To Hopeland and Back: The 28th trip

(27 March-1 April 2017)
Linda K. Burton (1952)

This trip came about after I was invited to participate in the 9th Liaison Officers Conference that was held in Taunggyi, 28-30 March. Since the liaison offices were established following government-initiated bilateral ceasefire agreements with 15 EAOs, this was my first opportunity to attend and learn.

As always, whatever I’ve learned, its yours.

Day One. Monday, 27 March 2017
Where the wind blows too hard, the trees gotta bend.
The Hanging Tree (1959)

Just before I leave for the airport, I have a call from a friend. He tells me that some of the leaders that attended the Third (Wa-hosted) Pang Kham Summit, 22-24 February, are now uttering their misgivings. “(name of leader) had thought that Beijing was 100% on the Wa side when he went to Panghsang (Pang-Kham’s former name),” he says.  “But now that it’s clear the Chinese envoy Mr Sun Guoxiang wants them to sign the NCA, telling them the consequences they will face if they don’t (there are some details which I prefer not to dwell upon), (name of leader) doesn’t feel sure anymore.”

Then comes an email message from China that has been keeping track of the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Yesterday it had released a statement by Mr Sun Guoxiang, special envoy for Asian Affairs in Chinese on 14 March. Why it had done only yesterday, not earlier, begs for a question. But to simple people like me, it is certainly an eye-opener.

Here is the translation of excerpts from Mr Sun’s address by a Chinese friend who has never failed to pull me out of scrapes:

Released by the UWSA information department on 26 March
  • The MNDAA shall be solely responsible for the recent Kokang conflicts. MNDAA’s attack not only breached China’s efforts of “persuading for peace and facilitating dialogues”, but also caused much damage to the Tatmadaw.
  • We urgently demand MNDAA’s unilateral ceasefire announcement. We also request the UWSA to release a position statement as well as to mediate and stop the conflicts.
  • Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly stressed an inclusive peace process. The Tatmadaw has also been supportive in the peace process.
  • Signing the NCA is beneficial to all stakeholders including all the EAOs.
We want the UWSA to sign the NCA, while keeping reservations about some terms.

At 19:00 in the evening, I conclude the day at the dining room in Taunggyi’s Royal Star Hotel with Victor Biaklian from Euro Burma Office (EBO) and new friends from Siem Reap based Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS), who will co-host the conference.
I regret to report Dr Emma Leslie, the CPCS founder, isn’t among them.

Someone tells me that the State Counselor wasn’t able to attend today’s Tatmadaw Day parade. “Well, the path to peace and reconciliation is strewn with a lot of hurdles and disappointments, isn’t it so?,” he muses.

Day Two. Tuesday, 28 March 2017
Powerful states need no ambassadors.
Their force speaks for them.
For small states, it matters how they express themselves.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

118 representatives from 10 EAOs that have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements meet this morning at the 4th floor of the hotel. The 10 are:
  • All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF)
  • Arakan Liberation Party (ALP)
  • Chin National Front (CNF)
  • Democratic Karen Benevolence Army (DKBA)
  • Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)
  • Karen National Union (KNU)
  • Karen Peace Council (KPC)
  • PaO National Liberation Organization (PNLO)
  • Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)
  • Shan State Progress Party (SSPP)
According to the organizers, SSPP is the only newcomer. The rest including the New Mon State Party (NMSP) which fails to turn up this time, have been regular faces at each previous conference. 4 others: Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) are said to be regular absentees.

U Linn Htut, Shan State Chief Minister, somehow fails to make his appearance also. So the Conference is opened by Ms Rachana Thummala, CPCS project officer, followed by opening remarks from Victor and myself.

I think I would be at a loss if I hadn’t stumbled upon the Diplomacy Manual published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) before I came away. I had gone through it and have been struck by the fact that the mission and duties of the liaison officers are identical to those of the ambassadors, though at a different level, which are:
  • To represent your organization
  • To safeguard the interests of your organization
  • To negotiate with the host organization for common interests
  • To observe conditions and developments in the areas you are posted and report back to your organization
  • To promote friendly relations with local authorities, organizations and people
“You are ambassadors at a local level,” I tell them, or try to. “Whether peace is to be achieved sooner or later depends a lot on your skill and devotion.”
(Liaison officers later inform me that they have better understanding on the importance of their mission after hearing me.)
Here are excerpts from inputs by others:
  • Liaison officers are ambassadors at the local level. Ambassadors are liaison officers at the national level.
  • Rebuilding relationship after damage by war is difficult. Even in South Africa, 25 years after, relationships are still fragile.
  • Peace cannot be built top-down, but only bottom-up. If we are going to wait only for success at the top level negotiations, we must be prepared to wait forever. We therefore need not and should not wait until they have reached agreement
An exercise to identify common challenges and how they are overcome follows.
Here are the three food-for-thought remarks I overhear from the participants at work:
  • Relationship with business firms can be crucial, either good or bad, to the peace process
  • We EAOs are not unlike the Tatmadaw in that we cannot engage in party politics, only national politics
(Note: By-elections will be held on 1 April and support from EAOs are being sought out by competing parties)
  • The Tatmadaw units inform us about their movements only when they are not planning to attack us. But they don’t when they plan to attack us.
In the afternoon, the CPCS has a book launch. The report, “Peace is living with dignity:
Voices of Communities from Myanmar’s Ceasefire Areas in 2016” is the result of a community listening project which involved 459 conversations among 1,663 people in Kachin, Shan , Kayah/Karenni, Kayin/Karen and Mon States.

The topics discussed include land, drugs, livelihood, environmental concerns, and taxation, among others. It can be found in the PDF form on the website.
Here’s one quote that should draw attention from any reader who’s concerned about the country’s welfare:

One positive change is that we can now use the Kachin national flag publicly. Before, it was very dangerous if we were found with the Kachin National flag.
Midde aged Kachin man from Hpakant township

As for the report on today’s exercise, it will be tomorrow, says an organizer.

(To be continued)


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