As Burma makes a rocky new year start, with the Burma Army (Tatmadaw) attacking a position of Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), popularly known as SSA South, that has signed the government initiated nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), in eastern Shan State on 31 December 2015, the three Burmese top leaders, considered to be the movers and shakers of the country, delivered Independence Day messages, which were quite different in essence, when one takes pain to read them between the lines.
President Thein Sein, the ex-military general, talked about discipline-flourishing democracy, while Aung San Suu, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), reiterated her commitment to the establishing of genuine federalism and vowed to bring forward the controversial NCA to become all-inclusive, as the Commander-in-Chief emphasized and defended the military of waging a “just war” for the purpose of the people and its commitment to defend the country’s sovereignty an territorial integrity.
Let us look into it, with an eye fixed on the Union Peace Conference, scheduled to be held from 12 to 16 January 2016, which should be the first step to iron out the political differences and grievances that have existed for decades, between military adversaries and ethnic nationalities, Bamar included.
President Thein Sein
President Thein Sein in his Independence Day message on 4 January explained that at the moment the country is transitioning to a democratic state, in a three tier approach, reported the Global New Light of Myanmar.
The first tier consists of drafting and adopting the Constitution as preparatory groundwork for democracy, conducting the 2010 general elections and making preparations for the formation of the first Hluttaw (Parliament) and the Government and conducting the second general elections in 2015 putting the country on the path to democracy. The second tier consists of a gentle transition to democracy that has won international recognition and led to a significant improvement in the international relations of Myanmar. The third tier involves political dialogue to resolve issues such as internal and external conflicts and problems of national groups to achieve a more mature and established democracy.
In closing, he finally urged all the people to work in unity for the realization of the following four goals of the 68th anniversary celebrations of the Independence Day with commitment, a sense of responsibility and allegiance to the nation:
- To have all the nationals living in the Union together in ever-lasting harmony;
- To safeguard the non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national unity and perpetuation of sovereignty through the efforts of all the national people;
- To make an endeavour to achieve a nation-wide ceasefire agreement and enduring peace;
- To realize a discipline-flourishing new modern developed democratic nation through the people’s strength.
Aung San Suu Kyi
On the occasion of the 68th Independence Day anniversary, on 4 January 2016, held at the NLD Head Office, Aung San Suu Kyi revealed her priority setting among others to her audience as follows: “The first duty for the incoming government is to build peace. We must hold a real effective peace convention and make the presently signed ceasefire treaty to be more all-inclusive. After that we all must try that genuine democratic federal union of the future be built, as soon as possible. In doing so all citizens, Tatmadaw (military) and ethnic nationalities must be involved. Not only the whole country that has good will on us, the whole world would also need to help.”
“As during the struggle for independence, all nationalities based on Panglong spirit and agreement had strived together, at this moment, (we) should all work together to build a genuine federal union,” stressed Aung San Suu Kyi.
On the same day, in a statement supporting her speech, her party executive committee said that it is time to get rid of the bad legacy and aimed to build a democratic federal union through good experiences of unity, peace and democracy as an ultimate goal.
Her priority setting remarks made clear that she intended to change the structure and path of the peace process put in place by President U Thein Sein’s military-backed government once her own administration takes office in late March following her party’s landslide election victory.
Suu Kyi had rebuffed the signing of the nationwide ceasefire accord at a grand ceremony hosted by the president in Naypyitaw on October 15, 2015 and she also confirmed, when she told Radio Free Asia, recently that due to her work load at the parliament, she would not attend the first Union Peace Conference – the next stage of political dialogue – with the ceasefire signatories to be held on January 12, 2016.
On 10 January, Suu Kyi reportedly made a change of heart and said that she would give a ten minute speech at the opening of the Union Peace Convention, according to various media outlet, which was confirmed by U Nyan Win in Voice of America.
Min Aung Hlaing
On the same Independence Day, speaking at a ceremony honouring soldiers for their service Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing said the country’s ongoing civil war was for the benefit of the nation’s citizens, according to the 5 January report in Global New Light of Myanmar.
He said: “Today, we are fighting for our nation, our people and our Tatmadaw, if we have to say the truth, all Tatmadaw men, including the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services, take an oath that they will fight only for justice. It is the inherent duty of all citizens to protect, as national task, our land, air and water territories, as well as lives and property of all nationalities.”
Apart from taking credit that it is the Tatmadaw that has allowed and paved the way for democratization and multi-party parliamentary system, he stressed that the it will be around for quite a while by buttressing the point that “Myanmar Tatmadaw cannot be separated from nation-building and state-building tasks, as it has had the tradition of being involved in national politics.”
War in Kachin, Shan and Arakan states
While Thein Sein regime is geared to hold the Union Peace Conference on 12 January with pomp and ceremony, inviting some 1,200 people, the war in Kachin, Shan and Arakan states goes on, with no sign of ending in the near future.
The military according to Myanmar Times of 8 January, said that it will eliminate the Arakan Army (AA), following two weeks of armed clashes in remote Arakan (Rakhine) State that had killed 20 Tatmadaw soldiers including a battalion commander.
In Shan State, the Tatmadaw launched heavy offensives in early October against forces of the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), better known as SSA North, an ethnic armed group that refused to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement.
The fighting, which displaced an estimated 10,000 people and prevented elections from being held in two townships, subsided in late November after the two sides reached a preliminary agreement involving a limited withdrawal of Tatmadaw forces. Despite the agreement on the return of IDPs, many civilians were still afraid to return to their occupied villages, or were blocked by the military from doing so.
As if to disrupt the signing of the NCA, prior to signing the NCA for a few weeks on 16 September 2015, the Tatmadaw from LIBs 152 and 99 unleashed an offensive against the SSA South near Kholam sub-township Namzang township, Shan State, using helicopters and reportedly fighter jets, which nearly made the latter to opt out of the peace process, had it not been for the patience and eagerness of Sao Yawd Serk, head of the RCSS, to sign the treaty.
Despite of such patience and bending over backwards, again on New Year’s eve, according to SSA South spokesman, the Tatmadaw attacked their position at about 1 p.m. on 31 December 2015, in Mong Peng Township in eastern Shan State’s Monghsat distrit. The clash allegedly lasted one hour and involved the Tatmadaw Infantry Battalion No. 278. He said one soldier was killed and another wounded on RCSS side.
This incidence was, however, downplayed when the RCSS protested in earnest that the terms of NCA might need to be reviewed.
Colonel Wunna Aung of Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC) said that it was an accidental clash for the RCSS troops movement came near to the Tatmadaw position, which the former said that their troops have been around for years as guerilla movement, even before the signing of NCA, but only lately have established temporary base camps and misunderstood by the Tatmadaw as expanding their areas of influence.
Union Peace Conference
To keep up with the timeline of 90 days and start the political dialogue, Union Peace Conference is scheduled to take place from 12 to 16 January.
As agreed by the Union Political Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) – made up of the government/parliament, 8 ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and political parties, each having 16 representatives respectively, making a body of 48 altogether – 150 representatives each from, the government/parliament, the Tatmadaw, political parties, 8 EAOs and 50 representatives each from non-signatories EAOs and other invited individuals including outside experts, altogether 700 plus nearly 500 others, including the non-signatory EAOs, are slated to attend the conference.
Accordingly, the UPDJC agreed to discuss five topics at the country’s first political dialogue following a two-day preparatory meeting at the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC) on 6 January, reported the Global New Light of Myanmar on 7 January.
The five agenda items include political issues, economic issues and social issues, security and land and natural resources management. The stakeholders used the two-day pre-meeting to prepare for the discussion, said U Aung Naing Oo, a programme director at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC).
On 6 January, U Hla Maung Shwe, a senior adviser at the MPC, said that the special invitees include the three groups the government is not engaged in armed conflict with, and seven groups that turned down the government’s invitation to sign the ceasefire, according to the Myanmar Times.
“Seven representatives from each of the seven groups and three delegates each from the Wa National Organization, the Lahu Democratic Union and the Arakan National Council were sent invitations,” he said.
The invitations continued to exclude the three armed ethnic groups fighting the government troops in the Kokang self-administered areas: the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA).
On 7 January, an armed ethnic alliance United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), that did not sign an October ceasefire agreement with the Burmese regime announced that it will not participate in upcoming political dialogue.
UNFC spokesman Twan Zaw, who also serves as secretary of the Arakan National Council, said after a meeting that the group won’t participate in the conference, stating three points as the reason.
The first is the lack of all-inclusiveness, the second the government’s “discriminatory” treatment of non-signatories and third, the framework for the dialogue drafted by signatories in December is not what the UNFC wants.
Likewise, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS), popularly known as Mong La, also confirmed the rejection of the regime’s invitation on 7 January, according to Eleven Media Group.
The UWSA spokesman Zhao Guo-an said that since the government is still engaging in armed conflict with the RCSS, TNLA, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), also known as Kokang, and AA there is no point to attend the conference and that it will negotiate with the incoming new government and intend to make peace in Wa region.
NDAA-ESS spokesman U Kyi Myint aka Zhang Zhiming said: “We are not all walking in the same direction. It is better all armed groups participate in the peace talks but not all groups have been invited. We are not supporting it and we will not attend the conference.”
On 5 January, 126 civil society organizations urged government negotiators, known as the Union Peacemaking Working Committee, and the eight ethnic armed group signatories to postpone the talks in Naypyitaw because of ongoing conflict in Arakan, Kachin and Shan States.
Furthermore, in its seven point statement, one of it pinpoints: “We are of the position that changing the concept of political dialogue based on a tripartite representation as outlined in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement into that of a pentagonal representation has the potential to weaken the focus on developing a federal union based on democracy and ethnic equality, which are central to Burma’s political problem.”
Apart from such rejections, Hkun Htun Oo, leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) told SHAN and Radio Free Asia that he couldn’t see any benefit of holding the conference which was not inclusive and didn’t want to go down in the history as a culprit endorsing the wrong move. Other than that, he said that he had not signed the NCA and that there is also no point to attend the Union Peace Conference now.
The careful study of the three most important Bamar leaders revealed what they might have in store, as their future political outlook of the country.
President Thein Sein is no doubt, a staunch proponent of the military inspired “discipline-flourishing democracy”, as outlined in his Independence Day message. As such, although not spelling out word for word, his strategic goal is a watered down, presidential unitary system with some devolution involved in power-sharing, giving a semblance of a federal union. A far cry from the position of the ethnic nationalities’ aspired national state-based federalism, as envisaged by the Panglong Agreement of 1947.
Thus, it is safe to conclude that his political goal is, at the least, a gradual withdrawal – say after 10 to 15 years later, as his Commander-in-Chief have time and again reiterated to the press – of the military from political arena, once the military desired fall-back position is secured. But whether this could be achievable or accommodated at this juncture is totally another question.
Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated her stance of all-inclusiveness in the signing of NCA and made it a point in her new year message that this will be her government main task, so that peace and reconciliation within the mould of a genuine federalism could be achieved, as soon as possible.
At one time, not so long ago, she even said that Bamar is also an ethnic group and one of the ethnic nationalities, a far cry from the military and most Bamar politicians posture of wanting to be aloof in relation to ethnic nationality label and staying above it as a dominating political class.
In contrast, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in his new year speech at a ceremony honouring soldiers for their service make it plain that the Tatmadaw waging wars on the ethnic resistance forces are justified in protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity. It seems the ethnic nationalities’ position of political grievances of not having a fair political and resources sharing have not been heard and understood, after all these years.
The ethnic nationalities opted for armed resistance as they were unable to address their grievances in political arena, which in effect are their right to shared-sovereignty, equality and rights of self-determination.
Min Aung Hlaing further made a point that the military has paved the way for the recent democratization and multi-party system and is not about to opt out of the political arena anytime soon.
Finally, the Union Peace Conference won’t be attended by the UNFC, UWSA and NDAA-ESS.
This means the conference will again be a partial-conference, lacking the all-inclusive nature of being nationwide, aside from the rejection of the more than 100 Civil Society Organizations on the same ground.
At this writing, the UPDJC is said to be drawing outline and principles on how to determine the five sphere of political, economy, social, security, land use and environmental protection, which will be discussed at the first Union Peace Conference. If it is just an introduction to later further develop during the incoming NLD regime, it is fine and good. But if this is to impose on the new regime, with the present UPDJC dominated by the military and its like-minded coalition that is not at all inclusive, it would only be imposing one’s will on the other. And this can’t be good for the country.
The most crucial point, however, is the determination on how a federal form of government be agreed upon. And the outlines and principles prescribed by the recent UPDJC setting couldn’t be appropriate, as it has no exclusive right to do so.
For the ethnic nationalities leadership, most of which are non-signatories of the NCA, including ethnic political parties and civil societies, also have their own version of federalism aspiration based on Panglong agreement (promises), 1948 Union of Burma Constitution and 1961 Federal Proposal, which are historical documents and treaty that need to be taken into account. And the incorporation of the ethnic desired guideline or principle is a necessity, when deliberation of the future federal union is considered within the Union Peace Conference.
The Union Peace Conference is supposed to be a second Panglong Conference, if it is to the liking of Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic nationalities in general. And the conference is now going to be a testing ground on how power-sharing and resources-sharing be conducted.
The end game scenario is going to be the struggle between the entrenched old power of the military, determined not to fade away anytime soon, by doing everything it can to secure its leading role in political decision-making apparatus for unforeseeable future and the combined people’s power vested in Aung San Suu Kyi and the majority of the ethnic nationalities, armed and unarmed, to make a change by building a genuine federal union.
But how this end game scenario is going to play out is a question, only time would be able to answer.
The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU) — Editor