09 Feb ‘It is possible we are going to sign something [on Union Day]’

Written by Tim McLaughlin Published in Interviews Read 4899 times

U Min Zaw Oo, director, ceasefire negotiations and implementation, Myanmar Peace Center

Photos: Hong Sar (Ramonya)
Photos: Hong Sar (Ramonya)

The peace process launched by President U Thein Sein after the change of government in 2011 has made significant process towards a national ceasefire agreement to end more than 60 years of civil conflict. The national ceasefire talks, in which the Myanmar Peace Center has played a critical role, began after the government reached separate ceasefire agreements with most of the country’s armed ethnic groups. The director of ceasefire negotiations and implementation at the MPC, U Min Zaw Oo, credits the peace process for reducing clashes between the government and armed ethnic groups in 2014 to the lowest level since independence. Mizzima Weekly’s Tim McLaughlin spoke to U Min Zaw Oo about prospects for a Union Day ceasefire agreement and the outlook for the peace process in an election year.

Is it realistic to expect a nationwide ceasefire to be signed on Union Day, February 12, as proposed by President U Thein Sein?

We started out with over 120 issues and have trimmed this down to 103; we only have eight issues left. Now we are doing a lot of pre-negotiations to narrow that down further to two or three issues. If we are going to sign something with what we already agreed we can sign it, because this [ceasefire] document is already good enough. But some of the groups feel like they are going to sign it only when they get everything that they ask for. Some of the groups feel that this is good enough and we should move forward.

Does the government feel the same way? Is it willing to say that what’s been negotiated is good enough, just to get something signed?

Yes, the nationwide ceasefire agreement started with most of the demands coming from the ethnic armed groups. So the government side [has demonstrated] accommodation. This is how these issues are narrowed down, through the government’s accommodations.

One of the historical accommodations from the government side is the recognition of the federal union. This is historical. Even the parliamentary government after independence did not recognise the federal union. This time the government said that a union based on democracy and federal principles will be established according with the result of the political dialogue [to follow the signing of a national ceasefire], so that has already been agreed on in the document.

So a signing on Union Day is possible?

It is possible if we are going to sign something from what has already been agreed on.

So some sort of signing, but perhaps not the ceasefire itself?

Yes.

The media has been reporting comments by Tatmadaw commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and from armed ethnic groups, about responsibility for recent fighting, particularly in Kachin State. Is this sparring in the media productive for the peace process?

We have to understand why this has happened. One of the major issues is obviously there is no ceasefire. Even though the KIO [Kachin Independence Organisation] and government have agreed to de-escalate there is no ceasefire. There are no clear demarcations.

Since the clashes broke out, the government troops have occupied a number of posts in Kachin State including technical areas close to Laiza [the headquarters of the KIO]. From the military perspective that is a very stretched position. When the government troops manoeuvre between these areas, to transport food, rations, ammunition or sometimes they need to replace their troops, reshuffle. These troops might not travel on the main route, they may take the jungle route for security reasons. Since there are no clear boundaries that are marked and there is no clear rules of engagement, problems occur. Sometimes small clashes occur.

There are two major issues, demarcation and clear a code of conduct and clear rules of engagement. We tried to resolve these issues through a conflict resolution team in Myitkyina [the Kachin State capital] in May 2014, so we created the conflict resolution team. We facilitated a talk between KIO and the government. This is very unique because the government and KIO have not signed a ceasefire. We were able to have that conflict resolution team to avoid some potential clashes.

Armed ethnic groups have proposed the creation of a federal army, but what this entails remains unclear. Is it possible to create a federal army?

A lot of these armed groups they say we want a federal or union army. But when we ask one group we get one answer, when we ask another group we get another answer. I heard one leader say each ethnic group has their own army and their own commander and chief. Then all the commanders and chiefs [will] come together and will have an overall commander and chief who will serve a term. I asked what country did you look at for an example? And he doesn’thave an answer.

A lot of people talk about the federal or union army concept, but don’t have a clear idea of what it is and the idea is now considered dated. We have to make sure there is a political dialogue and people talk bout these issues and there is capacity building for all parties so people know how a federal system works. People are calling for a federal system, but what they are asking for is not a federal system. That is another problem. If a country practices federalism, there is already a federal army: the army that comes from a union that practices a federal system. The type of army comes from the type of political system that you practice.

The artillery attack on the Kachin Independence Army’s officer training facility at Laiza in November appeared to be a low point for the peace process. Do you agree?

In October there were about 20 incidents that included military clashes, IED [improvised explosive device] attacks and other issues in Kachin State. These issues escalated. Even on November 19 there were three clashes before the shelling. At this time the confidence level was quite low from both sides.

When that happened, the media usually does not have that type of detail so they highlighted the incident in Laiza but did not know what had happened prior to that.

The KIO wanted those events to be explained. The military was willing to explain what happened [and] because of this we don’t see this as a major issue. The reason that we did not meet this time yet is because we will spend more time in pre-negotiaons.

The design has been changed, previously we focused on major talks to solve the issues, but since September we have seen that we have needed to work harder among government side, among the armed ethnic group side, shift to diplomacy for pre-negotiations. Once these issues are settled we will have a major talks. Now we are trying to narrow down the issues and it looks like we are getting closer, that we only have two or three issues left.

What are these two or three issues that remain?

Number one is that the government side has asked the ethnic armed groups to stop recruiting and expanding their units once they have signed a ceasefire. The rationale is that, to de-escalate for the peace process, you should not take advantage of the peace process by recruiting and preparing for war. Some of the ethnic armed groups said that was fine. They said “We will not recruit, we will tighten our groups and do training.”Some of the groups said that because the clashes are continuing they still need to recruit so they could not agree on this. This something we are still working on.

Another issue is a transition arrangement. The armed ethnic groups want the government to recognise that they have rights to collect taxes, manage natural resources, extract natural resources and also administer education and healthcare. On the government side it is going to be difficult to explicitly agree on paper. On paper there is going to be a different taxation system, that is a sovereignty issue. This is what happened over the past 17 years with the KIO and other groups, there are some gentleman agreement. But the problem is people. In the past, people were quite tolerant of these kind of taxes. They pay sometimes the government troops and they pay the ethnic armed groups, but under these new changes when the system opened, people don’t want to pay. People start complaining. People say now, you are not fighting, we are not supposed to be paying, there is a new system so we don’t want to pay taxes.

There is also recruitment issues. Some ethnic armed groups said “OK, we will not forcibly recruit,”but when we talk about the definition of forced recruitment they say, “Ok we can ask the village, you have to provide 10 soldiers for this year.”They don’t consider that [to be] forced recruitment, some of the groups. So the Tatmadaw asked them not to recruit at all. But from the people perspective as long we don’t join voluntarily that is forced recruitment.

Is there a feeling of fatigue with the peace process in the government and among MPC members?

At MPC, this is our job. If you ask me about being fatigued, I would say “yes.”We work here seven days a week, Monday to Friday, regular hours, 9 to 5. Once everyone has left for dinner, to run or go to the gym, we come back to office and work late nights. This is the routine. Saturday and Sunday [President’s Office Minister and chief government negotiatior at the ceasefire talks] U Aung Min comes to Yangon and we start at 7am. Seven days a week, so if you ask if there is fatigue, then yes.

From the government side it is more political. This is an election year, a lot of energy will be channelled to the election, maybe there will be less interest in the peace process.

So you think there will be less interest rather than more in the peace process this year because of the election?

We did a lot of surveys, a lot of studies. The peace process will have very little impact on the voting pattern. Most of the voters in urban areas are less affected by the peace process. Myanmar people living in major towns and cities, after the 1970s, never experienced civil war. Even though Myanmar has been fighting a civil war for over 60 years, the majority of people in this country have not experienced civil war. They only hear about it. War is fought in remote areas, not in populated areas. So there is little understanding of the experience of war. For the majority of voters the peace process is not that critical.

What about interest within the international community?

The peace process is directly related to the collateral damage and human rights abuses. The number of human rights abuses in civil war areas has dropped since we have signed ceasefires. A lot of members of the international community are looking at Myanmar from a human rights perspective; having the peace process in place definitely reduce the number of human rights abuses. That makes things easier for the government to interact with the international community.

Do you ever think there are too many people from the international community involved in the peace process?

Yes. Too much is already going on because what this government did not do when they came to power, when they opened to the international community, was transparency. They did not ask for transparency from the international donors.

I worked in third world countries before. Before I came here I worked in Afghanistan. Even in Afghanistan the government made sure that the donor money was transparent and they had to know where the donor money goes. Donors can only fund the groups that are officially registered.

In Myanmar, even though that should legally be the case, the government does not enforce this. USAID, DIFID, for example, are funding organisations that are not officially registered. Meaning this money is not accounted for and is not traceable. There are a lot of activities in this country that are already donor driven.

The implementing organisations have become pigeonholed instead of [adopting] an overall strategic perspective. In that sense they might implement things for a particular groups that the donors may feel are a goodcause. A lot of this donor money is tied to opposition groups as well. A lot of these donors, for example in the United States, we have National Endowment for Democracy, they are still funding activities here but the government barely knows where this money is going to and they don’t disclose that transparently. Looking at all these actives, I’m not surprised that there is an explosion of groups one after another.


This Article first appeared in the February 5, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

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