SSA Signs Peace Deal and Pledges Drugs Purge

By Charlie Campbell 21 May 2012

KENTUNG, Shan State—A historic peace deal was signed between the Shan State Army (SSA) and Burmese government late on Saturday which also aims to wipe out narcotics from the region by 2015.

Ten hours of talks involving territorial boundaries, poppy eradication and economic development saw both sides put pen to paper at 8pm. “After detailed negotiations today, there will be no more fighting,” Railways Minster Aung Min, Naypyidaw’s leading peace negotiator, told reporters.

The long-term adversaries have clashed 17 times despite a preliminary ceasefire being signed on Jan. 16, and so high-ranking military figures including Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen Soe Win, as well as the heads of Shan State’s Triangle, Central-Eastern and Eastern Commands, took part in the talks this time.

“In the Constitution there are differences but we can work together and we can go into the Parliament and maybe amend the Constitution,” said a clearly uncomfortable Soe Win, the Burmese military’s second highest ranking officer.

“There are three steps to the peace process—state-level talks, Union-level talks and then discussions within the Parliament,” he added, echoing the words of reformist President Thein Sein in a recent speech.

On Friday morning, the SSA convoy made the dusty trip from the border town of Tachilek past Talay—ravaged by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake which killed more than 150 locals in March 2011—and through the verdant green hillside to the state headquarters of the Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw.

It was the first time that the international press has been allowed inside Triangle Command—where President Thein Sein cut his teeth as the commanding officer from 1997 until 2001—and military personnel were visibly wary under this extraordinary media attention.

“The conflict of the past is history but right now there is a good opportunity for the future for solving political problems and working together,” SSA-South chief Lt-Gen Yawd Serk told reporters prior to negotiations.

“At first we fight for our land and to defend our country. If you talk about the Shan history, we have never seen peace happen in Shan State and never seen our people have the right to freedom.”

A stony-faced Soe Win was flanked by the charismatic Aung Min during the talks with senior officers from both the rebels and government pouring over maps to determine the relocation of their respective battalions.

A sticking point in negotiations seemed to be the demarcation of two sub-townships—Homong and Mong Htar—as under SSA control. The matter was sidelined until the next stage of talks with the President’s Office in Naypyidaw.

The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the SSA’s political wing, agreed to set up drug control offices in 31 local townships with government assistance. There would also be joint efforts towards finding an alternative crop to the poppy, prosecuting traffickers and helping addicts through rehabilitation.

Aung Min denied that Beijing had been instrumental in pushing Naypyidaw to make a peace deal with the SSA in order to tackle the issue of drugs and border security when asked by The Irrawaddy.

“The peace process is a domestic issue and does not involve other countries,” he said. “The problem is about one of trust. It is like when there are problems within a family, it is about talking and building trust between one another.”

When asked if it was feasible that the SSA and Burmese military could work together to eliminate poppy growth in Shan State and find a sustainable alternative, Yawd Serk saw a lot of factors coming into play.

“That depends on civilians and many groups as well as the government—how can we cooperate and work together,” he told The Irrawaddy. “So we also have the question of the government and does the government have a policy to solve the drugs problem.”

A narcotics control officer for the SSA confided that it would be extremely difficult to eradicate drugs in Shan State as there are so many different disparate groups that must cooperate to make any scheme a success.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime calculated that opium output in Shan State climbed steadily from 330 tonnes in 2009 to 580 tonnes in 2010 with a record crop expected to be announced for 2011. Yet Aung Min insisted to delegates that his administration was committed to making Shan State drug-free by 2015.

David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch, thinks that such a rushed timetable could be disastrous considering the 180,000 people who starved when poppy growth was suddenly culled in northern Shan State during 2003.

“People were starving as it was a cash crop and they didn’t have any money to buy food,” he told The Irrawaddy. “You can’t change these things in two or three years as there are hundreds of thousands of people growing it and a small handful making money out of it.”

“So setting deadlines is misguided. You want it to be sustainable as it not just about cutting down a poppy, you have to address route causes which are political. People do it because they are poor and insurgent organizations and criminal organizations use poppies as it is lucrative and the perfect traveling crop—opium resin can be turned into hundreds of thousands of dollars of heroin.”

Aung Min also invited the SSA to form a political party and take part in the next general elections set for 2015. He told reporters that following the signing of Saturday’s agreement that the rebel group was “in principle a legal organization.”

But despite the jovial nature of the post-negotiation festivities when the SSA and Burmese military hierarchies joked together over food and wine with performances of traditional Kachin, Shan, Lahu and Akka dancing on stage, the ceasefire is by no means set in stone.

“To go back to war or not is the decision of the government,” Yawd Serk told reporters on Friday. “If the government pressurises us to go back to war then it is very necessary for us to go back to war.”

However, an SSA soldier who joined the rebel army 15 years ago and recently became one of three staff at the group’s new Kentung liaison office—one of seven currently open—said that he is optimistic that relations could improve.

“It is a little strange being here at Triangle Command,” he said. “We don’t get many villagers coming into the liaison office but just people from the Burmese military.”

The 40-year-old speaks Shan, Chinese, Thai, Burmese and English and added, “I’m hopeful about the peace talks. I hope to get a good job one day.”