Peace Process Is Foundering, KNU Chief Tells EAOs

By Nyein Nyein 16 May 2019

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—The peace process under the current National League for Democracy-led government has been derailed, said General Saw Mutu Sae Poe, the chairman of the Karen National Union, a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and a leading stakeholder in implementing the NCA and envisioning a future democratic federal union.

He made the comment during a five-day summit of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, adding that most EAO leaders share his view. The summit comes at a time when the government is trying to persuade other EAOs, especially the northeast-based groups, to sign the NCA.

From May 14-18, nearly a hundred representatives of 10 EAOs, all NCA signatories, are gathering to finds ways to overcome the current impasse in the peace process. Representatives of two non-signatories, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), are attending the summit as observers.

The summit is also reviewing the structure of its Peace Process Steering Team (PPST). Headed by Gen. Saw Mutu Sae Poe with the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) leader as its deputy head, the PPST was formed in March 2016 to engage in political negotiations with the government.

Gen. Saw Mutu Sae Poe stepped down as PPST head in March and the team is now under the interim leadership of RCSS chairman General Yawd Serk.

The RCSS chairman said another contributing factor to the poor progress of the peace process—despite there having been three sessions of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference under the NLD—is that negotiators on all sides firmly uphold their policies and don’t want to compromise.

Roots of the Impasse

“The Tatmadaw takes a firm stand on its positions, not only on non-secession, but also on the single Army and the military’s six principles on peace, as well as protecting the 2008 Constitution; so the prospect of a federal Union remains distant,” Gen. Yawd Serk said in his opening remarks on Tuesday.

Since the second session of the 21st-Century Panglong peace conference in May 2017, the peace process has run into an impasse as the military and the EAOs have been unable to find a compromise. The military wants the EAOs to promise not to seek separation from the Union; only when they do, it says, can negotiations on self-determination and the drafting of state constitutions proceed.

Nai Hong Sar, the vice chairman of the New Mon State Party, said individual groups’ decisions on whether to agree to the Tatmadaw’s demand in regards to non-separation are made more difficult by the fact that the 1947 Panglong agreement gave some ethnic states the right to secede.

Gen. Saw Mutu Sae Poe, chairman of the Karen National Union, addresses participants in the 4th summit of ethnic armed organizations that are signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in Chiang Mai, Thailand on May 15, 2019. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

Uncertainty over the rights granted to ethnic minorities makes it hard for the groups to make decisions.

Nai Hong Sar said, “Instead of demanding a pledge from the ethnic groups not to separate, ethnic people should be entitled to full [fundamental] rights. If they enjoyed their rights, no one would want to separate from the Union.”

He said the majority Bamar also have a responsibility to keep ethnic groups in the Union, as the late General Aung San said.

The KNU and RCSS have clashed with the military despite being signatories to the NCA, as well as having bilateral ceasefire agreements. This has left other groups wondering whether signing a ceasefire would really lead to peace.

“No progress will be seen if this situation [the deadlocked peace process] continues,” Nai Hong Sar told The Irrawaddy.

He also said the EAOs need to move forward together in solidarity “and we and our negotiating partners need to have the [political] will to do so. The key hurdle here is the Myanmar military, which needs to open the deadlock,” he said.

The EAOs claim the implementation of the NCA, whether it’s convening political dialogues or engaging in joint ceasefire monitoring tasks, is not going as smoothly as planned.

KNU secretary Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo said the implementation of all seven chapters of the NCA continues to pose a challenge, and has not even begun for some of the provisions.

For instance, he said, commanders of both sides have not yet met to discuss ways of building a stronger ceasefire, although they should have met within 14 days of signing the NCA on Oct. 15, 2015 in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 3. He said they have also been unable to keep up with the tasks outlined in Chapter 6, which include building trust and setting up interim arrangement programs.

While some believe the impasse is entirely due to the military’s stubbornness, others say the EAOs themselves also need to be more pragmatic.

“The government should not let it [the impasse] happen, but also from our side, postponements of negotiations should not happen [in the first place],” said Saw Mra Yar Zar Lin, an executive committee member of the Arakan Liberation Party, another NCA signatory.

She said that although the government, Tatmadaw and EAOs agreed to the NCA, not all the steps have been taken to implement it, and this is another factor contributing to the stalemate.

Gen. Yawd Serk, who addressed the summit in Burmese for the first time—something he has never done previously in seven years of attending peace meetings—urged his fellow EAOs “to think about compromising by temporarily putting aside our stances” so that peace could be achieved.

Beyond 2020

The ethnic leaders said implementation of the NCA alone is not enough to break the deadlock. Thus they came up with a proposal to consider forming an agreement with the government.

Gen. Yawd Serk said the agreement would need to cover ways of moving the peace process forward before and after 2020, as the negotiation partner (in this case the NLD government) is focused more on next year’s election, with the peace process being a lower priority.

The proposal initiated by the KNU and RCSS is to have an additional agreement, which will help to “keep the peace process going beyond 2020, regardless of which party is ruling the country,” echoed Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo. He said the EAOs shared this proposal with the government during their meeting on April 11.

The KNU secretary added that the NCA is “just talk about talk,” or a path to continue holding dialogue on both political issues and ceasefires. “Thus we cannot be regarded as having achieved peace, so we propose options for more talks.”

PPST to Continue?

Along with the proposal, the summit participants are discussing whether to keep the PPST as it is or end it and form a new delegation.

Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo told The Irrawaddy the EAOs have tried to seek a way for the process to keep going, regardless of the negotiation body.

Since the KNU stopped participating in formal peace talks in October last year, all negotiation processes have gone back to an informal approach. The groups have met separately with government negotiators over the past seven months, but hurdles remain.

Khun Myint Tun, the vice chairman of the PaO Nationalities Liberation Organization, said his group wouldn’t accept a restructuring of the PPST or a reduction of its mandate, except having a new leader.

“We created the PPST to implement the peace process and to lead in talking about federal principles; thus we need its mandate. We do not like the idea of establishing a peace process consultative meeting instead of choosing new leadership for the PPST,” Khun Myint Tun said.

According to sources, the reason for the restructuring of the PPST is the fact that the KNU removed Saw Mutu Sae Poe as a delegate to the Team. The group changed its delegate to Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo, who has less support from the other EAOs than the KNU chairman.

In the peace building process over the last eight years, negotiators who are accepted by all sides have been crucial to achieving successful peace talks and political dialogue. Since late 2015, seven EAOs have generally followed the KNU’s leadership led by Gen. Saw Mutu Sae Poe, respecting his decisions and direction.

Whether the EAOs at the summit will agree to keep the PPST remains to be seen, as the discussions will continue until Saturday. But there is hope that the groups will keep the PPST and follow its new leadership.