Sunday, July 21, 2024

Without federalism, “democracy itself will discriminate against us”

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The Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center (ENAC) was founded in 2013 to support Burma’s political dialogue through the development of inclusive policy recommendations created by both grassroots and elite stakeholders.

Ma Htung, Program Manager at ENAC, spoke with SHAN about his organization’s contributions to and views on the peace process, the Framework for Political Dialogue and ENAC’s longterm vision for building a federal union.

Ma Htung works in ENAC’s Thailand office. (Photo: Simma Francis)
Ma Htung works in ENAC’s Thailand office. (Photo: Simma Francis)

Question: What is ENAC and what work does the organization do?

Answer: This organization is here to support the peace process, and the final goal is to build a federal union. That is what we aim for. What we are doing is making it all-inclusive, particularly the Framework for Political Dialogue. We want the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council] to be included in this framework. Currently, we are not able to make [the Framework] inclusive for all groups. Eight groups have already signed the NCA [the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement], but the rest, the bigger groups, are still left behind. Unless we can bring them into the Framework for Political Dialogue, we cannot make genuine peace.

Q: SHAN has reported on criticisms that the Framework for Political Dialogue is not as inclusive as some actors would like it to be. Can you comment on this?

A: As far as I know, initially ENAC wanted a tripartite framework. One part is government, another is political parties, and finally, EAOs [Ethnic Armed Organizations]. But the government is talking about a political dialogue which has seven parts—parliament, government, military, EAOs, political parties, ethnic nationalities, and stakeholders. I am very concerned about this. We cannot say this is inclusiveness. The military has 150 persons out of 700, and in the parliament, there could already be military people. In the government, USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] is a political party and part of the military, too. They are in alliance, even if we cannot say they are one group. Out of seven parts, the military is dominating four parts. How can we say that this framework can lead to a fair and just political negotiation? That is what I see.

Unless the Framework for Political Dialogue is fair, I don’t think it will lead to a genuine peace process. No group should take a big share in the framework. The military wants to take a big share, but they say they are taking an equal share. They should not stand separately from the government. If they stand separately, it means they still want to dominate other groups, even the government. This means that the military wants to get legal legitimacy. That’s why they are participating as a separate actor. If they reduce their power, [a genuine peace process] is really possible.

Q: Why do you think things have unfolded in this way?

A: The eight groups—we call it the Eight-C-A, instead of the NCA—these eight groups are trying to legitimate their process, because they have already signed [the NCA]. For both the eight groups and the government, they are trying to manipulate this process by excluding other groups. They can amend [the agreement] whenever it is necessary—they worded it like this—for the other groups to join. They could make changes, if the non-signatories wanted to join.

Q: The non-signatories to the NCA will be able to participate in the political dialogue as ‘observers.’ What does this mean to you?

A: If they decide to participate as observers…this means it will be very formal, from a legal perspective. This is clear: You are participating. You are interested. Your aim is to join the process, so it means you are supporting their process. If [the government] wants these groups to participate, they should have started from the NCA. After the signing of the NCA, these groups were no longer part of the process. They were in the process until the NCA, but what stopped them was [a lack of] inclusiveness—their only demand was to include all groups [in the agreement]. Why did the government not want to accept all groups? This is nonsense, real nonsense.

Q: ENAC is working parallel to the ongoing peace process. What is ENAC doing to influence or shift the process?

A: Currently, we have four centers [of focus]: policy development, constitution and legal affairs, the peace process, and information and publicity. We now have eight draft policies, through workshops. In the workshops, we invited EAOs, civil society organizations [CSOs] and ethnic political parties. We are developing our policies ‘bottom-up’, not ‘top-down.’ All of these policies are guidelines, guiding principles that lead to a federal constitution. Later, these policies will affect the Framework for Political Dialogue through the bargaining process between EAOs and the government. If they agree on these [policies], they could be part of a federal constitution. We believe that will be able to lead to a federal union.

Q: You mentioned “bottom-up” policy development. How are grassroots-level organizations involved?

A: The next step of what we are going to do is to consult with EAOs. We have already consulted with very top leaders and now we will consult with the middle-level. The armed groups have been around for more than 50 years, so they have several different departments—education department, land department. They have been inserted inside of the system.

At the same time, we have policy on education, health, natural resources, agriculture, all of those. So we are going to consult to develop a common understanding with the EAOs… At the next step, we will consult with the CSOs and proceed on that level as well. Before these policies become part of the Framework for Political Dialogue, this process will have already proceeded. It is not possible to consult with every citizen, but what we aim for as much as possible is to consult with the CSOs to represent the people.

Q: Has ENAC received any criticism for this approach?

A: As far as I know, we haven’t received any direct criticism. But for sure, pro-government, pro-MPC [Myanmar Peace Center] groups will criticize us, saying we should work together with them. From the eight ethnic armed groups, some of them have some ideas that our organization should work not only with non-signatories, but also signatory groups. I think we can work hand in hand. But the problem is, how can we work together if our ideas and our concepts are totally different? We can have different opinions, but we should have the same aim.

Q: What would show you that you share the same aim? What would you be looking for to build trust?

A: Without peace with the EAOs, there will never be any genuine peace. Democracy, whatever you name it, is that the majority rules. In our country, the Burmese population is the biggest. We, the ethnic nationalities, cannot compete with them. If they just build democracy, it is not enough for us. We will be discriminated against again, constitutionally and lawfully. Democracy itself will discriminate against us. We are totally different from that trend. We want not only democracy, we want federal democracy. This means we will be fair stakeholders in the parliament, in the government. The Burmese have two seats, and we have two seats; that’s what we call federal democracy. If we just have democracy, ethnic nationalities will never be able to come up to the top level.

Q: Why does the peace process need ENAC?

A: The process needs us because the way that we are working is based on a federal union. Like for policy development, we do not leave out any groups. We keep on inviting others to the [policy] workshops—signatories, non-signatories, ethnic political parties, civil society organizations. We invite representatives, two from each group. That’s what you can see from the way that we are working.


By SIMMA FRANCIS / Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N)

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