[Burma’s Current Peace Negotiations]
Nai Hong Sar
[Vice Chairman, New Mon State Party
Vice Chair (1), United Nationalities Federal Council Team Leader, Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team] 24 October 2014
Previously, we spoke about the background information of the peace talks and ceasefire agreement. This evening I will discuss the recent situation of the peace talks.
An Invitation for Peace Talks
President Thein Sein’s government issued an invitation to talk about political issues with ethnic groups on August 18, 2011. After hearing the statement we (the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)), formed a delegation to participate in negotiations with the government.
Initially, the government laid out a number of conditions the ethnic groups must adhere to before participating in political dialogue. We (UNFC) strongly objected to the policy that required ethnic armed organizations to form political parties and contest in elections. The government’s statement implied the ethnic nationalities’ are taking up arms because our lands are not developed; therefore, our political issues would be solved if we accept the government’s aid in development. We expressed that we are not fighting about the economic issues, we are fighting about our rights, this is a political problem, and the government withdrew such policies. Another policy we objected to proposed that ceasefires and political dialogue should take place separately with each individual organization. We addressed this issue with U Aung Min and his team from the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in an informal meeting in Chiang Mai in November 2012. Our first proposal, to have a collective nation-wide ceasefire agreement (NCA) followed by political dialogue, was accepted. However, U Aung Min insisted on the government’s format of separate meetings for political dialogue due to the diverse situations among the ethnic groups. We counter argued that despite the differences in history of struggle we share the same objective of forming a federal union based on the equality of all nationalities and the rights for self- determination; it has been difficult to meet as a group but if we can agree on the core principles the rest will follow. U Aung Min agreed to have political dialogue as an alliance group after signing the NCA.
Ethnic Unity Strengthened in Laiza
The collective peace negotiations have been taking place since 2013. At the start, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) did not exist and we (UNFC negotiation team) met informally with U Aung Min and MPC delegates twice in Chiang Mai in 2013 to prepare for political dialogue.
Representatives from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the government peace delegation met during the ongoing heavy fighting in Kachin State and Shan State in October 2013. The government permitted the KIO’s request to host a meeting with top leaders of other ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Laiza. Representatives of 17 EAOs attended the first Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference from 30 October to 2 November 2013. The conference established a 13-member working committee, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT). Given that I, Nai Hong Sa, was leader of the UNFC negotiating team and in correspondence with U Aung Min, I was elected as NCCT team leader. Two deputy leaders were elected, Padoh Kwe Htoo Win, the General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) and Major General Gun Maw, the Vice Chief of Staff of the KIO. The conference concluded with 16 representatives signing the 11-Point Common Position (Laiza Agreement) on the NCA. The representatives from the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) did not sign because they had to consult with their higher authority.
First Formal Peace Talks of NCCT and UPWC
Following the Laiza Conference, we (NCCT) accepted the government’s invitation to meet the Union Peace-making Working Committee (UPWC). The first peace talk between NCCT and UPWC was held on 4-5 November 2013 in Myitkyina, Kachin State. Military officials also participated and were led by Lt. Gen. Myint Soe who presented Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s six-point principles for peace. One issue stressed by the military was to limit ethnic activities in our controlled areas by sending police to administer but we could not accept this proposal. Our initial proposition was to discuss the political framework and once there was agreement we would discuss the NCA. UPWC rejected this and insisted we discuss the NCA before political framework. As a result the peace talks came to a halt.
In an effort to resume discussions some of our members and UPWC held an informal meeting mid December at the MPC. It was made clear that the military’s proposal was the only option we could discuss. Another informal meeting was held between the NCCT and UPWC to discuss a single text document for the NCA in the end of December 2013 at a resort in Chiang Mai.
Seeking Solutions for a Sustainable NCA at Law Khee Lar
Further discussion between the EAOs on the NCA was deemed necessary. Delegates from 17 EAOs attended the second Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference held in Law Khee Lar, the headquarters of the Karen National Union (KNU), on 20-25 January 2014. The government’s proposal was accepted, but we worked to add political principles within the NCA on the basis of national equality, self-determination, and a union federal army formed by all groups in Burma. We are in pursuit of a sustainable NCA because we have seen RCSS and KNPP endure numerous conflicts after signing ceasefires. To ensure sustainability we included three basic principles:
- Establish a Code of Conduct to prevent further conflict and a Joint Monitoring Committee to verify the activities of each side.
- All EAOs sign the NCA collectively because we must prevent the possibility of an attack by the government on those groups that did not sign.
- There must be a guarantee that political dialogue will follow signing the NCA because past experiences have shown us the government never intended on having political dialogue; over the past 20 years we have accepted each offer by the government to discuss political issues but after signing ceasefires we are pushed into becoming Border Guard Forces (BGF) and our issues are never addressed.
Without these basic principles, the NCA will fail and we will enter into political dialogue with contradicting ideals.
Single Text NCA Negotiations
In March 2014, the NCCT and UPWC met for the second formal peace talks at Myanmar Peace Center in Rangoon. The outcome of this meeting was a mutual agreement on discussing a single text draft of the nationwide ceasefire. Until this meeting, both sides had been proposing their own drafts of the NCA. The NCCT proposed nine representatives to discuss the single text draft NCA, whereas, U Aung Min proposed three each from the military, parliament, and executive branch. We negotiated the first single text draft on 5-8 April 2014. In the course of this meeting, we extensively discussed the positioning of DDR in the roadmap; UPWC proposed it as the 4th step, before the union conference, whereas, we would like it to be the last step, which was agreed upon. The NCCT proposed three groups to participate in political dialogue: the government, EAOs, and political parties/organizations. The military proposed five main groups, the military, government, parliament, EAOs, and political parties/organizations. They mentioned “relevant representation” of EAOs but did not elaborate on who that would include. We explained that if we are able to choose the representatives we might be able to accept but they did not respond. We don’t believe there is equal representation for EAOs because we attend meetings as one, whereas, the government attends as three. Presently, we have met six formal times to discuss the single text draft and have coordinated with three colors; black for agreed text, red for NCCT proposals, and blue for UPWC proposals. There is a deadlock in the negotiations and the primary elements pertain to the military.
Over the course of negotiations the EAOs have made several compromises with the government. The first agreement made pertains to the sequencing of the government’s road map. The EAOs agreed in Laiza to discuss the framework for political dialogue before the NCA. Now we have complied with the government’s proposal to discuss the NCA before political dialogue. The second compromise by the EAOs is to remove the term “revolutionary” from the title, but we may include this in 1-2 sentences of the text. The third compromise pertains to our proposal to form a federal union army. We have agreed to discuss the formation of a federal union army during the political dialogue phase, rather than resolve the issue as part of the NCA.
Finding Common Ground
We reached a high level of agreement during the fifth formal discussions held on 15-17 August 2014. The NCCT agreed to include the UPWC’s three core principles within the NCA: non- disintegration of the Union, national solidarity, and perpetuation of sovereignty. Along with these, the UPWC agreed to include the NCCT’s basic principles: democracy, national equality, and self-determination. Although the UPWC did not directly agree to form a federal union, it agreed to discuss the matter based on these principles. The UPWC accepted there would be a federal system in accordance with political dialogue; it is not a guarantee because we do not know the outcome of the political dialogue. We accepted their position since they agreed to discuss the principles of federalism. A press conference was held that day in which we spoke of the agreements. After the media mentioned the government’s acceptance to the principle of federalism, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s Commander-in-Chief, allegedly questioned Lt. General Thet Naing Win, the leading military representative at the negotiations at the time, on why he accepted the principle of federalism. We learned Lt. General Thet Naing Win explained why the agreement was made followed by a conversation between U Aung Min and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The next day U Aung Min and Lt. General Thet Naing Win visited us to informally discuss changes they wanted to make to the NCA. Given that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing could not agree to federalism, they suggested placing “accordance with the law” before “self-determination”. We did not accept, and the NCA remains unchanged.
Backtracking into a Deadlock
We suspected the military was unsatisfied after learning that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was the only member of the National Defense and Security Council to vote against the principle of federalism. Their disgruntled position negatively impacted the NCCT/UPWC negotiations in September 2014. The military representation of UPWC was altered. Lt General Thet Naing Win was removed from participating as the military leader and served instead in his function as a union minister, and Lt General Myint Soe was selected as military team leader due to his loyalty to Sr. Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Lt. Gen Myint Soe opened the meeting by stating the peace process must be based on Sr. Gen. Hlaing’s six principles of peace. When NCCT presented proposals, we were told the military negotiators did not have the authority to respond and must consult with higher authorities, and they backtracked on other previous accomplishments. For example, we agreed to form a federal union army but now we will discuss federal army affairs at the time of political dialogue. Another point was our compromise to include the word “revolutionary” within the text but now the military insists it should be completely removed. The issues related to the interim period were evaded from discussion, including the development of a Code of Conduct and recognition of EAOs. The UPWC insisted on changing the sequencing for DDR to before the political dialogue, to which we proposed to have one agenda to discuss all military affairs during the political dialogue, but this was not accepted. Another previously agreed point changed is now only UPWC members will sign the NCA instead of top leaders. Between the backsliding on agreements and evasion of discussing our proposals, the chance of the NCA’s sustainability has significantly decreased.
Days before September’s peace talks, around the 19th September 2014, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing publicly criticized the UNFC, labeling them as hardliners and that our demands complicate the peace process. Several Burmese army troops were sent to SSPP territory to pressure them during the talks on 22-26 September 2014. Before the end of the month they launched offensives against SSPP, DKBA and KIA. They have used political and military means to attack the UNFC and EAOs. These acts are interconnected with the goal of dividing the unity of the ethnic groups to protect their own interests. In reality, the military is the hardliner and has made it very difficult to continue the talks. They are negotiating in bad faith and don’t care if the talks break down. They never wanted to address the political grievances so they never intended to have political dialogue; their only objective is to sign the NCA and these indications are appearing again and again. Personally, I (Nai Hong Sa) believe that the military has taken this position because their strength will decrease if real political dialogue takes place. We can conclude that the military is the stumbling block for the peace process.
Compared to relations with the NCCT, the government has closer relations with the Tatmadaw and they have tried to maintain unity among themselves. The true decision-makers are NDSC members; of which six are military officials and five are part of the civilian government. When they meet the military has the upper hand. We speculate that the former Senior General Than Shwe is giving directions; since they had been ruling for over 50 years it is not easy to decrease their power right away. Additionally, they are afraid to face the justice that will be brought for the years of human rights abuses; the peace negotiations are backsliding because of this. In an effort to move forward with the peace process, we are trying to find ways to have informal meetings with U Aung Min and exploring third party involvement. We have explained to the EU ambassador and members of the Peace Donor Support Group that they must be careful about foreign investment. Looking forward, we must be cautiously hopeful and continue to seek political solutions to the political problems for sustainable peace.