute. This indicates that UNFC were only able to adopt a firm stance at the last minute. However, their views are reflected in framework reviews. We have changed the reviews by taking their discussions into account. So, they did participate in the peace process. Saya Khu Oo Reh has also said that they would think about how they can cooperate further in the process. This is how things will go on.
Given China’s influence in convincing the Northern Alliance to attend, does the peace process’s success rely on China?
Not necessarily. But China does play an important role. Taking a look back into the history of our country, you can see why the Communist Party of Burma ceased under the reign of [late military dictator] U Ne Win. Like it or not, we can’t change our neighbors in geopolitics. So, the most important point is how we can promote our national interests. Again, we and China are traditional neighbors and allies. And we have also signed strategic partnership agreements with China. China is a powerful actor on the international stage as well as on the stage of Asean. Likewise, it also plays an important part in the peace process of Burma. However, we will cooperate according to our bilateral policies and five-point peaceful co-existence principles [the Bandung Principles.]
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.