INTER-ETHNIC CONFLICT: Territorial dispute, human rights violations and ethnic aspirations' remedy

The outburst of the armed conflict, or better the ambush on the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) by the Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta'ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA) in November last year came about as a surprise, as the RCSS troops have been in the vicinity of Nam Kham, Kyaukme and the likes since more than a decade, although they  have not set up permanent bases, according to its spokesman, Colonel Sai Hla.

But in contrast, the TNLA said that the RCSS's troops have intruded into their areas of operation and have been expanding their reach, when in fact it should be operating only in the South of Shan State as it is popularly known as the SSA-South, with the help of the Burma Army, known as the Tatmadaw within the country.

RCSS has signed the controversial Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with Naypyitaw and been removed from the illegal, terrorist organizations' list, while the TNLA is a non-signatory that has been delivering running battles with the Tatmadaw, since the outbreak of war between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), known as Kokang, and has entered the scene as an alliance on Kokang's side, together with the Arakan Army (AA), also a non-signatory, apart from not being recognized as armed groups that the regime is ready to negotiate with.

Reportedly, the RCSS/SSA Statement of 11 February described the scenario as follows:

“The current armed conflict started when the troops of TNLA first attacked a column of Task Force 701 of RCSS/SSA, who were returning to their area of operation in Nam Kham township after receiving training about the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) at the Supreme Headquarters, in Mong Wee area in Nam Kham township.”

“In that ambush attack by the troops of TNLA on 27 November 2015, Task Force 701 of RCSS/SSA suffered heavy casualties, altogether 11 troops, including those who were killed and injured in the battle and those who were killed after being captured alive. After the battle, 23 villagers of Mong Wee village were arrested and detained by the troops of TNLA. Although 8 of the villagers have since been released, the rest of them have not yet been released up to the present.”

Generally speaking, the inter-ethnic conflict in Burma is not a new thing, for the armed conflict among ethnic armed groups had happened, time and again, even if they don't resemble the racial conflict of African continent like Hutu against Tutsi in Rwanda, where nearly a million Tutsi were slaughtered by Hutu-led government militias, in 1994. As such, it could be said that for now the inter-ethnic conflict in Burma is more on the side of armed organizations shooting out at each others and in no way a horizontal conflict, with one race slaughtering another out of sheer hatred. But this may be changing, as beheading of two Shans by TNLA and displaying the heads on the poles at the village entrance was reported quite recently, according to Sai Leik, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy's (SNLD) spokesperson in DVB, and it is worrying.

Along this trend, the inter-ethnic conflict occurred in the past between the Pa-O and Shan (Tai) ruling Saohpas in 1949; the Karen troops under British colonial army oppressing the Bamar nationalist in Saya San rebellion in 1930s; The Karen National Union (KNU) troops against the Mons; the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) 4th Brigade against the SSA in 1960 to 1970; the United Wa State Army (UWSA) against the Mong Tai Army (MTA) of Khun Sa; and last but not least, the UWSA attacks on RCSS positions some few years back.

The ethnic armed resistance groups on their side knowing too well that they only stand a chance against the Burma Army if they are united, formed umbrella organizations or united front in the past and as well at the present. The National Democratic Front (NDF) is the forerunner of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which involves some nine ethnic armed groups.

But even this umbrella organization is unable to control or coup with such armed conflict outbreak against one another, as the RCSS-TNLA recent and ongoing battles suggests.

The RCSS-TNLA conflict might be mainly due to the fear of RCSS intrusion into it sphere or areas of operation. But the real underlining factor is the heightened ethno-nationalism aspiration or awareness, which is trying to express its existence through armed resistance and by demanding the upgrade from the status of sub-ethnic level to a national state-level administration status, short of the imagined identity of a “nation-state”.

As secession to form a nation-state is remote, given the unfavourable international and regional political configuration, the Palaung, Wa and Pa-O have openly pushed for a state-level administration under the union government, to the chagrin of the Shan State, from which they seek to secede.

We need to look at this from a broader perspective of how to accommodate or contain such an aspirations. But let us briefly look at the other factors surrounding the problem.

Pre-conflict situation

Palaung State Liberation Organization/Army (PSLO/A) made ceasefire with the government in 1991 and was disarmed in April 2005. Palaung leaders Tar Aik Bong and Tar Bone Kyaw formed the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) to fill the gap of armed struggles and continued to fight against the Tatmadaw. Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) is formed as the armed wing of PSLF. It is said to be supported by the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA) and has formed a military alliance with the MNDAA and AA.

The TNLA is not recognized by the government as negotiation partner, along with the MNDAA and AA in NCA deliberation.

Reportedly, although it is empowered by the KIO/KIA, of late the UWSA is said to be the main source of support for the TNLA, to the disappointment of its former supporter, according to the insider sources.

The RCSS/SSA, which is headquartered in Loi Tai Leng across the Thai border of Pang Mapha District, Mae Hong Son Province, although it has maintained a presence in the Nam Kham, Kyaukme areas of northern Shan State since years, the build-up of its forces began only after the NCA signing, a few months ago. Reportedly, due to the opportunity to move its troops freely, according to news sources.

The armed clashes started between the RCSS/SSA and TNLA last November, amid accusation that the former intruded into the latter areas of operation that has escalated and still ongoing, causing some 1500 to 2000 inhabitants to flee their homes.

The cost of conflict and civil societies'statements

According to UN figures, the number of IDPs in Myanmar rose by some 10,000 in 2015 to more than 660,000. And no doubt, the recent visible cost of the inter-ethnic conflict and the Tatmadaw offensives against the SSPP/SSA in central Shan State a few months back, would have definitely added up more to the IDP population.

Besides disrupting the livelihood of the people, and not to mention the death of dozens of combatants from both sides, the people's misery exacerbated with human rights violations and extra-judicial killings, not by anyone but by the warring troops.

The civil society organizations   were frustrated with the situation and began issuing statements, which, more or less, reflected their respected communities' opinion.

SHAN reported that the Ta’ang Women’s Organization (TWO) and Ta’ang Students and Youth Organization (TSYO) on 10 February accused RCSS/SSA, one of the eight groups that signed the  NCA in October, of abusing against citizens such as rapes, robberies, arrests and many acts of violence.
Colonel Sai La, spokesperson of RCSS/SSA, claimed that the Ta’ang groups are feeding false information to the public. He said such kind of things made their organization look bad.

“We’ve ignored the allegations that they (TNLA) have said about us in the past, such as the Burma Army transporting our troops by army trucks, and forcibly relocating villagers from their homes,” he said. “Now, we feel that it is time for us to clear things up by addressing these allegations and telling our side of the story. ”
A seven point statement following decisions agreed upon on 25 - 27 January 2016 by 11 Youth Organizations and 12 CBOs (Community Based Organizations) at the office of Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), Nam Kham Pong Quarter, Nam Kham, pin-points that two Shan armies, RCSS/SSA and Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), together with the Shan political parties and various communities should prioritize the welfare of the Shan people.

The Tai Youth of Nam Kham, under which the statement is released also includes, in its 7 February 2016 announcement the following resolution:

·         The Tai Youth believes that any armed groups should not abuse the citizens.
·         The Tai Youth completely disagrees with the request of obtaining their own states by Wa, Palaung and Pa-O at the  Union Peace Conference at Naypyitaw from 12-16 January 2016.
·         The armed conflicts in the Shan State do not differentiate the citizens or ethnicities. On 27 November 2015, the TNLA attacked RCSS/SSA and captured 23 citizens from Mong Khart, Marn Ho Pan, and Mong Wee. Thus, we condemn such actions by the TNLA and demand the release of the captured citizens immediately.
·         After the TNLA capturing of the 23 citizens in Nam Kham township, the KIA also captured the Tai (Shan) citizens on the days of Tai New Year (28/29 December 2015) at Narn Oom, Muse township, thus, we condemn such actions and demand the KIA to release the captured citizens immediately.

Speculation on RCSS alliance with the Tatmadaw

Since the outbreak of violence between the RCSS and TNLA, the RCSS has been accused that it   collaborated with the Tatmadaw in its attacks on the TNLA. Further more, its troops deployment in northern Shan State in November last year with some 200 men and again in mid-January with another 300 were only possible because the Tatmadaw facilitated the necessary transportation, even said to be providing with the military trucks, according to Anthony Davis a security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane’s, in 7 February Bangkok Post.

Sao Yawd Serk, head of the RCSS as expected rejected the accusation and that he is ready for peaceful negotiation to work out an understanding to exist together in the area.

Khuensai Jaiyane, senior advisor of the RCSS, when asked if the collaboration with the Tatmadaw was true, said: “The Tatmadaw is just taking credit, while the RCSS is doing the fighting. The Burmese troops are not involved in skirmishes with the TNLA.”

Anthony Davis pointed out the “divide and rule” dictum of the Burma Army, repeating history, with examples of pitting the ethnic armed groups against each others.

A strategy of what he called out-sourcing counter-insurgency involved the Tatmadaw recently setting up and arming a new group called the Shan-Ni (Red Shan) Nationalities Army (SNA) among ethnic Shan communities in southern Kachin state against the dominant KIA; encouraging the  UWSA to go south to the Thai border to fight the Khun Sa's Mong Tai Army (MTA) in 1990s; and also when it armed the break-away Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) to fight against the Karen National Union (KNU).

UNFC and SSPP as mediators?

On 15 December last year RCSS/SSA leader Lieutenant General Yawd Serk met with members of the UNFC in Chiang Mai to discuss about the fighting. The UNFC is an umbrella organisation for nine ethnic armed groups, including the TNLA but not the RCSS.

But Mai Aik Kyaw, a TNLA spokesperson, played down the significance of the Chiang Mai talks, saying that his organisation did not send a representative to the meeting.

By mid-February, the tone of TNLA changed and was said to be ready for negotiation.

“We don’t want more fighting with them (RCSS) but they invaded our territory. We understand we need to negotiate with them but talks have not started,” said TNLA spokesperson Mai Aike Kyaw.

He said the UNFC was mediating between the TNLA and RCSS to arrange direct talks.

UNFC general secretary U Tun Zaw said they were trying to arrange a time and place for the talks, which needed to be held as soon as possible.

Earlier, the TNLA had also asked the SSPP/SSA, together with the UNFC, to intervene and stop the fight. The SSPP is member of the UNFC, in which TNLA is also a member.

On 12 February, SSPP released a four point statement stating its worry of the conflict, which is causing the population unnecessary hardship and also hurting the ethnic nationalities' unity. The statement said that it is also sending mediation teams both to the RCSS and TNLA to help end the conflict.

The UNFC, which is meeting on 18 February to map out on how to go about with the peace process with the new in-coming NLD regime said that it would also discuss the issue of  RCSS-TNLA conflict and find ways to defuse the conflict.

On 12 February, the 69 Anniversary of the Union Day, the seven ethnic political party umbrella organization, the Unite Nationalities Alliance (UNA), condemned the warring parties for gross human rights violations on the villagers, including arbitrary arrest and causing thousands to flee their homes.

It also urged the warring parties to settle their dispute through peaceful means.

Prospect and perspective

As have been stated from the outset, the immediate de-escalation, or better achieving ceasefire, between the ethnic warring parties and a longer run strategy of theoretical underpinnings to resolve or tame the ethno-nationalism aspirations, on a wider scale should be earnestly planned and thought out.

Regarding the first question of conflict resolution and achieving ceasefire between the RCSS and TNLA, it shouldn't be a problem, for both parties are willing to negotiate to end the animosity. There is no doubt a strong will, given the high cost of the conflict, politically, economically and physically.

Furthermore, the already started SSPP shuttle diplomacy mediation between the two sides and UNFC intervention might be able to solve the problem, provided both parties see eye to eye that ethnic armed organizations' (EAOs) unity is crucial in any political bargaining with the Tatmadaw and as well with the government for the ethnic nationalities as a whole.

To immediately stop the armed conflict on the ground,  an agreement would be needed to physically move away the warring troops to a safe distance from each others, followed by a demarcation of operation areas or understanding to exist together like in the past, before the RCSS signed the NCA. In short, a sort of military code of conduct could be agreed upon for troops movement and behaviour on the population.

For the long term harmony between the dominant Shan and sub-ethnic groups like Palaung, Pa-O, Wa and so on, a common identity of a Shan national identity somewhat like Federated Shan States in 1922 should be built, of course minus the feudal Saohpas' system of governance, replacing the decentralized units with popularly elected representatives. This political union, later changed its name into Shan State in 1947, with its own flag, national anthem and government signed by the Palaung Saohpa, Khun Pan Sing, before entering into alliance with the Bamar government, headed by U Aung San, to struggle for joint-independence from the British, should be the model of achieving a common identity for the Shan State.

In fact, the Federated Shan States model is a  decentralization that should and could be applied to all other states, including Burma Proper or Ministerial Burma that have now diversified into seven regions, which could have a better chance to address and satisfy political aspirations of the dominant ethnic groups and as well, the sub-ethnic groups within each and every state.

True that it wouldn't be able to immediately satisfy the ultimate and highest aim of nation-state aspirations, but will at least quench the thirst of state-level administration wishes to a degree. For it will be one step nearer that the sub-ethnic groups like Palaung, Wa, Pa-O and the likes would be able to pursue their aspirations under a genuine federal union government, once it is set up.

To put it differently, the long term political sequence should be, democratization within the mould of genuine federalism will be first to set up a federal union form of government; followed by decentralization vested with proper power-sharing between states and federal government; drawing up criterion on what is needed to become a national state-level administration; and finally, move along the prescribed guideline according to the criterion.

In short, the demand for national state-level administration could only be realized through democratic process, not through the force of arms. Of course, if a particular ethnic group or sub-ethnic group would strive for a total independence from the present, existing union and not just for an upgrade of administration status, it will be a different matter altogether. But the point here is, finding a solution within the existing mode of the country's formation, preferably through asymmetrical federalism.

According to the USLegal definition: “Asymmetrical federalism refers to a federal system of government in which power is unevenly divided between states. In asymmetrical federalism some states have greater responsibilities or more autonomy than others. An asymmetric federation must have a federal constitution and all states in federation have the same formal status as state.”

Finally, the ethnic conflict parties know too well that such an out of hand situation is not going to work to their advantage, but just the opposite. Such being the case, looking at the big picture of ethnic harmony and unity that could bring better bargaining power at the negotiation table with the power-that-be and the military should be the collective aim. And most importantly, the welfare of the population that all resistance organizations which said that they are working for, should uphold the said principle accordingly, not making them miserable, having to endure all sorts of human rights abuses including extra-judicial execution.

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SNDP decides not to dissolve its party

The Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) released a statement Thursday stating that they would not dissolve the party.

The party said that the leadership had taken the decision.

“In order to strengthen the party,” read the statement, “the new committee will be taking responsibility.”

The SNDP, also known as the White Tiger Party, was established in 2010. The party won 57 seats in the 2010 elections and the bi-elections in 2012. In the 2015 elections, it won only one seat in parliament.

Nang Than Shwe, a new member of the SNDP, said that although the SNDP did not do well during the November polls, they will continue to work for the people outside of parliament.

Sai Leik, the spokesperson for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), said, “It’s the SNDP’s right to decide whether to dissolve the party or not. The aim of setting up a political party is to work for the citizens.”

In 2013, monks and people from 52 townships submitted a petition that the two major Shan armies be merged into one single Shan State Army (SSA) and the two major Shan parties combine to become one single party.

“The unification of Shan parties will depend on the new committee,” Nang Than Shwe said.

Sai Leik responded by stating, “we have discussed at the Committee for Shan State Unity (CSSU) in October 2013. The SNDP said they would discuss it again after the elections. Since then, we have not asked them what their thoughts are on this matter.”

“We hope to hold our party conference in March or April.” Sai Leik added. “We will address this issue during the meeting. If they (SNDP) have the will to unite, it will be welcomed by the SNLD”. 

BY SAI AW / Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

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Panglong Agreement, Panglong Promises and the Panglong Spirit

During the 2 year long negotiations for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the government-army’s Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) and the Ethnic Armed Organization (EAO) s’ Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team- Special Delegation (NCCT-SD), one of the major hurdles that the negotiators had to overcome was reportedly the choice of words in connection to Panglong acceptable to both sides for the text. They were:

§  Panglong Agreement

§  Panglong Promises

§  Panglong Spirit

Let us therefore examine each of the terms, briefly but not exhaustively.

The Panglong Agreement, as we all know, is the 9 point treaty signed between Burma, the Federated Shan States (which later became the Shan State), the Chin Hills (which became the Chin State) and the Kachin Hills (which became the Kachin State), a pact between 4 equal partners.

The gist of the agreement:

Point 1-4.         Shan, Chin and Kachin representatives will be appointed as minister and deputy ministers respectively responsible for matters relating to Frontier Areas affairs (now  known as Border Affairs)

Point 5.            Full autonomy in internal affairs

Point  6.           A status of state for the Kachins in the future independent Union. (The Chins then did not request the same status)

Point  7.           Rights and privileges fundamental in democratic countries (which is interpreted by the author as Human Rights and Democracy)

Point 8-9.         Financial autonomy as in the Federated Shan States for Chin and Kachin

It is quite significant that the UPWC had refused to adopt the term.

Panglong Promises

During the 4-day negotiations in Panglong, 8-11 February 1947, the following demands were made by the Joint Chin-Kachin-Shan Committee, officially dubbed Supreme Council of the United Hill Peoples (SCOUHP):

§  The right to secede if and when we choose

§  Equal status

§  Joint responsibility for common subjects such as foreign affairs, defense and coinage and currency

Gen Aung San reportedly had accepted all in principle but requested that they be included in the Union constitution to be a drafted by the upcoming Constituent Assembly instead. His solemn word of honor thus became known as the promises of Panglong.

It is significant that the UPWC has also refused to employ this term.

Now the last one.

The Panglong Spirit

The NCA, both in the text and its attachment, which contains 36 resolutions passed in the 9 formal meetings, doesn’t have anything to say about what the word means.

However, Judging by what the Burmese leaders have repeatedly said, the much-vaunted Three National Causes (Non-disintegration of the Union, Non-disintegration of National Solidarity, and the Perpetuation of National Sovereignty) appears to be their interpretation. To the non-Burmans, this summing-up means they have to live under Burmese domination as second class citizens whether they like it or not.

Their own interpretation: Equal status, sense of joint ownership and sense of joint responsibility, has not been sought out, let alone agreed.  

As long as this ambiguity continues, it is a doubtful a genuine union will be realized. It will therefore be the job of the Union Peace Conference which began on 12-16 January and is being planned three times a year for at least 3-5 years to clear up the enigma, if the Union is meant to be everlasting.

By SAI KHUENSAI / Director of Pyidaungsu Institute and Founder of Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N)
All views expressed are the author’s own  

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Over 2,000 flee homes while 2,000 held captive in Kyaukme Township

Over 1,500 civilians fled their homes due to the ongoing clashes between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Restoration Council of Shan State/ Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA).

Sai  Than  Maung, a representative from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) in Kyaukme Township, said that more than 800 IDPs came to Kyaukme. They are staying in Kobya Yartha, Thiho Temple, Saya Aung Supan Temple, Namsilin Temple and Honam Temple.

“Today, more than 1,500 IDPs are still arriving at the site,” he said. “So far, there’s no group providing aid to them yet.” The IDPs are only receiving relief from local people in Kyaukme.

“About 2,000 villagers are being held captive in the Chinese temples of Taw sang village,” he said. “The villagers said the TNLA troops looted the villagers’ houses and took their properties.”

Sai  Than  Maung also stated that people in the township are going to offer aid such as food, blankets and clothes.

The conflict between TNLA and RCSS/SSA also known as SSA-South, erupted in late November last year.

The Ta’ang Women’s Organization (TWO) and Ta’ang Students and Youth Organization (TSYO) on Wednesday accused RCSS/SSA, one of the eight groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October, of abusing against citizens such as rapes, robberies, arrests and many acts of violence.

Col. Sai La, spokesperson of RCSS/SSA, claimed that the Ta’ang groups are feeding false information to the public. He said such kind of things made their organization look bad.
“We’ve ignored the allegations that they (TNLA) have said about us in the past, such as the Burma Army transporting our troops by army trucks, and forcibly relocating villagers from their homes,” he said. “Now, we feel that it is time for us to clear things up by addressing these allegations and telling our side of the story. ”
The RCSS/SSA spokesperson also said that with regards to the current fighting they had contacted the TNLA for talks.
“But, we have yet to get a response from them,” he added.
“Without negotiation, citizens wonder what the future holds for the IDPs,” Sai  Than  Maung  said.

 “I strongly recommend that the Ta’ ang group regardless if they took part in the ceasefire signing or should pay attention to the IDPs.”

The TNLA could not be reached for comment at the time of reporting.

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USDP rules Shan State Parliament

Representatives from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) were selected as the speaker and deputy speaker of the Shan State parliament on Monday.

Sai Lone Seng of the USDP, representing constituency one in Keng Tung Township, was chosen as the new speaker. The deputy speaker appointed was Sao Aung Myat, the current Shan State parliament chief minister who represents constituency one in Ywar Ngan Township.  The speaker chairman is Lt. Gen. Aung Than Htut who won the state assembly seat in constituency one in Laokhai Township.

Nang San San Aye, a new Shan State parliamentarian from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), told SHAN that the party had competed for the seats but lost to the USDP.
“We (SNLD party) competed for all three seats; chairman, speaker and deputy speaker,” she said. “We could not win because the votes from NLD (National League for Democracy) and SNLD together are still only half of what USDP has.”

She said there are 46 representatives from NLD and SNLD all together, but the representatives from USDP, the military and other parties totalled 88 votes.

U Soe Nyunt of the NLD in Kalaw Township said that even though the vote process was democratic, it was impossible to win the USDP because they dominate the parliament.

“We knew that we could not win, but we just wanted to know what the military representatives were thinking,” he said. “We want to know whether there is any change or not.”

136 representatives attended Monday’s session including 102 newly elected representatives, including 34 from the military. Others came from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), National League for Democracy (NLD), Ta’ang National Party (TNP), Pa-O National Organization (PNO), Lahu National Development Party (LNDP), Wa Democratic Party (WDP), Lisu National Development Party (LNDP), Kokang Democracy and Unity Party (KDUP), Wa National Unity Party (WNUP), Akha National Development Party (ANDP), and some independent of affiliation.

BY SAI AW / Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

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Aung San Suu Kyi's dilemma of presidential election and national reconciliation

These days, the nomination of presidential candidates, especially by the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the election of speakers and formation of the State and Region governments are important issues that have been making headlines.

Hardly have the two Lower and Upper Houses speakers been elected, after the parliamentarians met on 1 and 3 February respectively, the first show down between the military clique and the NLD is brewing, regarding the waiving of paragraph 59(f) that would enable Aung San Suu Kyi to take over the task of presidency personally.

It all comes about as the naming of presidential candidates speculation is constantly pushed to the forefront, with the end Thein Sein era coming to an end by 31 March, and the NLD hard-pressed to do the naming.

The NLD reportedly said, to presumably ward off the pressure of having to name the presidential candidates for the Upper and Lower Houses, that it would fix the date to publicize the names.

On 8 February, convening the Union Parliament for the first time, its Speaker Mahn Win Khaing Than of the NLD said the Lower House, Upper House and bloc of military-appointed lawmakers, which together constitute the country’s electoral college, would discuss their respective nominations on March 17.

The Union Parliament will then meet to elect a president from among the three candidates, the remaining two of whom will become the country’s vice presidents. With the NLD holding a majority in both houses, the party will be able to select two candidates. 

It seems although the NLD is tight-lipped, neither saying that it is tabling the motion in the parliament, to waive the 59(f) clause that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from being the president, nor rejecting the speculation,  Aung San Suu Kyi, the chairwoman of the party,  might be leaving the opportunity open, hoping that she could change the situation to her favour in time before the   presidential candidates' nomination.

Regarding this, although the military, also known as Tatmadaw, top brass have not taken a clear position, its mouthpiece, Myawaddy newspaper had run an article against the idea of waiving the said 59(f) clause that would allow Aung San Suu Kyi to take over the presidency, saying in effect that the constitution should not be amended “for all eternity”, which means “individual influenced by foreign power, one way or the other, should not be president.”

Aung San Suu Kyi was married to the late Michael Aris, a British scholar, and have two sons together, who are also British citizens.

Whatever the scenario's outcome regarding the presidential candidates' nomination, Suu Kyi seems to be implementing her own version of national reconciliation scheme.

The mostly procedural process of Lower and Upper Houses Speakers' selection and the two Committees – Bill Committee and Public Accounts Committee - where 13 ethnic MPs are employed, seems to suggest that Suu Kyi's version of national reconciliation is in action, albeit it is just a token to show largesse and in line with her national reconciliation scheme, according to her own confession.

Elected ethnic  leaders' opinion

But quiet a number of ethnic MPs were in an upbeat mood, even though the ethnic parties as a whole won't make much of a difference, given their insignificant number of votes when it comes to parliamentary decision- making or voting in a particular motion, so to speak.

Mahn Win Khaing Than, the new upper House Speaker briefly addressed the lawmakers in a speech saying, “Myanmar is a resource-rich country, unrivalled by any other country in the world in that regard. Ours is a country which should be a developed and rich nation. But in reality, that has not been the case.” 

He stressed: “In order to transform our nation into a prosperous and developed federal democratic union, it is exceptionally crucial to first implement internal peace, rule of law and national reconciliation, and to do so, we need the right legislation,” and continued that since the upper house is part of a legislative branch which is one of the three branches of government, it should work to enact the legislation necessary for peace, rule of law and national reconciliation.

U Aye Thar Aung, an election winning MP from the Arakan National Party (ANP) was appointed as deputy-speaker of the upper house, who is also a long-time ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, stressed the importance of an eventual federal union for Burma.

“Most importantly I will focus on implementing ANP policy and ethnic issues. I want to see an end to civil war, internal peace and the establishment of a federal union where all national ethnic groups can live harmoniously. These issues I‟ve worked on consistently,” Aye Thar Aung said.

The making of state and regional governments

After the task of the Upper and Lower Houses Speakers' election had been made, the task of the election and formation, including speculation, of the state and regional governments have  become  the talk of the whole nation.

In all the 14 States and Regions, NLD won with an absolute majority except for the Arakan State, also known as Rakhine State, and Shan State. And it is at these two states that the bargaining and jockeying have been most visible.

In Shan State, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and appointed military representatives occupy 66 seats, while the NLD , Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and other small ethnic parties combined amount to just 61 seats. But in Arakan State, the ANP with 22 seats is the majority, with NLD 8, USDP 3, independent 1 and appointed military having 12 seats respectively.

While the situation in Shan State is quite clear that the USDP and military combined could formed the majority in the state parliament, giving the coalition to form the government in normal circumstances, it would depend on whether the would be NLD-led President would endorse the State Chief Minister herself/himself or give a green light to USDP and military coalition endorsed MP as the Chief Minister.

On 8 February, as expected the parliament elected Sai Lone Hsaeng from USDP as House Speaker, Sao Aung Myat, USDP,  as Deputy House Speaker and Aung Than Htut, also from USDP as Chairperson.

Sai Lone Hsaeng competed against Sai Kyaw Thein of SNLD and won with 88 to 48 votes; Sao Aung Myat competed against Sai Kyaw Ze Ya of SNLD and won with 88 to 45 votes; and U Aung Than Htut competed against U Soe Nyunt Lwin of NLD and won with 83 to 53 votes receptively.

The SNLD had nominated all the three candidates, two from SNLD and one from NLD, since the NLD has given it the responsibility to do so, according to Sai Nyunt Lwin, the secretary general of the SNLD.

As for the ANP case in Arakan State, the party lack two votes to get the simple majority of 24 seats . There is one independent seat won in the Arakan State.

On the same date of 8 February, Arakan State Parliament elected U Zaw Zaw Myint of USDP as Chairperson, U San Kyaw Hla of ANP as House Speaker and U Pho Min also from ANP as Deputy House Speaker.

Reportedly, the nine MPs from NLD congratulated the ANP for the election of the two House Speakers position.

As the parliamentary House Speaker and Deputy House Speaker are from the ANP, it is not clear what is going to happen with its ultimatum that it would go into opposition, if it is not allowed to form the government and given the executive position of Chief Minister, which appears questionable for the moment. Chief Ministers to the 14 states and regions are to be appointed by the President.

Paragraph 59(f) and presidential election

After the task of parliamentary elections, both at Upper and Lower Houses, followed by the State and Region parliaments, the focus has now shifted to the presidential election, which is to be held on 17 March.

For Suu Kyi, overcoming the barrier of 59(f) is imperative to realize her political conviction, if not a live and death matter. To do this, three options are open, such as to install a proxy president and try to amend the 59(f) clause embedded in 2008 constitution; to table the motion of suspension or waiving the said clause within the parliament; and to file for approval within the parliament, the exceptional status that the clause won't have an effect on her as a sole individual.

The third option is said to be based on the fact that the majority of some 80 percent have given her the mandate to lead the nation in the election and thus the appeal for exceptional status as an individual not to be barred by the said clause, in the interest of the people.

According to Myanmar Times of 8 February, NLD sources said that the party was negotiating with military leaders on the shape of the new government, including the positions of chief ministers.

It is being widely speculated that as part of a broader power-sharing agreement the Tatmadaw could agree to change or suspend section 59(f) of the constitution barring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. In return she would give key posts to the military, such as chief ministers of some regions and states, possibly including Yangon, Kachin, Shan and Rakhine.

But aside from the Myawaddy newspaper opinion piece of rejection a week or so earlier, on 9 February, a military representative for the parliament, Colonel Kyaw Kyaw Soe told the media that while the Commander-in-Chief didn't give exact directive regarding the issue, the military would only adhere to the constitutional procedure strictly. Meaning: the military 25 percent veto power will be used in any important amendment of the military-drafted constitution.

Min Aung Hlaing, during the recent four monthly meeting of the military officers had also said that the military will not amend the 59(f) or suspend it.

Shan, Kachin and Arakan States as bargaining chips

Whatever the rumours might say, the lobbying and jockeying to circumvent the 59(f) is still in full swing and nobody knows how it will unfold.

According to The Myanmar Times of 8 February, the NLD sources said that the party was negotiating with military leaders on the shape of the new government, including the positions of chief ministers.

It is being widely speculated that as part of a broader power-sharing agreement the Tatmadaw could agree to change or suspend section 59(f) of the constitution barring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. In return she would give key posts to the military, such as chief ministers of some regions and states, possibly including Yangon, Kachin, Shan and Arakan.

Regarding this at least one senior source within the NLD is of the opinion that a military officer could be in line for the post of chief minister of Shan State, where the Tatmadaw and the USDP have a combined majority in the state assembly.

“There will be no argument if a military representative becomes chief minister of Shan State because the ethnic parties in the state have good relations with the army,” said the source, adding, “She is making good relations with the military a priority. The incoming Union government and the state and regional governments will have military representation.”

This political posture won't go down well with quite a number of stakeholders, especially the armed groups that the NLD wants to draw into the peace process.

Colonel Sai La, spokesperson for the Shan State Progressive Party, which came under heavy Tatmadaw attack late last year, was said to be worried about Shan State being led by a chief minister with a military background.

“We can’t do anything to influence the appointment, but I think it is not appropriate to appoint a military officer. Shan State has too many problems, especially armed conflict,” he said.

Political commentator U Yan Myo Thein said chief ministers should represent the citizens and reflect the people's will, saying, “National reconciliation should be correctly interpreted. The Tatmadaw should focus more on gaining the trust of the ethnic armed groups and ethnic citizens rather than aiming for chief ministerial posts.”

Likewise, yielding to the military's demand, where appointment of chief ministers in Kachin and Arakan states are concerned, won't be to the liking of the ethnic nationalities, especially the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).

Summing up

Given such complication, coupled with sensitivity, the art of lobbying and jockeying to circumvent the 59(f) clause is easily said than done.

Aung San Suu Kyi must tread a fine line not to antagonize the ethnic nationalities, especially the EAOs, and also try to make a deal with the military that it could not refuse, so that her goal of overcoming the 59(f) clause could be fulfilled.

For now it seems, Suu Kyi is left with an only option of filing for an exceptional status that the said clause will have no effect for her as a special case, to circumvent the barrier, while not stepping on the red-line of amending or waiving the clause that the military is so obsessed to keep it in tact, for  whatever reason it might have in store.

The military, while it has so far insisted that it wants no change to the constitution, it would not countenance Suu Kyi's presidency ambition, according to the Reuters report of 6 February.

Speculation have been rife that Min Aung Hlaing might be tempted to yield to Suu Kyi demand, in exchange for the NLD regime leaving the military's economic interest and conglomerate alone, apart from promising no retribution on the military for its decades-long human rights violations. Besides, accordingly he could as well burnish his legacy, for such a move would also put responsibility for fixing an impoverished country riven by decades of ethnic conflict squarely on Suu Kyi, according to the well-informed diplomatic sources.

Paragraph 261 of the constitution gives Suu Kyi the rights to appoint the Chief Ministers in ethnic states and regional governments. If she considers to fulfil the ethnic nationalities desired candidates to head the state governments, harmony with them will be achieved. But if the military insisted to have their men placed, particularly in Shan, Arakan and Kachin states, she will have to calculate the pros and cons on how the outcome of such a decision will affect the ongoing internal armed conflict, not to mention the feeling of the ethnic peoples that are being oppressed by the military for decades.

For now Suu Kyi might be facing the dilemma of whether to compromise with the military's demand to circumvent the 59(f) section, if this is really the term of bargaining basis, or fulfil the ethnic groups' desired candidates for Chief Minister positions, to pave the way out for ending the ethnic conflict.

Still there is another option for Suu Kyi and that is to work out a strategy of "escaping between the horns" from the dilemma she is now facing. In other words, advocating a “win-win” outcome for all stakeholders.

Suu Kyi being an able strategist, as has been shown in her election campaign that won her a landslide victory with the slogan of “don't look at the candidates, just vote for the party, if you want change”, will again come up with a brilliant move to overcome this. We only need to wait and see.

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

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