The interview with Dr. Sai Oo, Country Representative of Pyidaungsu Institute for peace and dialogue in Yangon, Myanmar was led by Mirco Kreibich, Director, Heinrich Böll Stiftung Myanmar
After the first peace conference in August last year Myanmar has seen a surge in heavy fighting, in particular in Kachin and Northern Shan States. What is behind the latest clashes between the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw, and the ethnic armed organizations (EAO)?
Sai Oo: A simple answer is they are trying to get an upper hand in the conflict. There is not enough political will on both sides. To some degree, Tatmadaw still believes it can win militarily. [They think a better] military position can give them an upper hand in the negotiations. Among the EAOs, many groups still do not have enough confidence in the negotiations. Some still believe that the Tatmadaw is not sincere. They don’t have enough trust in the peace process.
Which EAOs have been involved in the recent fighting and what are their interests?
Sai Oo: Heavy fighting took place in Kachin State between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). You can see this as a battle for strategic positions. The Tatmadaw wants to ensure that the KIO is cut off from their main incomes. In Shan state, [the context] looks similar but is very different. In Northern Shan state, the Tatmadaw is mainly engaged with the TNLA- the Ta’ang National Liberation Army – and also the Kokang Army (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army -MNDAA). From time to time, the Arakan Army (AA) is also involved [in the fights]. So we see that Tatmadaw is fighting with three organizations in Northern Shan state. None of these organizations has a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government, so the Tatmadaw can justify its actions by arguing that it is trying to bring peace [to the region]. TNLA, AA, and Kokang have not been invited to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015. Basically, from the Tatmadaw perspective, they are not part of the game and they need to have a bilateral agreement before they can come to the negotiating table. The EAOs claim to be fighting for the liberation or freedom of their own people and do not understand why they are being excluded from the process. These groups feel that they need to make noise so that they can be heard (laughs).
You already mentioned that the interest of the Tatmadaw is to gain a strategic position and maybe strategic depth. But are they reacting in the attacks - as they claim - or are they instigating the conflicts? Is it maybe in the Tatmadaw’s interest if the country is locked in a low or medium intensity war where you have regular clashes with EAO?
Sai Oo: The Tatmadaw on the one hand says, “we need to sit down and negotiate, we got to deal with our differences politically”. But at the same time, on the ground, in Kachin State, the fighting was very heavy on both sides and a number of displacements took place but they are not being well-published in media. The Tatmadaw tries to brand these groups as terrorists. This is another political strategy put in place so they can officially launch attacks on these groups.
But would you say it is in the interest of the Tatmadaw to have these fights going on? Could it be that for the Tatmadaw fighting is also a means to justify their continuous engagement in politics, saying that as long as the country is in the middle of clashes and regular fights, the Tatmadaw has to play not only military but also a political role?
Sai Oo: There is enough evidence that the Tatmadaw does not have enough political will. The Tatmadaw claims to be making peace but has a very rigid position on the NCA. Often the Tatmadaw would go back to its six principles . It knows that the six principles are for the EAO very difficult to accept. On one hand, they try to promote peace by inviting these ethnic groups to come and negotiate, while on the other hand, it launches attacks on certain groups. So you can see that the Tatmadaw has very different strategies when it comes to peace building. It [The Tatmadaw] still believes in the fighting, and that it can keep it in a better position. And yes, armed conflict will serve the Tatmadaw’s interest. If it keeps engaging in armed conflict, the Tatmadaw’s role continues to be important as an army as well as in politics.
Is there a real possibility that the Tatmadaw wins this war, in a military sense, especially with regard to the KIO? Is there a threat of defeat of the KIO?
Sai Oo: The fighting has significantly weakened the KIO position. But it is nearly seventy years of armed conflict, the Tatmadaw knows very well that it cannot finish this conflict by military means. The Tatmadaw is fighting not to win militarily but to gain a strategic position, both in military as well as political terms.
Aung San Suu Kyi has made the peace process one of her priorities. But she has been criticized for being silent to a large extent on the latest fighting. What is behind this silence? And what do you think are the degrees of freedom she has to speak out and her leverage over the Tatmadaw?
Sai Oo: It is very clear that the government and the Tatmadaw are not in agreement when it comes to how to go ahead with the peace process. The government has difficulties influencing the Tatmadaw. It has been unable to win the Tatmadaw over in the political process. From the previous to the current government, we have seen more fighting and the current government is not able to stop that or even slow it down. We can clearly say that the government is unable to influence the Tatmadaw when it comes to negotiations. The Tatmadaw does not totally agree with the government’s political strategy. But at the same time, the Tatmadaw wants the NCA to go ahead. So what might be happening is that the Tatmadaw and the government are fighting for the leadership in the peace process.
So you are saying that for the Tatmadaw the ultimate aim is to have peace but only under the conditions defined by the Tatmadaw. Is that a good description?
Sai Oo: It is exactly that way. The Tatmadaw wants peace but it has to be on its own terms. That is why the current negotiations are having difficulties. That is why the groups that have not signed the NCA continue to negotiate. And for these negotiations, you can see that the Tatmadaw has not moved its position.
It is difficult to have peace if you do not move your positions. The second peace conference was supposed to take place in late February but has been postponed. EAOs are reluctant to participate in a new peace conference as long as the fighting is going on. What do you think are the prospects for having a meaningful peace conference now and what are the prospects of different armed organizations coming back to the table?
Sai Oo: The NCA has the political road map laid out. As soon as the document was signed, there was some step by step work to be done. By then, all sides had agreed, to organize a Union Peace Conference every six months. The last peace conference in August 2016 can be called an inclusive one because the invitation was extended to the groups that had not signed the NCA, for example, the KIO. The expectation was that this Union Peace Conference was about making peace, about finding a solution, about establishing a Federal Union of Myanmar. There were high expectations for this 21st century Panlong conference in August. But along the way, the negotiations between the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council – an association of ethnic minorities] and the government did not produce a good result. Instead they were having a media war, holding on to their positions, and accusing each other for not succeeding in the negotiations. So that golden opportunity was lost again. By the end of 2016, it became really clear that UNFC were not ready to sign the NCA. That is one of the reasons why the second conference, that was supposed to take place in February, has been postponed again and again until now. Some EAO who already signed the NCA are in favor of having more EAOs participating. The Tatmadaw has made it difficult to negotiate because it sticks to its position. From the EAOs side, there is lack of clarity in terms of their strategy and their political goal. For example they will argue for all inclusiveness but then they cannot define what inclusiveness means to them. Sometimes they have contradicting views and even on terms. Both sides are sticking to their maximum positions and there is not enough political will and interest on both sides.
So this lack of political will, you also see this from the ethnic side? Are there spoilers who may not have a genuine interest in peace? I am thinking of the Wa State Army for example. What is there interest in having a long lasting peace?
Sai Oo: The difficulty is the numerous numbers of ethnic groups with some being more pragmatic than others. Some leader would say the NCA is an opportunity to engage politically to find a solution. You also have some leaders who do not trust the process yet. They would say that the Tatmadaw is not genuine.
What I mean is: do you think there is also some actors in the whole process who simply lack a genuine interest in peace because some of them live well on a situation of a war economy? If you have these kind of actors, how do you deal with them?
Sai Oo: Everyone is claiming they are working for peace, whether they have signed the NCA or not, the Tatmadaw, the government... Peace is a term that everybody uses. There is no armed group that is saying it is not interested in peace. That is including the groups that have not signed the NCA, the UNFC, and that includes the Northern Alliance who say that they don’t have confidence in the NCA. They want peace but not this process. But you can say that all groups want more or less to maintain their position. They want a good solution but they do not want to sacrifice anything. And yes, more or less each group has certain interests in their current position.
What is your outlook for the future? How do you see the process in the next month, and year maybe?
Sai Oo: It looks more and more complex now than a couple of years ago when there was a better opportunity to move forward the peace process. Now it has become three, or four, five different groups and with different interests. That will make it hard. One thing for sure is that the current strategy is not working. They need to look for better options. I believe that all groups are starting to talk with neighboring countries, especially China, which is keen to be part of the peace process. There is a general assumption about China, being behind a number of different armed groups, has good relationships that can help move the process forward. The Northern Alliance proposes a new process but they have not explained or clarified what they mean. The Tatmadaw and the government think that the NCA is so far is the best document; the groups who have signed the NCA would also say that. So we have all these different positions. I think it will continue to be a chaotic process for now unless the Tatmadaw and the government realize that the current strategy they are applying is not effective. The government needs to unite the people in the peace process. For the Tatmadaw, unless they have another hidden agenda, the current strategy they are using is not going to produce much good for either side.
Thank you very much!
Dr. Sai Oo is Country Representative of Pyidaungsu Institute for peace and dialogue in Yangon, Myanmar. The Institute was founded in August 2013 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with the objective “to provide impartial and independent spaces for building common understanding, resources and assistance to communities”. It supports in particular ethnic actors in the peace negotiations.