NAYPYIDAW — Seven ethnic armed groups based close to the China-Burma border area led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) attended the second session of the 21st Century Panglong held in Naypyidaw last week.
Were it not for China, they would have left Naypyidaw immediately after their arrival because of problems over the “status” in which they joined the conference.
In an exclusive interview with Irrawaddy reporter Kyaw Kha, Zhao Guo An, head of UWSA external affairs and secretary general of the Wa-led committee known as the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), talked about difficulties in attending the peace conference, talks with Burma’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), Burma Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s opening speech, and the role of China in Burma’s peace process.
What did ethnic leaders discuss with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?
The discussion did not focus on serious matters; it was to cultivate a relationship.
Did you present the bloc of northeastern armed groups’ policy [adopted at the 4th Panghsang Summit in April] to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?
We presented it to her through Dr. Tin Myo Win on May 25. She did not have time to study it, not to mention to respond to our policies. She has to make a goodwill visit to Canada on June 2. We understand she is busy. So, I don’t think she has had time to read it all. Her stand is that she wants to achieve peace while she is alive. She said we are old and over 70 now and we don’t know how long we are going to live. Therefore, she will work resolutely to build peace while she is still alive.
What has changed since you last came to Naypyidaw for the peace conference?
There was not much difference. Last time, we walked away because of the ‘observer’ card. This time we got a ‘delegation’ card, but, in the end, we could not take part in discussions like the last time. Though we got ‘delegation’ card, there was a problem with the seating plan. The seats they [the government] arranged for us carried labels reading ‘special guest.’ So, we decided to leave the conference hall. But then, the organizer removed those labels. The organizer said they attached those labels to prevent others from sitting there.
What were the demands of the UWSA-led bloc in order to join the 21st Century Panglong peace conference?
We clarified our demands to China before coming. China said our demand would be fulfilled. We said we would not go [to Naypyidaw] if we were not officially invited and if we were not allowed to talk at the conference, and that we would not sign a deed of commitment (DoC).
Can you explain how China mediated the attendance of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDAA)?
We don’t know how China handled this. We are subject to frequent lies concerning this. While we were arranging for a visa at the Burmese Consulate in China’s Kunming, we said we would not attend unless we were invited as the FPNCC. China promised to try, and said we would be able to attend as fully-fledged delegates, and not observers or guests.
China also promised it would make sure we were able to give an opening address and that we needn’t sign the DoC. China negotiated with us on May 21, but the conference was scheduled to start on May 24, and we needed time to make preparations. They [Burma government] usually play that trick—they only made arrangements when the conference was too close. This made it difficult for us to attend. Our assessment is that they wanted to create a situation in which they invited us, but we did not attend.
On the evening of May 22, we went to the Burmese Consulate in Kunming for our visas. An officer at the consulate said the invitations for those three groups (the TNLA, the MNDAA, the AA) had arrived. Those groups were addressed as observers on the invitations. So, they said they would not go. Then we held a meeting, and China said it would make sure we would get official [delegate] cards and speak at the conference, and that Burmese officials would not pose an obstacle.
As we support the One Belt One Road project jointly implemented by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and appreciate China’s mediation, and as a manner of cooperating with the National League for Democracy-led government’s peace efforts, we decided to go to Naypyidaw first, anyway, and act according to the circumstances there.
When we arrived in Naypyidaw on May 23, we found that they played the same trick as the first conference [in August last year]. The invitations were similar to those of the first time; we knew that they were still playing us. So, we told China that we would not attend. China, through its embassy to Burma, negotiated with the Burmese government until 1 a.m. on May 24, and then we got invitation cards as official delegates. In the end, we could come here as a group for the first time, and we view this as a success, and a step forward to future negotiations.
We understand that the peace issue can’t be solved within one or two years. Eight groups signed the NCA under U Thein Sein government. But we have our own version of the NCA, which we designed by changing some provisions in the original NCA. If the government would agree to our version of the NCA, we would consider signing it.
The NCA that those eight groups signed does not guarantee peace. Take a look at the RCSS [Restoration Council of Shan State]—according to [RCSS leader] General Yawd Serk, more than 200 clashes and skirmishes broke out even after signing NCA. Though we didn’t sign the NCA, we have been at peace with the government for some 28 years. The NCA is just a paper agreement, but in essence it contradicts its provisions.
Therefore, there is a need for long-term negotiations. There will be continued debate and political struggle. I believe that all the people in Burma want to lead a stable and peaceful life.
Is it true China pressured some leaders to attend the conference against their will?
China didn’t pressure us. Only when there is peace and stability in the region, will the One Belt One Road project be implemented and will there be regional development. If everyone understands this, highways and hydropower projects, for example, will bring about mutual benefits. If the One Belt One Road project is implemented successfully, there will be great benefits for not only our country, but also our region.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing implied in his address to Panglong that the only way to peace is through the NCA. What is your view?
It is not a problem. He has his own stand and we have our own stand. If we have the same stands, there won’t be conflicts. It is not strange. We will meet frequently and negotiate in the future to find an answer. The negotiations ahead to ensure internal peace and a stable life for people will be more difficult. If both sides are willing to meet the other half way and strike a deal, then we will be able to reconcile.