Commentary on Aung San Suu Kyi amends her stand on constitutional reform

A peace treaty could override a standing constitution, as war-torn countries or deeply divided societies often opted to iron up their difference to accommodate each others' political aspirations and compromised.

Seen in this light, the Union Peace Conference - 21st Century Panglong could become such a gathering, where a peace treaty among all major ethnic nationalities, including all sub-ethnic groups, could be worked out. And based on this treaty outcomes, a new charter or constitution could be drawn. After that elections could follow and a new government installed.

But for the Union Peace Conference - 21st Century Panglong to succeed, government's unilateral nationwide ceasefire must be declared, followed by all ethnic armies to follow suit; all contenting parties accept the tripartite dialogue composition of government (including parliament and military), ethnic armies, and political parties in all political negotiations; and a genuine desire to form an equitable federal system of government.

If the kind of peace treaty could be achieved under the above said guiding principles, we could get out of the present never-ending vicious circle of ethnic and social conflicts, and could do away with military-drafted 2008 constitution without much problem.

If I am not wrong, the NLD's U Nyan Win has also just said that a peace treaty could override a standing constitution.

Link to the story : Aung San Suu Kyi amends her stand on constitutional reform

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Shan Resistance Day marked in Wanhai, Loi Tai Leng

The annual celebrations for Shan Resistance Day were held on May 21 at the two largest Shan armed organizations’ HQs—Loi Tai Leng, base of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) on the Shan-Thai border; and at Wanhai in central Shan State, the nerve center of the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP).
Organizers estimate that around a thousand people attended the 59th anniversary event at Wanhai in southern Shan State, where SSPP soldiers conducted a military parade.

Speaking at Wanhai, SSPP/SSA superintendent Gen. Hsoten said, “We continue to bear arms in order to protect our people. We are determined to continue our armed struggle alongside the people. Conflict may exit among us with regard to our rights and differing views. But for the sake of unity and stability, we must tolerate one another. At this time next year, we will be commemorating the 60th Shan Resistance Day. If we were to compare that with a person’s life, we would say that it is time to send him off to a home for retirees.”
He continued: “However, for those of us who claim to be ‘freedom fighters,’ there is no retirement. The length of our resistance may be advancing, so we must adapt as though we were continually youthful and strong.
“Be quick! Be fast! Be true [to the cause]!” he appealed to the partisan crowd. “We need to build our strength year by year. Only then can we protect the public. The day that our army breaks away from the people is the day the army is disintegrated. Please stand for our people’s interests as a people’s army.”

At Loi Tai Leng, central command post of the RCSS/SSA, the military parade and festivities were reportedly attended by some 3,000 people. RCSS leader Gen. Yawd Serk addressed the audience, emphasizing the need to maintain a sustainable and stable peace in accordance with the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
“Being an NCA signatory, we have been maintaining peace as mandated in the accord. And also, as we are a legal organization, if you face arrest for associating with the RCSS, please report the matter to our nearest liaison office. We will continue to fulfill our commitment and uphold the promise of our political objectives,” said Yawd Serk.
Pa Nang Lu – wife of Sao Noi Soyanta, the man considered the father of modern Shan resistance – also took to the stage. She spoke about how her husband led Shan youths against the ruthless Burmese army, and how he founded the Shan armed forces, known as num serk han – the “young warriors” who evolved into today’s Shan State Army.

The RCSS ceremony concluded with a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the martyrs who sacrificed their lives defending the Shan cause.  

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Chinese shadow over Myanmar’s wars

When the second 21st Century Panglong peace conference opens on May 24, government representatives will need to engage ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) from two distinct regional blocs. While all EAOs have similar grievances and political demands, their divergent security situations and negotiating leverages will complicate government efforts to forge a genuine Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

In Myanmar’s insurgency-prone north and northeast, China has powerful influence over armed groups fighting against Myanmar government forces. Politically and strategically, Beijing is known to view the groups as a strategic buffer and bargaining chip in negotiations with Naypyidaw, particularly over its significant trade and investment with the neighboring country.

This translates into supportive relationships with Myanmar’s EAOs operating in the north and northeast, some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the country. Some of these groups, namely United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), are successor organizations to the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma (BCP).

They were established following the mutiny of ethnic rank and file against their largely Burman commanders and political leaders in 1989. China continues to support these organizations through commercial and cultural connections, development programs, and, more importantly to the civil war, through the provision of military hardware, ammunition and other supplies, and training.

The UWSA, the largest and best equipped of Myanmar’s EAOs, has received heavy artillery, man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) surface-to-air missiles and light armored vehicles, as well as training in how to use the equipment from China. The armed group also operates a small arms factory built with Chinese support from which it supplies weapons to other EAOs, particularly in the northeast.

When the MNDAA and its leader, Peng Jiasheng, were forced out of the Shan State’s Kokang region of northeast Myanmar into China’s southwestern Yunnan province by a Myanmar army offensive in 2009, Beijing provided shelter to the fleeing rebels. When the MNDAA reentered Myanmar in 2015, it was markedly stronger and better armed than before, likely due to Chinese support.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), traditionally wary of China, also benefits through trade ties and certain logistics support. Through the UWSA and KIO, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), and Arakan Army (AA) have received weapons and training indirectly from China. Together, the northern EAOs represent the largest and best armed groups in the country.

Thailand, the traditional backer of EAOs in Myanmar’s southeast, has over time shifted its view of the insurgent groups. Once viewed and used as a buffer against a traditional enemy, they are now seen as an impediment to cross-border trade and investment opportunities as Myanmar opens to the world.

Previously a profitable conduit for black market weapons and ammunition facilitated by tacit support from elements in the government and military, Bangkok is now actively encouraging EAOs along its border to sign ceasefires and engage in the Myanmar government’s peace process.

In addition to increased trade and investment, particularly in agriculture, natural resources and energy, Bangkok is aiming to further limit the narcotics trade out of Myanmar, control illegal immigration and encourage the repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees in camps that for decades have dotted its border.

The main EAOs along the Thai-Myanmar border – Karen National Union (KNU), New Mon State Party (NMSP), and Karenni National Progress Party (KNPP) – lost their profitable tax gates for black market trade between Myanmar and Thailand in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Since then, trade has largely shifted to official border crossings at Mae Sot-Myawaddy and Sangkhlaburi-Pyathounzu, as well as smaller government controlled crossings. Losses in territory have further eroded the ability of EAOs to raise funds through the exploitation of natural resources from logging and mining.

For instance, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), another group opposed to the Myanmar government, has been intermittently blocked access to Thailand due to its alleged involvement in the narcotics trade. Though because it can still source weapons through Myanmar’s Shan state from the north, where China-supported groups are active, it is not totally reliant on Thailand for its survival.

Moreover, stocks of Vietnam War-era weaponry have dried up and Thailand has recently become much less willing to turn a blind eye to illicit arms sales to these groups through its territory. Thailand’s government and military, while no doubt involved in the past, have never been a major source of arms and ammunition in the same way as China has provided support to EAOs in Myanmar’s north.

In 1995, heavy Thai pressure was an important factor in the NMSP’s ceasefire that year. In the 2000s and up until the KNU’s ceasefire in 2012, Bangkok put pressure on the armed group to avoid destabilizing armed clashes along its border. In the 2000s, it also sporadically shut down Karen supply routes across the Moei and Salween Rivers to influence KNU policy.

Chinese backing also allows the northern EAOs to negotiate with Naypyidaw from a position of greater strength than more isolated armed groups in the south. They have been able to fight a war in which the Myanmar military has incurred significant casualties and the EAOs have been able to secure autonomous control over significant swaths of territory.

Indeed, these groups’ ability to replenish their supplies of arms and ammunition from China allows them to continue the fight at an intensity not seen since the conflict-ridden 1980s. It also puts them in a stronger position at the negotiating table, especially if the UWSA-led Pangshang grouping of northern EAOs consolidate into a cohesive negotiating bloc.

The Pangshang grouping, named after the Wa state’s capital, has already stated they will not sign the government’s NCA in its present form and that they aim to negotiate new more favorable terms. The main southern groups – KNU, NMSP, RCSS, KNPP and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) –  face a much different situation.

Without the political or economic backing of Thailand or access to weapons and ammunition, as well as the real possibility of a Thai blockade of cross-border supplies, there is little potential for rearming, raising substantial new recruits, or taking back lost territory as China-backed groups have done.

The level of conflict in the north, including a particularly pitched battle between government forces and the KIO, would be impossible to replicate in the south without a dramatic shift in Thailand’s current position.

That’s viewed as unlikely under either the current military regime and the possible comeback of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra’s Peua Thai party at future polls, as both have eagerly sought business opportunities in Myanmar.

The main armed groups – KNU, RCSS and DKBA – have already signed the NCA, while NMSP and KNPP are rumored to be amenable to signing but it is still uncertain if they will attend the upcoming conference on May 24.

Other NCA signatories – Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (KNU/KNLAPC), Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), Chin National Front (CNF), and Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), and All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) – all have negligible soldiers under arms.

The reality of Myanmar’s ethnic civil war is that while many groups share the same grievances, including calls for ethnic rights, self-determination and federalism, there are specific regional and political differences that will require a more nuanced government approach if Panglong is to have a chance at achieving genuine and lasting peace.

Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based independent analyst

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Peace process in pieces in Myanmar

On May 24, when Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi opens the second round of her signature 21st Century Panglong peace conference, a high-stakes initiative to end decades of debilitating and divisive civil war, the outcomes and upshots will be pivotal to her democratically elected administration.

The meeting will aim to draw on the unifying symbolism of the original Panglong conference held by Suu Kyi’s national founder father, Aung San, who signed an agreement with ethnic Shan, Kachin and Chin representatives on February 12, 1947 at the small Shan state market town of Panglong. The agreement paved the way for the declaration of independence from British colonial rule the following year.

Despite the historic parallels and Suu Kyi’s strong political clout, few observers believe the upcoming meeting will meaningfully advance national reconciliation without a significant change in tack. Suu Kyi’s insistence that all armed groups agree to an elaborate National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) before holding any political talks towards the creation of a federal union remains a major sticking point.

So, too, are major battles underway between government forces and ethnic armed organizations in northern Kachin, northeastern Shan and western Rakhine states. While Suu Kyi speaks of peace and reconciliation, military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has simultaneously ramped up lethal offensives that have led to the heaviest fighting since the conflict-ridden 1980s.  

Suu Kyi has made peacemaking a top policy priority, some say to the detriment of other pressing matters such as bureaucratic, economic and legal reforms. It is one of the few policy areas where she has appeared in public meeting representatives from across political and ethnic spectrums.

But her failure to establish anything resembling peace in the country’s north and northeast, and ongoing communal violence in Rakhine state have severely tainted her previous image as a persecuted pro-democracy icon. The perception shift has been particularly damning as a former recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle against military repression and advocacy for peaceful reconciliation.

Ethnic group representatives who have attended meetings with a working committee preparing for the talks say they are appalled by what they liken more to bullying than negotiation, with the military giving them only two options: accept the 2008 constitution, which solidifies a powerful political role for the military over a highly centralized political system, or face annihilation on the battlefield.

The 2008 constitution, drafted under military rule and promulgated after what most independent observers viewed as a rigged and fraudulent referendum, gives the military effective veto power over any bid to change important clauses in the charter. It also gives the military autonomous control over crucial security related ministries, namely defense, border affairs and home.

Ethnic representatives argue that without a new federal constitution that could be put to a genuinely free and fair referendum, prospects for ending the war will remain dim. All ethnic groups want “full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas,” as enshrined in the original 1947 Panglong Agreement brokered by Suu Kyi’s independence hero father.

Myanmar’s federal constitution was abrogated and replaced by iron-fisted rule after a 1962 military coup that ushered in nearly five decades of soldier-led governance. Myanmar’s ethnic wars represent some of the longest running conflicts in the world.  

Officially, eight armed groups signed the NCA in October 2015. Of those only three — Shan State Restoration Council, Karen National Union and Democratic Karen Benevolent Army — actually have armed forces. The remaining five are small groups, claiming to represent the interests of Karen, Pa-O, Chin and Rakhine (Arakanese) ethnic groups, may best be described as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

On March 30, Suu Kyi announced that five more key groups – New Mon State Party, Karenni National Progressive Party, Arakan National Congress, Lahu Democratic Union and Wa National Organization – were poised to sign the NCA. The groups have since denied they took any such decision.

While the first two groups have armed wings, the other three could hardly be described as “key ethnic armed groups”, as most are even smaller than the five NGO-type groups that signed the 2015 agreement. But Suu Kyi appears concentrated on boosting the number of NCA signatories, even if they are largely insignificant to resolving the wars, in an apparent bid to conceal the policy’s underlying failure.

Meanwhile, major groups that have not signed the NCA — Kachin Independence Army, United Wa State Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Shan State Army/Shan State Progress Party, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State, and Arakan Army — account for more than 80% of the country’s armed rebels.

Failed peace processes are nothing new in Myanmar, previously known as Burma. In 1958, a caretaker government led by General Ne Win offered an amnesty without political concessions to communists, army mutineers and ethnic rebels. Those who accepted were granted business concessions, similar to the terms offered to the few signatories of the current NCA.

Peace talks were held in 1963 in which Ne Win’s coup-installed government demanded surrender and offered only “rehabilitation.” Groups that accepted were converted into “home guard units”, known as Ka Kwe Ye, which were allowed to conduct business, including opium trading, in their native areas. The deal ushered the rise of Myanmar’s most notorious drug lords, including Lo Hsing Han and Khun Sa.

In 1980, the government announced a new amnesty for rebels and political prisoners. At that time, separate talks were held with the KIA and the Communist Party of Burma that eventually broke down on the government’s offer of only rehabilitation for unconditional surrender.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government entered ceasefire agreements with about two dozen armed groups in exchange for lucrative business concessions, including a deal with the KIA that held for 17 years before faltering in 2011 when the group started making fresh demands for federalism.

The NCA’s only achievement so far appears to be creating rifts between signatories and non-signatories and internal divisions among those who have signed. Within Karen National Union, for example, there is deep disagreement among leaders and those who believe they have sold out their long struggle for autonomy for short-sighted business deals.

Even the smallest of the signatories have been granted lucrative business concessions, including rights to sell imported used cars from neighboring Thailand. Bigger groups have invested heavily in real estate and palm oil plantations.

The main difference between current and past talks is the heavy involvement of foreign peacemakers and lavish international funding in Suu Kyi’s initiative, interventions that have further skewed incentives and motivations.

History shows central demands for ethnic groups’ unconditional surrender — now dubbed as ‘DDR’ for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration by authorities — in exchange for business concessions seldom hold and are not a long-term solution to what is at root a political problem.

If Suu Kyi truly wants peace and reconciliation, she could take the moral high ground by announcing a unilateral government ceasefire rather than insisting ethnic armed groups sign an agreement many of them legitimately view as a military trap.

But until the Noble Peace Prize laureate stands up to the military and offers ethnic groups genuine self-determination and autonomy, her signature initiative risks repeating past failed efforts and leaving behind a country more at war than when she was elected as a reconciliatory peacemaker.

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CRUCIAL POINTS TO PONDER: How would the 21st Century Panglong pan out?

As May 24, the convening of Union Peace Conference - 21st Century Panglong (UPC-21CP) is scheduled to take off, few crucial and essential topics that are related to the understanding of the peace negotiation process need to be bundled together so that we could have a bird's eye view of the whole peace process situation.

In this respect, the BBC's report of May 21, titled “What one should know regarding Panglong convention”, has captured almost all the important headings, in this writer's opinion. 

It touches upon the topics of: Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) or Pangkham (peace initiative); 5 Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) that were rumored to sign (the NCA); agreement in principle [of the United Nationalities federal Council (UNFC) 9-point NCA amendment proposal]; Pangkham alliance; and formation of north and south (military) blocs among the EAOs.

The following is an observation based on the topics, which hopefully would shed some critical light to the prevailing political landscape.

Firstly, there is now a new game plan initiated by the Pangkham alliance group involving 7 EAOs that rejects the government's NCA-based game plan. Thus, the government's only game in town for some five years is now being contested by the Pangkham alliance new approach.

The Pangkham-led 7 EAOs military-political alliance includes the United Wa State Party/Army (UWSP/UWSA), United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA), Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA), Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA), Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party/Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNTJP/MNDAA), Peace and Solidarity Committee/National Democratic Alliance Army (PSC/NDAA) and Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA).

Pangkham insisted that the NCA-based peace process is not working, as it is unable to stop the war in Kachin and Shan States in the first place, besides being a process aimed at replacing the Panglong Agreement of 1947, which the alliance considers to be their historical-political legacy vested with rights of self-determination, equality and democracy and also the sole legal bond, to form a new political entity called the Union of Burma, between the ethnic nationalities and the Bamar state prior to the independence from the British in 1948.

Other than that it also accused the NCA-based process to be like the 1993 Nyaung Hnapin national convention, which was dominated by the Military or Tatmadaw and stage-managed to formulate and promulgate its self-drawn, 2008 constitution that didn't cater in anyway to the ethnic nationalities' political aspirations.

Thus, the Pangkham alliance consideration is to end the war in the north of the country first, followed by political negotiation and eventual political settlement.

Secondly, the 5 EAOs – New Mon State Party (NMSP), Karenni National Progress Party (KNPP), Wa National Organization (WNO), Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) and Arakan National Council (ANC) - that were rumored would sign the NCA and reportedly being constantly wooed by the government doesn't seem to be making headway, as almost all of them insisted upon the government's accommodation of the UNFC's 9-point proposal to amend the NCA, and only after which it would sign the NCA as preferred by the government. But the problem has been the inability of the government to say black or white on the proposal. Leaving it pending for further discussion in the future, and only came up with the in-between solution for UNFC members to sign the Deeds of Commitment (DoC) that they would definitely ink the NCA at a later date, which in turn would qualify them for participation in the UPC-21CP.

Thus, it is highly unlikely that the UNFC would take part in the conference, as most have said that they would attend the conference as a group with full conference participant rights and not merely as observers.

Thirdly, the so-called government's agreement in principle of the UNFC's 9-point proposal to alter the NCA isn't leading to any concrete agreement, as it is not committing to it in any concrete term and just prefers to let the UNFC sign the DoC by all means, pending further discussion of the UNFC's proposal.

While some of the UNFC members might be willing to see this agreement in principle in a positive light, General Gun Maw of the KIO said that the government, in fact, just only agreed to the point number 8, which said: “Developmental projects to be tackled according to Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), in cooperation with the public and the EAOs” and nothing more.

The crucial nationwide ceasefire announcement of the Tatmadaw and agreement of the tripartite negotiation composition of the proposal were not agreed upon, he stressed.

Fourthly, the Pangkham alliance that is made up of 7 EAOs. But the SSPP and KIO are also members of the UNFC and while the latter has tendered the resignation from the UNFC, the former said that it is still with it. Thus, the position of the SSPP is not at all clear at the moment.

Finally, there seems to be a formation of a north and south military blocs among the EAOs, with Pangkham alliance depicted as northern bloc engaging militarily with the government's troops, although for the moment the UWSA and NDAA are still not taking part actively yet in the conflict, the situation could easily change if the military conflict would become widespread. The northern bloc is the most heavily armed and make up of more than three-fourths of the whole EAOs' fighting force, estimated to field some 64,000 troopers, according to the “Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Reference Guide 2016” report publication of Burma News International, January 2017.

The combined 21 EAOs troops, when added together is 81,700.

The Pangkham alliance members UWSA has some 30,000; the KIA 12,000; SSPP 8000; TNLA 6000; NDAA 3000; MNDAA 2000; and AA 3000; totaling 64,000 or 78% of the whole EAOs' fighting force.

The southern bloc is made up of mainly the Karen National Union (KNU) that has 5000 troops, while some small EAOs barely field a few hundreds.


Given such political development, with the participation of the Pangkham alliance highly unlikely as the latest invitation list excluded the MNDAA, TNLA and AA, which are members of the alliance. Reportedly, the government has only invited 9 out of the 13 EAOs that have still not signed the NCA.

The other excluded only EAO is the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K).

So this would mean the 78% of the EAOs troopers would be outside the fold of peace process, indicating that in addition to just being a partial ceasefire gathering in Nay Pyi Taw on May 24, achievable peace is still a far away illusion, much less the national reconciliation which is supposed to be the aim of the UPC-21CP.

Topping this disappointment is the heightened Tatmadaw's offensives in northern Shan State, while the peace conference preparation is in high gear.

One could only feel sorry for the lack of positive initiative from the government's part saying that the invitation to the UPC-21CP is the responsibility of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), which is made up of a tripartite group of government (including parliament and military); 8 EAOs; and political parties with 16 members each, according to Zaw Htay, the director general of the State Counselor's Office.

He stressed to the RFA in a recent interview of May 18, that “the government is responsible only for the invitation of some 900 representatives and guests to the opening ceremony and closing dinner and the invitation to attend the UPC-21CP is solely the duty of the UPDJC, where the State Counselor is also the Chairperson.”

But questions come to mind, why would the 8 EAOs and political parties would like to exclude the said three EAOs from participating in the conference? The answer naturally would come up as either the 8 EAOs and political parties are compromised or forced to follow the Tatmadaw's line of thinking, which all know that it harbors animosity to the three excluded group from the outset and has been against it participation regardless of the tireless Chinese mediation and insistence of the Pangkham alliance that it would only negotiate as a group, according its repeated statements.

In short, the recent prevailing inconclusive political development doesn't really look promising for the UPC-21CP convention, especially to the disappointment of those longing to see the achievement of peace and reconciliation in our country.

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NLD-MILITARY MUST MAKE A CRITICAL CHOICE: Secession or trust-building?

Following Zaw Htay, the director general of the State Counselor's Office, statement that a consensus with ethnic delegations within the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) has been reached, in which secession rights of the ethnic groups would be curtailed, need more in-depth discussion. In other words, the federal constitution for the federal and state levels would have no secession clause included, like the Union of Burma constitution in 1947, is not a pressing issue as promoted by the government and, in fact, could even be said as a badly timed pitch given the convoluted political atmosphere prevailing at the moment.

“Due to our [Burma’s] geopolitical status, it is strategically imperative that we do not break into pieces,” said Zaw Htay. “We reached a consensus with ethnic delegations that they will be granted the right to draft their own constitutions, provided unity is maintained,” according to the DVB report of May 15.

What is exactly behind all this political jockeying and maneuvering?

Let us have a closer look.

The Working Committee for Political Discussions produced a paper on May 9, 2017, signed by Khin Zaw Oo from the government part and Dr. Lian Hmong Sakhong representing the 8 Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), in which secession issue is mentioned as below:

1.     No portion of democratic federal union will be allowed to secede.
2.     To be a federal union without secession.
3.     No portion of the country's regions, stated, union territories and self-administrative zones are to secede. [Unofficial general translation by the writer from UPDJC's analysis and report on the compilation of political discussions;  paragraph 6 (b) May 9, 2017]

According to the Global New Light of Myanmat report on March 9, 2017, the Working Committee for Political Discussions was led by U Khin Zaw Oo, Dr. Lian Hmong Sakhong and Sai Kyaw Nyunt and discussed on the committee’s procedures and other various other topics on securing a strong foundation for a federal system.

Remarkably, the analysis paper of May 9 is only signed by the government and EAOs and the political parties' representative, Sai Kyaw Nyunt was not included. UPDJC is actually represented equally by the government (including Military and Parliament); the EAOs; and the political parties with equal representatives of 16 each. Thus, it would mean the political parties bloc within the UPDJC has no voice in its present decision-making.

Regarding this government and Military position on secession the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) made a massive rebuttal, following the statements from government quarters and as well the UPDJC.

According to the Shan Herald Agency for News report of May 17, Sai Leik, spokesperson of the SNLD said: “ The Union Peace Conference (UPC), more popularly known as 21st Century Panglong Conference as dubbed by the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, is going on according to its procedure. The State Counselor has personally said that the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) must not influence (or envelope) the Panglong Agreement (of 1947) and we also understood as such and has accepted it. But we heard that the Tatmadaw (Military), during the UPDJC meeting that ended on May 12 was said to have demanded that endorsement on prohibition of secession from the union would be included. If it is really going to be done that way, it is the breaching of union (Panglong Agreement) promises. In a way, it could be taken as breaking the (promises of) union treaty.”

“If the government would like the ethnic states to promise not to secede, it would also need to prove, do things and promise, spelling out on how it would undertake (on achieving genuine federalism), in front of the international community,” he said.

Furthermore, he explicitly made a point by saying: “All has already understood that this secession clause is included (in the treaty), so that the government  side won't deviate from the path of genuine federal union.”

“The inclusion of secession clause in 1947 Union of Burma constitution is a control mechanism of `checks and balances´ between the union and states and has been made by the country's founding forefathers,” added Sai Leik.

Whatever the case, it will be well advised for the government and the Military to refrain from pushing this secession issue to the forefront, especially when trust between the ethnic nationalities and  Bamar political elites, including the Military, is at its lowest ebb. As this kind of move would only reinforce the ethnic distrust, which they have been all along suspecting of the Bamar wanting to maintain its political supremacy stance like a colonial master on his colonial possession, but not out of brotherly love that it has propagated but, in fact, doing just the opposite, proven by years of forced union through human rights violations, oppression and occupation of the ethnic states with sheer military might.

Thus, trust-building and stimulation to increase trust should be the place to start with and not coercive, hand-wringing signature of the ethnic nationalities to keep the so-called union together. 

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Adopting ethnic state constitution and the issue of secession

Within these few days a lot of political maneuvering have been going on, like Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Wa National Organization (WNO) resignation from United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC); Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), New Mon State Party (NMSP) and Arakan National Congress (ANC) confirmation to stick to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA)-based peace negotiation process, provided their nine-point alteration proposal of the NCA is accommodated; China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang meeting with the NCA-non-signatory five Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) in Kunming; Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing receiving a delegation led by Jonathan Powell from Inter Mediate group, who is said to be an adviser to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on peace process; and Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) making public that the ethnic states and regions would now be able to individually draw their own constitution, which has to be in line with the 2008, Military or Tatmadaw-drafted constitution.

Out of all the issues, the UPDJC's decision that ethnic states being allowed to draft their constitutions is worth emphasizing, as the crux of the whole peace process dwells on the ability of whether or not a genuine federal union constitution is going to be formulated and agreed upon. In other words, the constitutional crisis that has plagued the country since independence from the British in 1948 would now be addressed, in a serious manner, which has been the cause of ongoing ethic conflict and shelved for more than five decades.

While the move is hailed by Zaw Htay, the director-general of the State Counselor's Office, including Hkun Okker of Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) and Kwe Htoo Win of Karen National Union (KNU), as a breakthrough, some are skeptical if this is going to be really beneficial to the ethnic states and their people.

“All are based on federal principles. It is an agreement that has never been made in our country. We will allow adoption of constitution in states and regions and all has agreed. That is why the forthcoming convention will be a historical milestone for Burma,” said Zaw Htay, according to the recent Irrawaddy report.

However, a condition that the ethnic states would not seek to secede from  Burma was attached, which was said to be the guarantee the Military has asked for, in drafting the ethnic states constitutions. Furthermore, a federal right to adopt their own constitutions should not contradict the 2008, Military-drafted constitution, as it would take precedence in any possible disputes.

“Due to our [Burma’s] geopolitical status, it is strategically imperative that we do not break into pieces,” said Zaw Htay.  “We reached a consensus with ethnic delegations that they will be granted the right to draft their own constitutions, provided unity is maintained,” according to the DVB report of May 15.

Some members of the tripartite UPDJC, that includes representatives of the government (including the Tatmadaw), political parties and eight signatory armed groups to the NCA, said the agreement to let the ethnic states adopt their own constitution is “extraordinary”, and hoped that the conference which will commence on May 24 would produce good results, according to the Myanmar Times recent report.

But against such optimism, there were reservation from some quarters, involving experts and ethnic politicians.

Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, pointed out that in addition to granting states and regions a chance to draw their own charters, stakeholders should come up with a plan to make changes to the 2008 constitution, according to Myanmar Times.

“It seems that the Tatmadaw is changing its stance by allowing these matters to a certain extent. However, the truth is that the military wants the least amount of constitutional changes as possible. We cannot have a functional federalism unless we have effective power sharing. This is different from just letting the states or regions write their own charters,” he said.

In the same vein, Sai Nyunt Lwin secretary general of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy said such an important agreement, which in effect would encompass the whole country, needs a wider range of participants.

“What if the other groups are not involved in UPDJC’s meeting, like the non-signatory groups or those that have not yet held national-level dialogues, then it would be a problem at a later time,” he said.

But a more precise argument comes from Twan Zaw joint-secretary general of the UNFC, in an interview with the Radio Free Asia on May 14.

Regarding the question on what he thought of the UPDJC's endorsement of the ethnic states adopting their own constitution, he said: “This opportunity to draft its own constitution would not make much of a difference. The main point is that if this country is to be built as a federal union, there has to be a federal constitution and the ethnic states would need to have constitutions that cater to it accordingly.”

He said that the Military had maintained that its 2008 self-drawn constitution has federal characteristics, but everyone knows that it is not the case. And if the ethnic constitutions were to be drawn under this prevailing condition, it wouldn't make much difference.

“During Thein Sein's government tenure, there were well publicized claims that `federalism is being accepted´, but it still hasn't been turn into reality. Likewise, the allowance of `ethnic states adopting their own individual constitution´ would be just a meaningless thing on the paper, if real norms of federalism wouldn't be included and materialized,” he said.

Concerning the non-secession demand of the Military, he said that it was like shadowy ghost haunting, as far as the Military is concerned.

The Military staged a coup in 1962 with the pretext that the ethnic nationalities' Federal Amendment proposal would tear the country apart and labeled that it would lead to disintegration. This wrong indoctrination is still very much alive and he said this false thinking need to be corrected, as federalism  depicted unity or fusion and not disintegration, adding secession issue didn't even need to be discussed.

However, Dr Tu Ja, a Kachin leader who took part in the recent UPDJC meeting seems to be quite optimistic, as he said that although under the 2008 constitution equal ethnic state constitutions would not be able to be drawn, according to the seven-stage peace road-map of NCA, the stage four, Union Peace Conference, could be used to amend the constitution.

“And if the stage five of “Union (Pyidaungsu) Accord” would take the form of federal, the 2008 constitution must be amended. After that a new federal constitution would have to be promulgated by the parliament,” Tu Ja said, according to the Irrawaddy recent report.

To sum up, the move to let the ethnic states have their own constitution is, no doubt, a positive move. But as mentioned by observers and ethnic leaders, first of all the federal constitution at union level needs to be agreed upon, after which ethnic states' constitutions could be drafted, with proper power-sharing between federal and state governments.

Regarding the demand of the non-secession from the Military, it is better to be left untouched, as the ethnic nationalities' political-historical legacy of “1947 Panglong Agreement; 1948 Union of Burma Constitution; and 1961 Ethnic Federal Amendment Proposal” are all intertwined and cannot be separated or nullified. The first two are legal bonds between the Bamar State and the ethnic states, and the third one, the only legal approach that would have resolved the ethnic conflict in 1962.*

The termination of the parliamentary, national conference on Federal Amendment Proposal by the Military coup in 1962 has pushed us further into a more deeply divided society, which we are still witnessing after more than five decades.

Apart from the fact that the issue of secession is the sole responsibility of the individual ethnic people concerned, in short, securing non-secession promise or signature won't be doing the trick to live together, which the dominant ethnic group sees – in this case the Bamar majority - it as a lost of territory, but more sincerity and trust-building will definitely do.

As the late General Aung San said, “The right of secession must be given, but it is our duty to work and show (our sincerity) so that they don’t wish to leave”. It is Burma’s, or shall we say the government and Tatmadaw,  responsibility to prove their sincerity so the states do not wish to secede.

*For detailed explanation on ethnic nationalities' historical-political legacies please read “Jump-starting the stalled peace process - Is Revitalization of the 1961 Federal Amendment Proposal the Way to Go?”, in Transnational Institute.


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Manpang People’s Militia accused of forced recruitment

Manpang People’s Militia, a military-back armed group, has been accused of forced recruitment in several villages in northern Shan State, according to an MP from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).

Manpang People's Militia soldiers.
Sai Wan Leng Kham, an Upper House lawmaker for the SNLD representing Lashio Township, told Shan Herald on Tuesday that the enlistment policy started at the beginning of May. He said that the Manpang People’s Militia sent letters to local villagers’ houses with a list of names of persons they wished to recruit as soldiers.

“They delivered a list of names,” he said. “Some families had already sent their sons to them. But others, who refused to send their children, asked us for help. So, we [MPs from Tangyan, Lashio and Mongyai] have sent a letter to high-ranking officers within the Burmese army.

 “Some villagers have even fled their homes and villages over this policy. For example, a man from Nam Muse village had to cancel his wedding and run away because if he stayed in the village he would have been forced to enlist in the militia.”

SNLD MP Sai Wan Leng Kham said that he didn’t know how many persons the people’s militia wants to enlist. He said the Manpang group are recruiting in their active areas such as Mongyaw, Nampong, Mongmao, Mong Dom, Wan Kard, Manthab, Wan Ben, Lukwai, Wanje, Honar Kongsar, Mong Pai, Don Nay, Nar Nang, Kun Hio, Nar Moong, Kong Mong, Khum Jong, Kong Mao, Peng Nyaung, Pang Hoong, Mong Geng, Nam Hoo Loi Kar, Pang Nyaung, Nong Liang, Mangpang and Nammuje, all of which are in Lashio and Tanyan townships.

He said that some villagers believe the recruitment drive is for the Burmese army. However, the Manpang militia insists they are recruiting only for their own ranks.
Reports circulated recently that villagers in southern Shan State’s Maukmai Township have abandoned their homes to seek refuge elsewhere, avoiding a similar conscription drive by the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA). Gen. Yard Serk, the chairman of RCSS/SSA, denied such a practice.

“What really happened was that the RCSS wanted to train village security forces so that these villagers could protect themselves. The villagers thought it was a good idea, but three village headmen thought otherwise and ordered them to flee,” said Yard Serk, whose army was among eight groups that signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) during the tenure of President Thein Sein’s government.

The RCSS/SSA has in recent months been involved in a series of clashes with government forces in southern Shan State.

More than 20 clashes have been reported between the Burmese army and the RCSS/SSA since the Shan militia signed the NCA in 2015.

Shan Herald reported in December that, in northern Shan State, hundreds of villagers fled their homes to avoid a recruitment drive by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, also known as the Palaung Army, which has clashed regularly with Burma’s government forces in the area.

Hundreds of People’s Militias exist at a local level throughout Shan State and are mostly supported by the Burmese army, which is entrenched in conflicts with several ethnic armed groups across the region.

A research paper titled Militias in Myanmar, published last year by US academic John Buchanan, said, “Militias take many different forms in Myanmar [Burma], varying in size, allegiances and modes of operation. Though estimates of their numbers vary, all indications are that militia groups are present throughout conflict-affected parts the country, and can be highly influential armed actors in their areas of operation.”

By Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

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