An Interview with Gum San NSang
By Rachel Wagley
February 2, 2015
The Myanmar military and the country’s ethnic armed groups have been involved in a multitude of conflicts since the late 1940s. Periodic ceasefire agreements have all failed to solve the fundamental questions of autonomy, federalism, and self-determination driving combat. Although the country now has tentative ceasefire agreements with several ethnic groups, the military and Kachin Independence Army have been engaged in warfare in northern Burma since June 2011. This conflict serves as the backdrop for current efforts between Myanmar’s new government and armed ethnic groups to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement that aims to use political dialogue as a means to end decades of military violence.
In this Q&A, Gum San Nsang, president of Kachin Alliance, discusses the current status of negotiations and explains what ethnic groups hope to achieve through the process. He argues that both the Myanmar government and military must commit to substantial institutional and political reforms in order to generate credibility for the difficult peace negotiations. He also makes the case for why a diverse group of international observers should be allowed to witness the ceasefire talks.
The Myanmar government and ethnic armed groups are engaged in efforts to sign a nationwide ceasefire accord. What is the current status of the ceasefire agreement and political dialogue between the Myanmar government and the ethnic armed groups? How does ongoing military violence affect the peace process?
Peace talks are held between the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team, which represents sixteen ethnic armed groups. In August 2014, peace negotiators from both parties agreed to discuss a code of conduct, a timeline for the comprehensive peace process, and several other steps that indicated real progress in the ceasefire talks. But government representatives appear to lack real authority and internal negotiating power with the Tatmadaw (the Burmese armed forces), which has later retracted many of the political concessions made by the government in ceasefire talk.
Much of the progress made in August was reversed during the round of talks on September 22–26, 2014. In September, the Tatmadaw asserted its demand to discuss troop repositioning, a code of conduct, a joint monitoring mechanism, disarmament, and a military reintegration plan only after the signing of a nationwide ceasefire accord. The Tatmadaw also asserted in September that ethnic armed groups must submit to its “six principles of peace.” These principles include adhering to the 2008 constitution, submitting to national sovereignty, agreeing to remain in the union, and adhering to laws and rules the central government may announce after the agreement. These and other vague mandates are highly problematic for ethnic armed groups, especially considering the huge lack of trust between the two parties, exacerbated by the army’s refusal to agree to concrete and binding timelines.
President Thein Sein has announced his intention for the national ceasefire agreement to be signed on Union Day, February 12, 2015, but this would be a preemptive display of peace. On January 20, 2015, Tatmadaw troops brutally gang-raped and killed two young Kachin Baptist Convention volunteers in Kawng Hka village of Muse District in Northern Shan State. Incidents of sexual violence continue, and the Tatmadaw has not stopped military offensives in the ethnic area. Both parties attending the peace talks know that a February deadline is unreasonable. The disconnect between the president’s peace plans and ongoing military violence means that negotiators face an uphill battle to achieve a meaningful ceasefire agreement.
Peace process observers in Myanmar and abroad are concerned that the Tatmadaw is not demonstrating genuine will for national reconciliation. How can the military address internal institutional problems and work with civilian leaders in government? How can the president’s office help lessen distrust between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups?
The Tatmadaw is the custodian of the country’s 2008 constitution and 2010 referendum, and its leaders, businesses, and power paradigm profit immensely from an opaque or quasi-democratic political system. The 2008 constitution guarantees the military 25% of parliamentary seats, and since over 75% of the parliament must approve constitutional amendments, the military has fail-safe power. The military has used the country’s transition period and factionalism between the country’s old guard and reformists as a means to lift international sanctions while avoiding real institutional reform. The military is corrupt financially and politically, and this is undermining what could otherwise be a more transparent peace process.
Institutional problems could be resolved by (1) reducing the role of the Tatmadaw in the political system, (2) replacing current Tatmadaw leadership to remove those who have instigated or condoned abusive military attacks in ethnic regions, (3) integrating ethnic armed organizations into the federal system, and (4) allowing states to provide their own police and security forces. It is critical to amend the 2008 constitution to dilute the military’s role in government. These reforms would indicate genuine political will for national reconciliation and democracy. The army should revisit the principles of ethnic autonomy and federalism charted in the historic social contract between the ethnic groups and Burman majority in the Panglong Agreement of February 12, 1947, led by General Aung San. This agreement is celebrated annually as Union Day. But the army’s refusal to reach political compromise, treat ethnic groups equally, or address the surprise massacre of 23 Kachin cadets by Tatmadaw troops on November 19, 2014, makes celebrating this coming Union Day with a national ceasefire agreement impossible.
The president’s office should be seeking political solutions to reduce the military’s influence in government. It should also be impartial regarding ethnic issues and reinstate international humanitarian aid to internally displaced persons camps in Kachin-controlled territory. The government continues to block access to life-saving aid, making these camps dependent on aid from local Kachin community-based organizations.
How have civil society groups been involved in the peace talks? Is there a role for other Asian governments and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to play?
Current participants in the ceasefire talks include limited civil society organization representatives, but expansive and robust participation by reputable NGOs is gravely needed. In addition, Asian and ASEAN leaders should find ways to interact, discuss, and engage with all stakeholders, including ethnic armed organizations. Reputable NGOs and government leaders should serve as witnesses of all peace talks and establish channels of communication to verify information provided by the Burmese government and whether timelines and rules are being fully implemented. Unfortunately, the government has unaccountably blocked off representation.
How could the United States best engage in the peace process? What have been the complications in securing U.S. engagement? What role has China played in the peace process?
The Kachin Independence Organization has repeatedly requested U.S. observers at the peace talks. But the Myanmar government has not invited the United States to participate and prefers to keep negotiations private. The government has rejected requests from U.S. officials to witness the talks, though China has observed the talks.
The best possible scenario would be for the United States to serve as a witness like China to the peace dialogue and ceasefire agreement. The United States should be able to publicly and impartially engage major stakeholders in both parties. A peaceful and prosperous Burma is in the common interest of both China and the United States. In fact, China hosted a few of the steps in the U.S.-Burma normalization process, including some of the initial meetings between the U.S. State Department and Burmese government.
What are ethnic armed groups seeking from the peace process? How will a federalist system alleviate national conflict?
Ethnic groups seek to forge an accord that not only guarantees the safety of the troops of both parties but also guarantees the safety of unarmed civilians in urban areas and war-torn territories. Such an accord could prevent events like that on January 20, 2015, when soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 503 of the Burma army raped and killed two Kachin Christian women. A true process of national reconciliation would also grant civilians access to a functioning independent judicial system.
A ceasefire agreement should be witnessed and guaranteed by the United Nations and the international community. The Kachin Independence Organization and the Myanmar government signed a “de-escalation of tension” agreement on May 30, 2013, which was witnessed by representatives from the UN and China. However, the agreement has been broken many times since without any ramifications from the UN or China. A successful peace process would thus allow the United States, the United Kingdom, and/or India, along with the UN and China, to serve as observers. Above all, the process would be transparent. Successful dialogue would build a pathway toward federalism and self-determination for all ethnic groups, just as it would also protect the rights of the Burman minority in ethnic regions.
A successful peace process would support the organization of a federal army with ethnic regiments where ethnic men and women are active participants and leaders in the armed forces. Ethnic state security would be safeguarded by ethnic people, and ethnic people and soldiers would enjoy equal rights and representation.
How will the upcoming 2015 general elections in Myanmar affect the peace process? Will the elections help address the political and socio-economic needs facing the country’s ethnic groups?
The election will not have an impact on the peace process in the short term because the political system itself isn’t set to change. A country cannot be truly democratic if it is controlled by its military. In addition, President Thein Sein appoints the chief minister (governor) of each state. This is the equivalent of President Obama appointing the governor of California. Those who are chosen are aligned with the Thein Sein government and do not represent the people. For example, the chief minister in Kachin State is Kachin Buddhist, whereas 95% of Kachin people are Christian. Ethno-religious nationalism significantly affects Burmese politics and the ongoing wars with ethnic armed groups.
On the parliamentary level, Kachin parties will participate in the 2015 elections. But looking at the voter registration manipulation that occurred during recent Yangon municipal elections, results for the 2015 general election may not be free and fair. Currently, Kachin State ministers and parliamentarians, even if they are representative of the community, don’t have the authority to tackle issues of war, sexual violence, judicial integrity, safety, international aid, and poverty that affect the Kachin community.
Burma qualifies as one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is home to some of the richest people in Southeast Asia. It is a very unequal society. There are two Burmese societies—there is one part of Burma that will eventually thrive, and one part that is fighting for safety and survival. In Yangon, there are popular new brands and stores, but some people in Kachin State are still living on ox carts. Kachin politicians and civil society organizations are fighting for the safety of the Kachin people; they do not yet even have the luxury to work on combatting poverty.
Ceasefire agreements have been repeatedly broken in Myanmar, and the Tatmadaw continues to reinforce troops in some ethnic areas despite commitments to do the opposite. What would lasting reconciliation look like in the country?
Some of the past ceasefires were never committed to in writing, and many of those that were on paper were never observed by an international body or civil society. A transparent and binding agreement with timelines and benchmarks for a joint monitoring mechanism, code of conduct, process for continuing political dialogue, and repositioning of troops will be a good start. The long-term solution for conflict resolution in Myanmar is to develop a constitution that reflects the principles of a genuine federal union, where branches of government are represented by leaders who are freely elected by the people, not selected by a committee in Naypyidaw. True reconciliation would change Myanmar into a beacon of democracy where all its citizens are proud to be part of a collective narrative, place the interest of the federal union first, break down the partition of ethnicity, and choose leaders based on merit.
Rachel Wagley is Assistant Director of Outreach at the National Bureau of Asian Research.
Gum San NSang is the President of Kachin Alliance, a network of Kachin communities and organizations that advocates for the rights of the Kachin ethnic nationality.