Kyaw Zwa Moe: Mingalarbar! Myanmar is home to the world’s longest-running civil war, and efforts are still being made to achieve peace. Why is peace so elusive? What are the main hurdles at present? Will there be a breakthrough? As vice chairman of the Chin National Front, Salai Lian Hmung has personally participated in the peace process from the very beginning. He held a frank discussion on the topic with me, Kyaw Zwa Moe of The Irrawaddy.
Civil war broke out even before our country regained independence in 1948, but let’s recap the developments of the past few years. Before State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came to power, efforts were made to achieve peace between the government, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) and the ethnic armed groups under the U Thein Sein government. There were high expectations when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi came to power. The new government has been in office for two years now. What are the barriers to peace today?
Salai Lian Hmung: The main barrier that we see today is the same one that we have faced since independence. [Modern] Myanmar is built on the Panglong Agreement. The agreement states that this country shall be built on the Union [federal] system. Till today, the Union system that the Panglong Agreement envisioned still hasn’t been established. Following the Panglong Agreement, we got independence on Jan. 4, 1948. The independence declaration clearly states that the country shall practice a democratic system. It has been 70 years now, and neither of these has been realized. Neither democracy nor the Union system has fully materialized. We still face this problem today.
The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA], which was signed under then President [U] Thein Sein’s government, can address the root cause of this problem. Paragraph 1 of the NCA states that a Union based on the principles of democracy and federalism will be established. This is the way forward to peace, I think. But the NCA doesn’t define democracy and federalism, and we have agreed to define them in political dialogues. We’ve held political dialogues based on the NCA. It has been three years now and there is still no answer.
KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi organized peace talks, which she dubbed the “21st Century Panglong.” Two rounds of peace talks have been held. And the third round has been postponed again and again. Why is it so difficult to hold? What are the underlying obstacles?
SLH: In my opinion, the only underlying obstacle is a lack of trust.
KZM: Trust between…
SLH: Between the government and the Tatmadaw, and between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups. There is still no trust between these three parties. Let’s take a look at what has caused this. For example, the NCA ensures democracy and federalism with a full guarantee of democratic rights, national equality and self-determination. But when we hold discussions and talk about the terms “democratic rights,” “national equality” and “self-determination,” we find that there are differences in our definitions. This is quite natural because we have been clashing for 70 years.
Ethnic armed groups have concerns and so does the Tatmadaw. There is a need for both sides to understand each other’s concerns. Ethnic armed groups should try to understand and alleviate the concerns of the Tatmadaw. Similarly, the government and the Tatmadaw should try to understand what we ethnicities have been demanding for more than 70 years through armed struggle, and try to understand these concerns. Now, both sides are only talking about their own demands, and not about the other’s concerns. Both sides have concerns about what will happen after the establishment of a Union based on the principles of democracy and federalism.
KZM: Yes, as you’ve said, it is necessary to build trust. But how many points at the [peace] talks are the two sides arguing over for the time being?
SLH: There are many. But basically, there are two [main] points, I’d say. The peace process can be approached in two ways. The first is a bottom-up approach, and the second is a top-down approach. I have found that there are more problems with the bottom-up approach. Ethnic armed revolutionary organizations demand that public consultations be held. The peace process can’t be completed without public participation. The [peace] agreement will not last long if it is signed without considering the wishes of the people. Therefore, we strongly demand public participation and organized public consultations. In the second stage, national-level political dialogues will be held. Ethnic armed groups have to consult with the public. We hold national-level political dialogues in three ways to be able to represent the entire people. We’ve agreed that national-level political dialogues be held based on ethnicity, region and theme.
But the problem is that…I’m not trying to assign blame, but looking at it objectively, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee [UPDJC] is a key committee [in the peace process]. The committee has failed to do certain things that we agreed on. We can’t blame one side for this. At the meetings, participants agree on certain decisions, but once they get out of the meeting hall, they define those decisions differently. It results from a lack of trust, I think. For example, the UPDJC meeting held in October 2016 agreed that national-level political dialogues be held in regions where NCA signatories are ready. But then restrictions were placed on the venues for the dialogues and they said that dialogues could be held in only three places.
KZM: Who put these restrictions in place?
SLH: Mainly the government and the Tatmadaw.
KZM: You mean both of them?
SLH: I just identified them separately here. Usually, we refer to ourselves as a group of ethnic armed revolutionary organizations, and we refer to them — the government, Tatmadaw and Parliament — collectively. The political parties constitute another group.
KZM: Everyone knows that the government and the Tatmadaw do not have the same stance on the peace process. Some restrictions have been made by the government, and some by the Tatmadaw.
SLH: Speaking frankly, one example is the RCSS [Restoration Council of Shan State]’s plan to organize a national-level political dialogue. The UPDJC meeting agreed that it would be held in Langkho Township. The RCSS wanted to hold preliminary public consultations in 20 places. The government issued notices and instructed the state- and township-level government staff to assist the RCSS in holding public consultations. I heard that after the RCSS held public consultations in 14 of the 20 places, military officials in the concerned areas barred them in the six remaining places. So, public consultations were only held in 14 townships and could not be held in the six others. And the national-level political dialogue could not be held in Langkho. This is the problem with the bottom-up approach.
We reached a deadlock over the package deal at the previous 21st Century Panglong session. We ethnic groups demanded national equality, self-determination and federalism, and the Tatmadaw demanded a guarantee [from us] not to secede from the Union. This is not a technical problem, but a political problem. General Aung San agreed to the separation of the Chin, Kachin and Shan, when the Panglong Agreement was signed and when the 1947 Constitution was drafted. And the Shan and Karenni got the right to secede. They got it not because of federal principles or a federal system. It was the result of a political give and take [by Gen Aung San]—to persuade [the ethnic states] to join [Burma proper in achieving independence] with an option for separation. Federalism is about integration. But whether or not that integration will allow the right to secede is a political issue. Those in the [Union peace-making] work committee, secretarial board and UPDJC hold discussions from the technical perspective of established norms of federalism and democracy. But the problem is not about the norms of federalism or democracy. It is about political agreement. We can’t make political decisions based on a technical perspective. The work committee can’t find an answer from a technical perspective.
KZM: So the decisions must be made by the leaders?
SLH: It is time that the leaders hold face-to-face negotiations and have the courage to decide what is best for the interests and the future of this country and what is most important for all ethnicities. In so doing, it is important that the government and Tatmadaw speak with the same voice.
The problem is that it seems that we have to negotiate with two “governments” [the National League for Democracy-led government and the Myanmar Army]. We can’t negotiate with two governments. There must be only one government in the country. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi represents the government and chairs the UPDJC. She and the army chief should hold talks and tell us exactly what they can accept, and what they can’t. The ethnicities have presented most of their principles regarding democracy and federalism to them, and presented them to the whole country as well. They should look and speak with the same voice about what they can accept, what they can’t, what they will take time to consider.
KZM: But in reality, does the political landscape allow for this?
SLH: Unfortunately we still don’t have such a political landscape. So I’d like to request that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the army chief provide decisive leadership for the peace process. And the leaders of the ethnic armed revolutionary organizations should also act decisively.
KZM: Speaking of the demands of the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups, the former has said it will not allow secession. The ethnic armed groups make three demands. Do they seek to demand secession?
SLH: No, they don’t.
KZM: If that’s the case, what is their major demand and what is the main misunderstanding between the two sides?
SLH: Here, I need to talk a little bit about history. We ethnicities have consistently demanded what is guaranteed in the Panglong Agreement, especially paragraphs 5 and 7. We also presented those demands to the Frontier Area Enquiry Committee [formed by the British to gauge opinions in the highland regions on the topic of gaining independence together with Burma proper]. [Our demands] were enshrined in the 1947 Constitution. But this was not comprehensive and we pressed our demands again at the 1961 Taunggyi Conference. We discussed them again in Parliament in 1962. All the demands that the ethnicities have had all along can be summarized in three words: democracy, equality, and self-determination. Only the Union system can provide a Constitution that guarantees all three of these. A unitary state system doesn’t. So, a federal Union system is a must to meet all these demands. This is all we ask for.
Regarding secession, we ethnicities held a high-level conference in 2005. At that time, senior ethnic leaders were still alive. The conference was attended by key leaders such as KNU [Karen National Union] chairman General Mya, and other top Shan, Chin and Karenni leaders. The conference reviewed all the fundamental principles on which the Union was established. There were 10 fundamental principles we reviewed. We accepted that if a federal Union is to be established, ethnicities should have the right to decide freely whether or not to join it. Coming together should be a process of voluntary association. This was one of the principles. When we talked about this, senior leaders responded that it had been 50 years—now it has been 70 years—that ethnicities have lived together in the country, and therefore the principle should no longer be about “coming together” but “holding together.”
Secondly, Gen Aung San gave us the right to secede in order to protect our rights. But the reality after we gained independence is that this right does not serve to protect our interests; to the contrary, it denies our interests. I say this because we were criticized whenever we presented our demands. When we talked about unity, it was treated as if it was nothing. Whenever we presented demands for ethnic rights and constitutional rights, we were criticized. Along the way, the right to secede denies our rights, rather than protects them. So, we decided at the 2005 conference to drop the demand for the right to secede. The implicit meaning of this right is equality and self-determination. So, we decided to forcefully demand those and not to demand the right to secede any longer. As a result, in my opinion, there was political progress over time, and we were finally invited to peace talks by [then] President [U] Thein Sein’s government. He told us that we could make any demand with two exceptions: secession and anything that violates sovereignty.
KZM: So, he called for “holding together?”
SLH: Yes. He said we were not allowed to demand secession, but we could demand other things. And we were not allowed to violate sovereignty, but were given other allowances. We ethnicities stopped demanding the right to secede in 2005 and President [U] Thein Sein also created conditions. This is how the peace process got started.
KZM: That was why the ethnicities joined the peace process….
SLH: Yes, it was. The [21st Century Panglong] peace conference last year failed to make progress. The RCSS was still not able to hold a national-level dialogue. They are right when they say they have to consult with the public to decide important matters. We [the other ethnic groups] accepted that what the RCSS said is reasonable. So, we did not talk about our three demands at the conference. Nor did we talk about the Tatmadaw’s demand that we don’t secede from the country.
KZM: So, this was one of the factors that brought the peace talks to a deadlock.
SLH: It was the main factor.
KZM: You said the Tatmadaw has concerns, and asked that [the ethnic regions] not secede from the country. So, they have concerns that [ethnic regions] may secede.
SLH: Yes, they do.
KZM: There are dozens of ethnic armed groups. Some have signed the NCA, some haven’t, and some are still fighting [the Tatmadaw]. Are there any groups that are likely to secede?
SLH: This question should be asked of each individual group. What I can say on behalf of them collectively is [to reiterate] the results of the 2005 conference. The eight principles adopted at the conference were reviewed in 2016 and reaffirmed at the peace conference. I can only talk about those principles. Regarding the Tatmadaw’s concerns, it is worth considering what one military officer said. He said those who were born and became military officers after the Revolutionary Council took power [in 1962] have been taught their whole lives that federalism is about separation. So, they are really afraid of it. According to their understanding, self-determination is independence. They are also afraid of that. Their definition of equality and our definition of equality are different. He said the Tatmadaw is ready to fulfill those three demands in response to the needs of the country and the peace process. But then, he asked, shouldn’t the Tatmadaw be able to demand non-separation to ease its concerns?
KZM: They do have concerns.
SLH: They have such concerns because of the civil war that has been going on in the country for 70 years. We can’t tell them not to worry. They have concerns on their mind. We have to address those concerns by building trust over time. We can’t build trust just by talking. We have to take practical actions. Their concerns will ease when they see the fruits of practicing the federal principles of national equality and self-determination. And our concerns will also ease. Gradually and finally, concerns and suspicions will be dispelled and [the peace process] will be put on the right track. By “right track,” I mean democracy and federalism. In my opinion, there will be no big disputes between the two sides if we approach democracy and federalism without suspicion and we can build the country based on the wishes of the people.
KZM: When people talk about federalism and democracy, it is said that democracy survives in Myanmar because there were free and fair elections in 2012 and 2015. But it could also be said that only a partial democracy can be enjoyed under the military-drafted Constitution. It is also too early to predict what kind of federalism will emerge from the current situation. Let’s consider the thinking of our national leaders. Former President U Thein Sein talked about these two concepts, federalism and democracy, as opening the door for peace. How do they understand these concepts? The government of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi declared in its manifesto that it would build a federal democratic union. Every president talks about federalism and democracy when taking office. How are they different in essence?
SLH: It is difficult to say they are different in essence. I can’t see any difference because we have to go back to the Declaration of Independence and the Panglong Agreement when it comes to reconstruction of the country. Without democracy and federalism, it is impossible to reconstruct the country. Taking lessons from world history, the best federal system in the world was that of the Soviet Union. It was a really great federal system; that of Yugoslavia was similar. However, the Soviet federal system only lasted 70 years before collapsing because it was not accompanied by democracy, and had to survive under communism. Therefore, democracy is indispensable to federalism. Democracy alone is not sufficient either. We had a democratic system from independence in the late 1940s until the early 1960s. The ethnic minorities had already started their armed struggles, their revolutions. Civil war erupted because federalism had not been adopted. Therefore, democracy and federalism must be adopted simultaneously. Neither of them can take priority over the other. I think they work in tandem. Both of them must be adopted to their full extent simultaneously.
KZM: Some ethnic armed organizations [EAOs] have already signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA], while others, like the Northern Alliance, have not. There are many other groups that have not signed the NCA. This is because they have their own individual problems. The government and the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] seem to have adopted two different approaches in dealing with ethnic armed groups. Violent methods are used to deal with non-signatories, with fighting continuing there. What are the stances of the two groups? How can they survive? Both the government and the military have been pressuring ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA. The NCA was drafted by the ethnic armed groups, wasn’t it?
SLH: I believe the NCA is the only mechanism for conducting the current peace process and political dialogue.
KZM: And they can’t reject it?
SLH: Right, because they would have to continue fighting and that would be very dangerous. If they choose other means, the NCA is the only mechanism that will allow them to lay down arms temporarily while ways and means are sought through political dialogue. If we can find a solution through that process, we can join hands permanently without war, and peace will prevail. If, however, we fail to find a solution, it can’t help. Through the NCA, we are seeking peace in any way possible. Without the NCA, we will have to negotiate while fighting. That is very dangerous. I don’t think that should happen. So I think that every group should take the NCA path. No one, including the government and the ethnic armed groups, should deviate from the NCA path. I would like to urge all ethnic armed groups that have not signed the NCA to do so.
KZM: But what do you think the military and the government should do to persuade them to sign the NCA?
SLH: For ethnic armed groups that have not signed the NCA to sign it and take part in the peace process, the first and most important thing is that the NCA must be strictly observed. Second, it is necessary to work according to a political dialogue framework based on the NCA. Third, both sides must follow the decisions of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee [UPDJC], which was formed to implement the peace process, and work towards them. Only when we can act freely and peacefully in accordance with the framework and the political roadmap will the ethnic armed organizations that have not signed the NCA trust it. However, despite being signatories to the NCA, framework agreement, and bilateral agreements, we do not have complete freedom to hold public consultations. We can’t even hold national-level political dialogues in complete freedom. We have such difficulties. If the government truly wants peace, why are they worrying about our public consultations? Why don’t they want us to hold public consultations? What should they do if they truly want peace and trust the public?
KZM: The government permitted national-level political dialogues in the areas controlled by the RCSS [Restoration Council of Shan State]. It permitted national-level political dialogues in 14 places, but military officers blocked them in six places. Don’t such acts violate the terms of the UPDJC and the NCA?
SLH: Right. We discussed whether to hold national dialogues previously. We held a conference in May 2017. Actually, It has been a year since we last held a conference, but we have been working without a break. We reviewed the entire framework. We reviewed and amended it. We also reviewed the implementation of the NCA and its interpretation. In my opinion, we have come closer to the [positions of] the Tatmadaw and the government. The Tatmadaw and the government have also come closer. We have come closer to all the political parties too.
KZM: Really? Is that true?
SLH: We have come closer together in terms of the technical interpretation of the framework and reviewing the implementation of the NCA. Whether it is true or not depends on the outcomes of the upcoming [Third Session of the Panglong Peace] conference.
KZM: For the non-signatories to sign the NCA, the government and the military are required to observe the terms of the NCA and permit the holding of national-level political dialogues. Some Tatmadaw officers ordered them blocked. EAOs feel that they have to negotiate with two “governments”. Has the government failed to persuade the Tatmadaw and explain the situation clearly? Does it lack the capacity to do that?
SLH: You had better ask the government.
KZM: You are working mainly with the leadership of the government’s Peace Commission. The commission includes Dr. Tin Myo Win and others. They have negotiated with the leadership of the Tatmadaw and EAOs. Is their capacity in question?
SLH: I don’t know the details of that, but the leaders are trying very hard and working tirelessly. As for their capacity, the post of Dr. Tin Myo Win was held by U Aung Min in the previous government. As far as I am concerned, [U Aung Min] was able to speak on behalf of the government or the president. When we talked with the president, we could trust what he said, as he was able to convey the views of the Tatmadaw. Another factor is that there was the MPC [Myanmar Peace Center], which was made up of ministers like U Aung Min and about 10 Ph.D.-holders. It was a strong team. It had a workforce of about 140 staff. When we needed them, they could come to us at once. Frankly speaking, we have lost a lot of this capacity. You can go and see how many staff are assigned to the NRPC [National Reconciliation and Peace Center] now. If U Aung Min was not able to come to the MPC, then other ministers or other UPDJC members — or at least leading members of the MPC and experts — were available. There were many other advantages. For example, we were able to sign the NCA within 17 months. The NCCT [Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team] and the government needed to officially meet only seven times, though there were several informal meetings. However, there were really many informal meetings because we needed them to find a solution. However, since the new government took office, it has been difficult to make bargains at formal meetings. We talk about policies at formal meetings, and our policies are in conflict. At informal meetings, we can negotiate policies.… It is easier to find solutions at informal meetings without any cameras. Now, they have started to hold informal meetings as we demanded. They contribute a lot to the political and security sectors. Without informal meetings, it would be difficult to hold the upcoming [peace] conference in July.
KZM: Looking at this issue, it could be said that the capacity and human resources for peace talks have declined during the term of the government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. When we look back at the time of U Aung Min, the situation was politically advantageous because the country was ruled by formers generals. U Thein Sein is a former general.
SLH: We only had to negotiate with one government.
KZM: U Aung Min himself is a former general. However, the current government and the Tatmadaw are completely different from them.
SLH: I don’t know if I am speaking too frankly here. The Tatmadaw and the government should not be two disconnected bodies. [Tatmadaw] commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must have met with each other. Senior Tatmadaw officers and people like Dr. Tin Myo Win must have met regularly. It would be better if they could set policies together after their meetings. I am not talking technically about where and when the meetings take place. They should discuss policies that will really solve the problems of the nation.
KZM: As we have just said, some are not concerned with technical issues but with political decisions. In such cases, if the interpretations of federalism by the Tatmadaw and the government are different, it may create new problems.
SLH: We all come from different backgrounds. As we are negotiating from different historical backgrounds, political backgrounds and points of view, we will have different opinions. We started meeting with the government in November 2013. At that time the leaders who represented the Tatmadaw were very tense. However, when we talked and had tea together during the breaks, we discovered that our differences were not so great. It is important to talk to each other. Therefore, I believe the government and the Tatmadaw should talk more. I believe a lot in conversations. We should engage in dialogue. Then, it is also important to reveal what we have discussed to the public.
In the peace we are trying to negotiate now, we are not trying to defeat each other, but to cooperate to find a solution to end the problems of the country, which have lasted for seven decades. Our approach is to find a solution to the problems together. If we adopt this approach, there will be no winners and losers; no one will be right or wrong. I want the Tatmadaw and the government to come closer together and discuss things. The same is true for the EAOs and the government; the EAOs make deals not just at formal meetings but also at informal meetings. Our country has become a democratic one and the government should create an environment in which we can talk about the peace process to the media or anyone else. However, we are now working in an environment in which the terms we have formally agreed to are not observed. It is difficult but we must not despair; we must try to overcome such difficulties.
KZM: You have mentioned three factors: relations between the Tatmadaw and the government; between the Tatmadaw and the EAOs; and between the government and the EAOs. What problems exist among the EAOs themselves? We cannot say they are united. They have different opinions even on the NCA. What would you like to say about the EAOs and ethnic parties?
SLH: I think the interpretation of unity in our country is wrong. The ethnic nationalities are suffering as a result of that mistake. This is because national unity was the national policy during the period of the Burma Socialist Programme Party. In implementing the policy, it employed unity not as a means of achieving the goal but as a goal in itself. It should not have been the end goal. Unity as a goal can only be implemented under a dictatorship. A system in which everyone must be united should not exist. That is quite contrary to a democratic system. People have grown accustomed to this idea of unity.
KZM: Do you mean that it requires everyone to submit to one command?
SLH: Yes, to be under one command. Therefore, unity should not be a goal, it should only be a means. It should be a supporting mechanism to achieve our goal. This culture also has an impact on the ethnic groups to some extent. As a result, all-inclusiveness and unity seem to be important. Our unity should be based on the shared goal of a democratic federal union. It should not be a goal that will be achieved only if we all are united. Now we seem to set the goal as unity. There were many such mistakes. I would like to explain how to build unity by taking the NCA as an example. We need to build unity in adopting principles concerning what will be included in the agreement and what they will guarantee for our future. We have been able to do that. However, the decision on whether to sign the NCA is a matter of self-determination for each ethnic group, to be considered based on the interests of each individual group. Therefore, our unity is just in terms of the NCA. Whether an organization signs it or not is their decision. What we should understand in building a democratic federal union is the need to agree on our country’s basic principles and practices. We should be united in finding such common ground. Here, not just the Tatmadaw and the government need to find common ground, but also the ethnic groups. The government and the Tatmadaw must have common cause. When we have adopted such a policy, whether or not a certain ethnic group signs the NCA is their own matter. It is the same with federalism. What we are doing wrong is to emphasize all-inclusiveness, not as a means but as a goal. So I think the interpretation of unity is wrong. On the other hand, what all our ethnic groups demand is self-determination. True self-determination means respecting and recognizing the right of every ethnic group to decide whether to accept it. Doing so does not mean that we are not united. We need to understand the difference.
KZM: Are some ethnic organizations promoting self-interest rather than the common ground reached in 2005?
SLH: We can’t see any evidence to accuse them of that. Let’s go back to the NCA; the ethnic organizations have to consider the impacts, advantages and disadvantages of signing the NCA. In my opinion, the decision on whether to sign the NCA depends on such considerations. Therefore, we will negotiate for democracy and federal principles. If we can agree on the negotiations, we will sign them as part of the Union agreement. This must be the basic requirement for amendments, abolition and addition to all the laws of the country, including the Constitution.
KZM: When will these things happen? The NLD government has its own timeframe but has not revealed it publicly. However, the 2020 election is around the corner. They seemed to have high ambitions ahead of it. When do you think that situation will happen, in your opinion?
SLH: Politics is as unpredictable as the weather. As I have just said, [it will happen when] leaders of the country and the ethnic leaders agree on them.
KZM: Would it happen overnight if they did?
SLH: Absolutely! Why not? We all …
KZM: But it hasn’t happened for 70 years.
SLH: In my opinion, nothing is impossible. What our country needs is a decisive leader like General Aung San.
KZM: Don’t we have one? What about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected by the people?
SLH: Don’t corner me like that. “A leader like Gen. Aung San” could be the senior-general or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or the president or an ethnic leader. I just meant to say that no one has come out to do that so far.
KZM: Thanks a lot Ko Salai. We will have to wait and see when we can restore peace and how fast our leaders can come to a decision. Peace for all depends on them. Thanks.