Words and Peace

By Aung Naing Oo 25 June 2014

Words are crucial in peace talks. They take center stage in peace negotiations. Peace talks cannot live without words.

Words have meanings. Some are clear and some are not. Some words are controversial, and definitions may not always have the same meaning but are dependent on the context.

We use words to make points in negotiations. Sometimes words show us the way. Sometimes, they give us a headache. And sometimes, it is words that get us stuck along the way. Then we cannot move on. Then we have to take breaks from negotiation sessions to talk on the sidelines. Sometimes, we are able to find alternative words to the words that got us bogged down. Sometimes, we just have to leave troublesome words behind to move on with the process. They are to be revisited later; we cannot just ignore them.

But the delegates to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) talks come prepared. Some of them are legal experts and experienced orators who have ways with words. But they all admit that the Myanmar language is rich and that Myanmar words can mean different things at different times and in different situations.

So, like it or not, as an integral part of the peace process, we need to confront the words head on. We need to plough through them in order to get to where we want to go—the first-ever NCA for Myanmar. This is because in our current negotiations, words have kept us and an NCA apart.

To get through words around the table, patience is absolutely necessary. I for one often get frustrated watching the negotiations unfold. It is a time-consuming exercise. Despite this, the delegates on both sides bargain collegially. I am often amazed at their patience and perseverance.

This may not be easily understood or appreciated by those unfamiliar with the peace process or with peace talks. Sometimes we think we can get through some words in no time at all and without any difficulty. But we often are proven wrong, and we have needed to extend the negotiating time on a regular basis.

One delegate to the NCA talks said words “are crushing us.” Another delegate said, “We are being weighed down by words.”

Aung Naing Oo, an analyst for the Myanmar Peace Center. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

In spite of this, both sides—the government of Myanmar and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT)—in the last round of negotiation in May this year were able to secure a second single draft. With each negotiation, both parties steadily edge toward a historic NCA for Myanmar. Optimism is in the air.

But the NCA document is over 20 pages long. All told, there are some 120 points slated to be included in the agreement. So far, about 75 percent of the contents have been agreed upon, and the remainder—about 30 points—will be tabled again in the next round of talks. In other words, approximately 25 percent of the NCA document remains to be negotiated.

We use black color for agreed words, and blue and red for those that still need to be negotiated. And every time we are able to turn blue or red print into black, there is a round of applause around the table. And smiling faces too, often accompanied by a short break.

In the last round of talks, both sides pledged that they would try their best so that there would not be a fourth draft, meaning that they could do everything in their in power to finish off the ceasefire negotiations in the next round. We shall see soon enough if this can be achieved.

Currently, there are some 20 to 30 words and phrases that need to be defined or redefined because their definitions need to be absolutely clear. Such words include federalism, federal army, revolution, union, and existing—as in existing laws—just to name a few.

Some words are outdated. Some words have been used in bilateral ceasefires with some groups, but now they face greater scrutiny in the all-inclusive NCA negotiations. Some words have been agreed in principle but still need revisiting.

Almost anything—excepting secession—will be included in the upcoming political dialogue. For instance, power-sharing and resource-sharing talks will require constitutional change. However, some words in the proposed NCA go beyond the 2008 Constitution, which limits the government’s negotiating mandate. These words need to be negotiated again to be compatible with the current Constitution for the NCA.

All of these may sound ridiculous to outsiders. But no one around the table wants any trouble later should a dispute arise because the meanings of the words or phrases in the historic NCA were not clear. Ultimately, words can have an adverse effect on the peace process as a whole.

Not so long ago, I went to a youth conference in Mawlamyine, Mon State. The youth came from all over the country. At the end of the gathering, they issued a statement. But some youth leaders told me that it took a good few hours for them to negotiate on the contents and choice of words of that statement. They complained that it was an incredibly difficult experience.

I explained to them as follows: If the youth could not agree on a statement and/or the choice of words, at least they could go home and get on with their lives without having to worry too much more about that. However, if the groups with deadly weapons could not agree on a peace agreement because they could not agree on the choice of words, they could go back to war and fight. That is why it is so crucial that they argue over words and that their patience is absolutely necessary.

Furthermore, even if the words in the NCA are agreed upon, the organizations that these delegates represent will need to also agree on the implementation of the NCA that they have so carefully negotiated. But fighting over words is a million times better than fighting with weapons.

Aung Naing Oo is an associate director of the Peace Dialogue Program at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC). The views expressed here are his own and not those of the MPC.