The second round of the Union Peace Conference went ahead in the Burmese capital, Naypyidaw, from May 24 to 29. During those six days of talks, stakeholders signed partial agreements.
Host of the conference, Burma’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, addressed delegates at the closing ceremony, saying: “These agreements were not reached without challenges. They came about after we were able to move beyond two extremes: distraction and excitement.”
So, how exciting was the peace conference? What benefits and positive signs can the general public take from this round of negotiations? Shan Herald spoke exclusively to Col. Sai Nguen, Secretary 3 of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), who represented his organization at the peace summit, which has been dubbed the 21st Century Panglong Conference, or 21CPC.
Question: A debate on the principle that each state and region would accept that there is ‘no-secession from the Union’ was the hottest point at the 21CPC. Would you explain how the talks transpired?
Answer: ‘No part of territory constituted in the Union such as Regions, States, Union Territories, and Self-Administered Areas shall ever secede from the Union’ (2008: 10) – that is one of the basic principles of the Union of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, and it was arguably the most debated topic at 21CPC.
Many ethnic people were curious and anxious about the outcome from the summit about this very point. Some of the EPPs [ethnic political parties] and [ethnic armed groups] argued that this clause is not required within the basic principles of the Federal Union, while the military representatives disagreed, saying this matter should be decided upon at the UPDJC [Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee] Secretariat meeting. For this reason, the conference was extended by a day, and the UPDJC Secretariat meeting was called on May 28. At this meeting, the no-secession clause was the overwhelming point of debate. One of the RCSS’s political allies suggested that this controversial topic be dropped.
In the end, we were unable to come to an agreement, and all five political negotiating groups agreed to postpone the discussion to the forthcoming summit.
Q: What do you personally think about the inclusion of a no-secession clause as a basic principle of the constitution?
A: This has much more to do with how respectable a state we are intent on building. No-secession as a basic principle is not compatible with federalism. That clause is simply the voice and demand from four national-level political dialogues convened in four different places, and its inclusion entirely reflects the views of the Tatmadaw (Burmese government forces). In other words, it is merely a reflection of the minority. We still don’t have a wide spectrum of opinion, for example from those ethnic people who have not yet convened political dialogue, and from those non NCA-signatory ethnic armed organizations. We have not even held discussions between us—each of the provisional groups. We must especially note that that there have been no solid discussions or negotiations resulting in a common agreement among the EAOs and EPPs at this point. For this reason, we request that the non-secession clause is removed from the agenda.
Q: When you dropped the ‘no-secession’ clause, the government representatives and the Tatmadaw reportedly insisted that the drafting of independent constitutions for states and regions should also be postponed. Is that true?
A: Yes, that is correct. This is a kind of ‘trade-exchange’ peace process. The message from the government and the Burmese military is that if you want self-determination and a state constitution, you must accept the ‘no-secession’ clause.
Q: Do you think that the Burmese government and Tatmadaw used give-and-take tactics to turn the situation to their favor?
A: Yes, I do. They should not play this kind of game. It goes against the state counsellor’s opening remarks at the 21CPC. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said: ‘We are navigating the nation towards the future, and at every step we will consult with all parties. We will not use force; we will not use ‘give-and-take’ tactics to advance our political terms. We will discuss, negotiate, and consult with everyone transparently to find common ground that we all can agree upon.’
In trust-building, it is very important to be straight forward and commit to your words and deeds. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said that they will always welcome the non NCA-signatory groups with an open door and open arms. But honestly, I am worried that if such unfair tactics are employed, the ‘door of peace’ will shut permanently for those non-ceasefire groups.
Q: Prior to the 21CPC being scheduled on May 24-28, the RCSS sent out a very clear message, saying that it is too early to sign any agreement resulting from the summit. Nevertheless, on May 29, the additional day of the conference, Padoh Kwe Htu Win, vice-president of the KNU [Karen National Union], signed a document as a representative of an umbrella group of EAOs. The people of Shan State are curious to know – what is the RCSS’s reaction to this?
A: We are responsible for the drafting of the NCA that paved the way for this peace process. We do not want to see the peace process collapse; all EAO stakeholders must help rescue it.
Q: What issues can be rescued?
A: The general EAO opinion is that some of the outcomes of this conference regarding federal principles are incomplete. They merely represent a minority views. That is why we proposed that the basic principles of federalism, debated and agreed at the 21CPC, should only be included in a Union agreement, as a collection of opinion for the time-being, but not as a signal of a final agreement.
On the other hand, our negation counterparts will not accept our proposal, but rather they insist that the NCA’s ‘pathway to peace’ is the only way; therefore we are all obliged to affirm the agreements from this conference.
They argue that the entire peace process cannot proceed if we don’t sign. ‘We don’t mind if the peace process collapses,’ was one uncultured statement used during the talks. At that point, we called for a break, then discussed among ourselves [EAO representatives] as to what the next move should be. Although some of the EAOs, including RCSS, did not agree with signing, we respect the majority opinion and the Terms of Reference. That’s why we signed the documents – out of necessity.
Nevertheless, we agreed at the UPDJC Secretariat meeting that the basic principles of federalism that are included in the Union-level agreement are only provisional, and will be amendable as and when is deemed appropriate.
Q: What is your view of the peace conference results?
A: Looking from an NCA perspective, we can certainly say that there is some progress, some significant steps. The NCA Roadmap is now in its fifth out of seven steps. However, from a realistic perspective, we must say that there is no solid tangible outcome yet. Being the most sensitive topic, the security sector has not yet been touched*; we haven’t even come to the point yet as to what aspects of security can and should be prioritized for discussion.
Q: What is your overall comment about the peace conference?
A: At the negotiation table, everyone should be equal and have the same status. I can say from my own observation at this summit that this did not happen. We also need adequate time for discussions. I think that – whether NCA-signatory or non -signatory, all EAOs should take action collectively and be united.
There is also a need to review the whole NCA Peace Process and Framework for Political Dialogue [FPD]. Obviously, this conference did not follow the procedure of the FPD accordingly. Recklessly obtaining individual opinions and rushing to conclude the decision are among a few examples. According to the NCA implementation procedure, there should be mechanisms properly built into the process. It is also very important that the door of the peace process remains open to those non NCA-signatories. Thank you.
*Stakeholders at the Union Peace Conference discussed five major topics: politics, economics, social issues, land and environment, and security. Reportedly, 37 of 41 points from four of those sectors have been agreed, while the negotiation points on the security sector are yet to be tabled.
By Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)