Myanmar's Shan see long path to peace
By Larry Jagan
Deep in Myanmar's mountainous terrain near the border with Thailand, the rebel Shan State Army (SSA) has one of its main bases. The slow drive from the border on a steep winding track through the jungle along the top of a ravine takes several hours. There, Lieutenant General Yawd Serk commands one of the last ethnic armies still fighting for autonomy against the Myanmar military.
The SSA-South army, as it's popularly known, numbers several thousand armed troops. Shan rebel leaders insist that they have at least 20,000 trained soldiers; Thai military intelligence sources
suggest the figure is now less than 10,000 under arms. They have been fighting against the Myanmar army since 1995, after a group of rebels refused to accept a ceasefire agreement signed by the Mong Tai army led by the Shan supremo at the time, the now deceased drug baron Khun Sa.
Yawd Serk formed the SSA-South in 1996 and has been waging war against the Myanmar authorities ever since. Many Shan political leaders, and even ministers in the current Myanmar government, still regard the rebel leader as a 21st century "feudal warlord". In May 2000, he formed the Restoration Council of Shan State (RSSC) to act as his armed group's political wing. In recent years, after Myanmar adopted a new constitution and held elections, the SSA leader has increased the organization's political activity; seeing the writing on the wall, he understands the need for national reconciliation.
Unsurprisingly, the SSA was responsive to the olive branch of the nominally civilian government formed in 2011 and offer for peace talks to end its particular armed conflict. In fact they were the first of the remaining armed groups to sign a preliminary, tentative ceasefire with President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government, agreeing to the "cessation of hostilities" in December 2011. But nearly two years later promised political talks towards a final solution to the conflict have yet to be scheduled.
In an exclusive interview, Yawd Serk predicted it would take at least three years to complete the first stage - a proper ceasefire agreement and an end to all fighting - and probably another six years before a final political solution could be achieved. This solution, Yawd Serk insists, would mean a new federal constitution that allows for self-determination in ethnic areas, the protection of ethnic rights and the preservation of ethnic culture.
"We want real peace, we want a political solution, and we want all ethnic groups to participate," Yawd Serk said, referring to the other ethnic armies that have fought for decades against the central government. "First the fighting has to stop and agreement reached on the areas each side controls," he said.
Like many ethnic leaders, including in the rebellious Kachin, Karen, Mon and Shan states, Yawd Serk said continued fighting between the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, and armed ethnic groups have stifled the government's internationally supported peace process.
Despite a series of talks between the two sides since the initial ceasefire agreement was signed in late 2011 - which among other things agreed to the establishment and recognition of areas of control - and a meeting between Yawd Serk and President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw in June this year, there has been little progress towards forging a lasting political solution.
At the same time, according to Yawd Serk, there have been more than 100 armed skirmishes between government forces and SSA rebels that have resulted in deaths on both sides since the 2011 agreement was signed.
"The problem is the Myanmar military, they don't want to withdraw," said the ethnic Shan militia leader. "In fact, the army commanders are sending more troops into the contested areas," he said, adding that they must soon withdraw if the ceasefire is to endure.
While Thein Sein's government is viewed widely as sincere in its desire to bring peace to the country's ethnic areas after decades of debilitating civil war, the military's war-first mentality remains a significant obstacle, he said.
Myanmar's ethnic minorities have been fighting for autonomy and self-determination since the country's independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Much of Myanmar's sensitive border areas have since been largely controlled by various armed ethnic rebel groups. While the previous military government negotiated more than 20 ceasefire agreements with some of these groups, conflict has endured in many areas.
Thein Sein's government has acknowledged that continued civil war could stall or even overturn the tentative political and economic reforms begun in early 2011. The then railways minister, Aung Min, was given the task of taking the peace process forward. He has held scores of meetings with ethnic rebel leaders, bilaterally and with groups of ethnic leaders. These meetings have been held variously in Myanmar, Thailand and China.
More than 11 new ceasefire agreements have been signed over this period, including the first-ever agreements with the Chin National Front, Karen National Union and SSA. An agreement was even signed recently with the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF) guerrilla group, which was formed in the aftermath of the military's suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1988. Other ethnic groups signed fresh agreements to replace the existing informal pacts that lapsed when the old military regime gave way to Thein Sein's government.
Since the initial optimism surrounding the peace initiatives, talks have stalled, with one of the key stumbling blocks being the continued fighting in ethnic areas. For instance, there are constant credible reports of fresh skirmishes in the Karen and Shan States. Though there is no doubt that the fighting is substantially reduced from a few years ago in many areas, Kachin State being the main outlier, many of the ceasefires appear to be jeopardy. Many ethnic leaders believe that the country's military leaders - especially powerful regional commanders - do not fully support the peace process.
The situation in northern Kachin State, where there are tens of thousands of displaced civilians due to often fierce fighting between government troops and rebels over the last two years, is particularly abysmal. The government has refused to allow the United Nations and other aid groups full access to these areas - and so has effectively denied many refugees much needed food and medical attention.
The fact that UN special envoy for human rights Tomas Ojae Quintana was recently prevented from traveling to the Kachin headquarters in Laiza to assess the situation suggested a disconnect between national government and military authorities.
Government negotiators have pointed to the recent opening of new liaison and technical offices in many ethnic areas, including in the Kachin capital Mytkyina, as signs of progress towards peace. However, most ethnic leaders are less sanguine as fears rise that if peace talks continue to stall the entire national reconciliation process could unravel.
Yawd Serk believes part of the problem is the military's economic interests in the areas where they are fighting. "They are not prepared to give up land. They are using the ceasefire talks as a form of technical warfare against the ethnic groups," he said. "The Tatmadaw is benefiting, but the ethnic people are not getting any benefit."
Private efforts - some involving ethnic group representatives - to form new public companies that would compete for business licenses and concessions in different ethnic areas are taking place behind the scenes. These initiatives have begun in some areas where fighting has significantly reduced and are consistent with ethnic group leaders' views that economic development could alleviate some of the local grievances that have fueled the conflicts.
For these initiatives to work, Yawd Serk says civilian and military authorities must share a common policy which is not currently evident. "The President's office issues licenses and the military doesn't allow them to be implemented," he said. "This has to change if there is to be genuine national reconciliation. Only then can there be progress towards a political settlement."
The government is now angling to hold a major conference in the capital Naypyidaw where all ethnic groups sign a fresh ceasefire agreement that would symbolically serve as the completion of the first stage of the peace talks and reaffirm groups' commitment to peace, said government sources close to the peace process.
Thein Sein and his chief peace negotiator Aung Min had originally scheduled the meeting for July, but it was postponed because the government and ethnic groups could not agree on an agenda. Many ethnic leaders say they see no point in signing a new ceasefire agreement, while further squabbles centered on language. The government has insisted on a "total" ceasefire agreement while ethnic groups favor the use of a "national" ceasefire. Aung Min believes the meeting will be held in October, according to government sources.
Moreover, ethnic group leaders have consistently said they are reluctant to sign another ceasefire while the military continues to violate the terms of their initial agreements. Critics believe the government is obsessed with trying to show the international community and Western donors that it is making progress towards bringing peace and stability to ethnic areas. But in Yawd Serk's view, this is merely a publicity stunt.
"It's not necessary to sign a new peace pact; they have to stop fighting and change the topic from ceasefire agreement to political negotiations. The key to the peace process is political discussions. And compromise is needed," he said. The military's participation in any future political talks will be crucial, he added.
Before political discussions can start, the government must demonstrate a willingness to amend the 2008 constitution in a way that allows for the introduction of a federal state. Under the current constitution, any such amendments can be blocked by a bloc of soldier representatives which through an appointed quota system holds 25% of parliament's seats.
A totally new constitution needs to be drafted with input from civil society, ethnic participation at the state level, and political parties, said Yawd Serk. He dismissed the current parliamentary committee on constitutional change as "unrepresentative" of ethnic aspirations. "Each state needs to be allowed self-determination," he said, emphasizing the need for state governments to be elected rather than appointed by Naypyidaw.
While Myanmar's peace process has stalled, there are certain avenues that could get it back on track, Yawd Serk says. In particular, he believes opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi should play a more prominent mediating role in the process. "She is an important person; she opened the door to democracy," he said. "So her involvement could be constructive, but that would be up to the government."
Like other ethnic leaders, Yawd Serk believes Thein Sein's government is genuine in its pursuit of peace but lacks the power to enforce any potential agreement. As for government top peace negotiator Aung Min, Yawd Serk believes "he's sincere and wants change. ... He's like a bridge across the river between the government and the ethnic groups. If he goes, you shut the bridge," he said. Yet while Aung Min has been agreeable during talks, he lacks the power to truly negotiate, Yawd Serk said.
"Thein Sein is also good but doesn't have the power in his hands either," he added. "The real power is with the Tatmadaw - without their support and involvement everything is pointless. And if we cannot trust them, how can we go to the second phase?" the rebel leader asked.
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.
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