BURMA PEACE PROCESS: Will “Big Nine” meeting make a difference?

It is a belated invitation, but nevertheless, a welcome move that President Thein Sein asked for the gathering and holding a meeting, on 31 October, between representatives of the government, parliament, military and political parties.

According to the recent DVB report, 29 October, the meeting is due to be attended by the following 14 individuals: President Thein Sein and his two vice-presidents; parliamentary speakers Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint; National League for Democracy Chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi; the military’s Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing; Vice-Commander-in-Chief Vice Snr-Gen Soe Win; Union Election Commission Chairman Tin Aye; SNLD Chairman Hkun Htun Oo; Shan State Nationalities Democratic Party Chairman Sai Aik Pao (who will attend on behalf of an alliance of ethnic political parties called the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation); the National Democratic Force Chairman Khin Maung Swe (representing the Federal Democracy Alliance); Than Tin from the National Unity Party; and an as yet unnamed representative from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Quite a lot of opinions have been aired by prominent politicians and individuals on what they expect and think of the forthcoming ad hoc meeting. Accordingly, talks will center around peace process, national reconciliation and the reform process of the country.

Many welcome the so-called “Big Nine” meeting and hope that something viable would come out of the gathering. Only a few comments were outright negative and the others see the President move as being a calculated move, to project himself on a good stead.

According to 29 October AP report, the upcoming Friday's meeting would be a little more than window dressing — an attempt to show participants at the upcoming East Asian Summit that political dialogue is continuing.
"It's a PR stunt," said Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst. "The government has a tendency to hold such high-profile meetings to coincide with regional or international events. I don't expect any tangible outcome from this meeting."

In another interview of DVB, on 29 October, with Daw Khun Ja, Kachin Peace Congress, said: “ I think the President is doing this to please President Obama for he would be coming soon. If he is sincere, it should have been done long time ago.”
In addition she stressed that sincere and genuine will to achieve peace must be there to make achievement and that the Burmese military need to be involved for the sake of the suffering people.

In short, many past high-level peace talks, in General Ne Win and general Than Shwe eras, had been held without success, due to the demand of the Burmese military regime to totally surrender and follow the desire of the ruling clique. The present situation is also the same, although it looks a bit more civil and refined, with some international organizations involved in the sideline.

At the end of the day, the forthcoming, high-level meeting would be judged by its outcome of whether there is a viable compromise and accommodation to end the ethnic conflict could be reached or not. And there is no way around, other than to address the ethnic aspirations of “equality, democracy and rights of self-determination”. In other words, acceptance of the formation of a genuine federal union. Otherwise, the gathering will be only one of the many ad hoc meeting like in the past, without having any positive impact on the betterment of the country.

The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU) — Editor

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Shan delegation departs for Naypyitaw

The Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) led by General Secretary Hkun Hseng had left the Wanhai headquarters yesterday to attend a meeting with the government’s  Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) in Naypyitaw, according to Wanhai sources.

“We were putting up at Lashio last evening”, one member of the delegation said. “Today we are off to Naypyitaw.”

U Thein Zaw, a vice chairman of the UPWC, is expected to lead the government delegation.

Both are to discuss the proposal made by U Thein Zaw on 18 October on the formation of a joint committee to oversee peace and development in areas west of the Salween. Both armies have already fought at least 6 campaigns since the preliminary ceasefire was signed on 28 January 2012.

Meanwhile more troops from the Burma Army are reportedly coming to areas around Wanhai, Kehsi township, Loilem district, Southern Shan State.

Burma Army units, despite the ceasefire, are under standing order that territorial clearance and territorial control continue, according to a document seized by the SSPP/SSA.

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The peace process: The iron is still hot

During the month, we are hearing quite a lot of Mr Derek Mitchell, US ambassador to Burma.
This weekend he was in Kachin State visiting the state capital Myitkyina and IDP camps, which ended with a statement expressing “the United State’s deep concern about the increase in tension in Hpakant” jadeland.

On Sunday, 12 October, he was also in Chiangmai meeting ethnic armed leaders, whom he had urged “not to overestimate their strength and advantage. They should not expect the US on the international community to support them more than they are being supported now. They need to make a deal with the government while they still have the advantage,” according to an informed source, who rejected the interpretation that Mr Mitchell has been “pressuring the ethnic armed groups to sign a ceasefire to give (President) Obama positive media coverage while he is in Burma (to attend the November Asian Summit).”

So what are the advantages we should be considering?
# 1. is that the Thein Sein government, being a transitional government, still have a lot of influence on the military, which we cannot expect the post 2015 President to be able to wield without provoking it, according to the same source

# 2. President Thein Sein, coming from  a rigged election, had been in desperate need of international support to prop up his legitimacy, according to another source. The invitation for peace talks with the non-Burman ethnic resistance movements is obviously one way of doing it

“That was why, according to the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) set up by the government, he was making concessions like ‘to establish a democratic and federal union on the basis of the outcome of the planned political dialogue,’” he said.

But as time goes by, the need will lessen, if the critics are right. The time for the ethnic armed movements to strike a solid deal is now and not so wait for the next president. “At least the one we have at present is the devil we know,” one added. “His successor, whoever he or she is, might be an angel but also one we cannot be sure of.”

Not that the ethnic movements should agree to anything without having a cast-iron guarantee in return.

But as 2014 draws to a close, all stakeholders, especially the armed resistance, appear to be increasingly pressed for time.

Of course, we all know Louis Armstrong had had all the time in the world, but it was for love. In contrast, what are we for?

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Re: The peace process: The iron is still hot

It is true that the "iron is still hot", as pointed out by the SHAN Editorial. But the matter is, it is cooling fast and both sides, the USDP-Military Regime and the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO), should take into account.

While it is quite easy to put the blame on the EAO for postponing the much talk about Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) until a newly elected regime is in store, after the 2015 election, which is by no means a concrete statement or policy line already decided, it is just a rumor and should only be treated as such. Besides, no one doubts, if the general clause of political settlement, leading to equality, rights of self-determination ေ democracy is accepted and included in the NCA, the EAO will sign it anytime the government wish to do it.

But the problem is the USDP-Military Regime has rejected the core ethnic aspirations of “federalism and rights of self-determination”, which it previously has accepted in August peace talks, and even refused to put it in the NCA documentation. Apart from that, if ever there is going to be an NCA, the regime insists that it has to sail through the USDP-Military dominated parliament for approval and endorsement, which explicitly means that the EAO must bow to the 2008 military-drawn Constitution without question. This is a non-starter for the EAO have been up in arms to correct this "constitutional crisis" all along, for more equality, democracy and self-determination.

The recent military pressures and offensives in Kachin, Shan, Karen and Mon States, coupled with its ultimatum to make use of its "open book" strategy, where individual group could sign the book according to its wish or liking, in contrast to signing it altogether at the same time, are not well thought out plan on the part of the regime, working only on time pressure to achieve result and not accommodating the real aspirations of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities and EAO.

Such being the case, it takes two to tango, as the saying goes, the USDP-Military regime should reaffirm its already committed  August agreement of accepting to tackle "federal union and federal army formation" during the political dialogue phase and not rejecting, after agreeing, like it is doing now. Otherwise, the regime would be asking for a "negotiated surrender" of the EAO and this would only lead to more armed confrontation and total break-down of the peace process.

The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU) — Editor

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Burmese troops masquerading as construction workers

New Burmese army arrivals in contested areas around Wanhai, the headquarters of the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) in Kehsi township, Loilem district, are changing their uniforms into civvies, as they enter the areas, according to sources from central Shan State.

U Thein Zaw speaking to SSPP/SSA delegation, 18 October 2014. (Photo: News light of Myanmar)

“Those coming from the Northeastern Region Command (based in Lashio) changed their clothes on arrival at Nam Lawng Bridge (south of Mongyai) and those going from the Central Eastern Region Command (based in Kholam) at Wanzing near Mongnawng”, said source. “But all of their trucks are carrying arms including heavy weapons.”

The new development followed the meeting between the SSPP/SSA delegation and U Thein Zaw, a Vice Chairman of the Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) on 18 October in Lashio, where he proposed the formation of a joint committee for development and stability. SSPP/SSA later held a meeting at Wanhai to discuss the matter, but so far it has been unable to reach a decision.

Meanwhile the Burma Army has demanded that the SSPP/SSA remove its troops from 4 more bases along the west bank of the Salween. The two sides, despite having signed preliminary ceasefire agreements, have already fought at least 6 major campaigns.

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Parliament peace chief visits Mongla

U Thein Zaw, the parliament’s pointman for the ongoing peace process met and talked with Wa and Mongla leaders on Wednesday, 23 October, according to sources from the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) that is based in Mongla, where China, Burma and Laos meet.

“He had 3 propositions:
One, for the Wa and Mongla to lead the way by example by signing the NCA
To accept the Commander-in-Chief’s 6 point principle for peace (genuine desire for peace, keeping the promises made in the agreements, not to exploit on the agreements made, not to be a burden to the local populace, to strictly abide by existing laws and to accept the Three National Causes and abide by the 2008 constitution)
To open up Mongla for tourism and trade

Mongla’s leader Sai Leun and Wa deputy leader Xiao Minliang were seen at the meeting.

U Thein Zaw left Mongla yesterday at 8:30.

He is one of the three vice chairmen of the Union Peacemaking Work Committal (UPWC) established by Naypyitaw in 2012. Two others are U Aung Min, President’s Office Minister, and Deputy Senior General Soe Win.

This was the second visit U Thein Zaw made to Shan State in a week. The first was on 18 October with Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) leaders in Lashio.

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GAB: The power behind the throne

How much is the military going up to allow the country to become a “democracy” (and a federal union)?
Not much, according to the latest research study published by the Asia Foundation this month, Administering the State in Myanmar: An overview of the General Administration Department, a sequel to  its last year’s State and Region Governments in Myanmar.

Going through the 59 page report, it appears the military is now “a game without the name” instead of its former status of “a game with the name.” Instead of overtly running the country, the military has only gone behind the scenes.

The GAD is an integral part of the home ministry, itself one of the 3 “military ministries” where the President has little or no say. It “supports the coordination and communication in the Government’s 36 ministries and also connects the capital, Naypyitaw, to approximately 16,700 wards and village tracts” (under which are 63, 968 villages) within the union. It “plays wide range of roles-ranging from tax collection, to land management, and assorted registration and certification processes.”

At the state and region level, “the GAD provides basic administrative and coordination functions for the region/state government, the region/state hluttaw (legiclature), as well as Union ministries and state/region departments. The senior GAD administrator for each state and region is the executive secretary of the state/region government (Deputy Director General level), and currently supervises 283 GAD employees staffing a General Administrator Office, a state/region Government Office, and a state/region Hluttaw Office.”

One consequence is that “there are no independent state/region ministries to carry out the functions assigned to the states and regions under Schedule II of the 2008 Constitution. Instead, there is a combination of departments with mixed accountability relationships with both Union and state/region governments on the one hand, and state/region units of centralized Union ministries on the other. The executive and legislative structures of a state/region government continue to rely on the key building block of the country’s pre-existing governance structure: the GAD.”

Clearly, the states and regions are not happy about this and have been pushing for amendment of the 2008 constitution. According to the reports coming from Naypyitaw, the debates on the amendments will begin next month.

So let’s hope that the post 2010-military is a new breed and thinks the way we do: that the best government is the least government and let the states and regions decide for themselves how they should administer themselves. The outcome of the amendment will then be a welcome boost to a lasting peace in our land.

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War on Drugs: Should Burma be decertified?

Less than a month from now, Air Force One will be landing in Naypyitaw, carrying the leader of the world’s still most powerful country. One of the prepared reports from his host country is expected to be the government’s present drive against drug production and trafficking.

This is important, because continued decertification in March 2015 mean continued American opposition to loans from multilateral development banks.  Of course, the penalty can still be waived on “national security” grounds, although it is hard to say if Washington will consider Burma’s  strictly neutral foreign policy stance from a positive or negative viewpoint.

During the last two months, Punako and Nampong, two of the most notorious People’s Militia Force (PMF) strongholds have been raided. A consignment of more than 600 blocks of heroin was also seized in Monghsat. In all the three cases, some little known suspects have been detained but all prominent chiefs of the said PMFs (set up by the Burma Army) have been left untouched.

As reported in Bouncing Back: Relapse in the Golden Triangle by Transnational Institute (TNI) last June, quoting Jean-Luc Lemahieu, former representative of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) “there are no angels in this part of the world, but there are no full devils either”.

The report nevertheless points out several design flaws in the government’s 15 (now 20) year master plan to eradicate drugs which was adopted in 1999. “Government officials say that this target (2014) was fixed without much consultation, and are at a loss how to implement it,” it says. “It will never work,” a senior military officer commented, “but carry it out anyway.” As predicted by him, the plan fell far short of achieving its goal and was retargeted to 2019. To date, it is not quite clear either how the government is planning to go about the next 5 years.

One of the problems is the strategy of the military that has created the PMFs to counter the rebels. The Ta Moe Nye PMF in northern Shan State is a case in point:

The Ta Moe Nye Militia in Kutkai Township was formed in the 1960s and supported the government in fighting the CPB (Communist Party of Burma). Its leaders established a close working relationship with the subsequent SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe when he was serving as a Tatmadaw officer in northern Shan State, supplying guides and large numbers of mules and horses of army operations. “We never paid them for it, but there was an understanding that they would get something in return”, says a retired army officer who was on active duty in the region at the time. “These militias were involved in opium and heroin production and they sent convoys to Lashio. We let them through, and we knew they were transporting drugs.”

The PMFs, it explains, “are intended to act as buffer between the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic opposition groups, and to deny the latter access to territory, resources and population. Militias are directly under Tatmadaw control and are allowed to do business and to tax the local population and trade passing through their checkpoints. Many of them have become heavily involved in the drug trade, especially in recent years.”

Successive military government’s focus, it concludes, is on managing the problem as opposed to attempting to resolve it.

The results are not surprising:
·       Kokang (in 2002) and Wa (in 2005) successfully banned opium production “mainly because of pressure from the Chinese,” according to a representative of Mongla group. Following the bans, opium cultivationand outside investmentrelocated mainly to southern Shan State
·       Crop substitution programs, which involved land grabbing for agricultural investment especially by Chinese companies, further marginalized the poppy growing communities who were forced to depend all the more on poppy cultivation in order to survive
·       Continuing conflict has also created ‘vacuums’ where foreign financiers have taken advantage of. “It is difficult to get rid of the drug trade, because of the strong financial support from (outside sources),” according to a former member of a ceasefire group
·       The involvement of Tatmadaw units and commanders in the drug trade has also been documented

One problem that needs immediate resolution, the report says, is the participation of civil society in discussions on drug policy. This has prompted a CSO member to point out that Burma’s drug issue “is all about us without us.” Indeed, since the drug problem affects everybody, it was time all stakeholders came together to find a solution, instead of wasting time looking for a culprit.

Until then, the United States should continue encouraging all of the stakeholders to work together instead of engaging in a debate whether or not to continue decertifying the country.

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