Can Myanmar reach a peace agreement with ethnic races? The Nation columnist

Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (right) and military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (left), walking to a meeting in Naypyidaw on Aug 8, 2016.
Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (right) and military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (left), walking to a meeting in Naypyidaw on Aug 8, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Htun Aung Gyaw
The Nation/Asia News Network 

Myanmar has had the world's longest civil war, virtually since it gained independence from Britain in 1948. Successive military regimes failed to reach an agreement with ethnic minority groups largely because of the military's dishonest attitude. 

The regimes simply demanded that ethnic groups lay down their arms before negotiations start and disregarded the federal union with ethnic people that General Aung San, father of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, agreed on at a conference in Panglong in 1947. 

Now, Suu Kyi is following her father's steps and trying to fulfill his wish. But, there are stumbling blocks. 

The previous semi-military government led by former general Thein Sein reached an agreement with eight ethnic armed groups but failed to get all rebel entities to the table. 

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which has 11 opposition groups, did not sign the peace accord. But its members attended an Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO) Plenary Meeting at Mai Ja Yang in Kachin state last late month, to discuss a basic principles for the 21st Century Panglong conference later this month, and constitutional issues linked to a federal union.

The host of the meeting, Ein Ban La, vice chairman of Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), said groups did not have to separate into two lots - those who signed the peace accord and those who did not. 

The important thing was how to seek peace for the country. He said ethnic groups have to avoid suspicion and hatred - and need to build trust. 

On July 28, the vice chairman of the Chin National Front told the participants they needed to reach three goals: democracy, national equality and self-determination. He said these would guarantee a genuine federal union.

One of the strongest ethnic armed groups, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) did not attend the meeting. The Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Kokang group (or MNDAA), and the Naga's National Democracy Alliance group also did not attend. 

International reps like the UN special envoy for Burma and China's Asian affairs special representative did go. 

But the Burmese Army's Lt-General Myat Tun Oo said Senior General Min Aung Hlaing feared that if all ethnic groups united at the conference and stood firm on issues it would be difficult for national unity. 

On the other hand, Aung San Suu Kyi met UNFC delegates at Nay Pyi Daw before the Mai Ja Yang conference and told them - like JFK said to the American people: "Do not only think about demanding what you want, you also have to think about what you have to give." 

However, her bold talk was misinterpreted by Karenni leader Khu U Rae, who snapped back "We have nothing to give and nothing to ask for because our mountains are now level to the ground and our rivers are polluted, our forests are gone and our people are now living in the jungles." 

What Suu Kyi actually meant was 'How could you help bring peace to our country by some compromise?' but Khu U Rae interpreted her remark as she asking ethnic groups to give something from their land. So, words need to used carefully, because ethnic people have suffered enough and it has made them very sensitive when people talk about 'giving and taking' in negotiations. 

At the Mai Ja Yang meeting Shan National League for Democracy deputy joint secretary Sai Kyaw Nyunt said they should consider establishing Burman ethnic state. Also New Mon State Party vice chairman Nai Han Tha said aside from the current seven states, they intend to name some divisions as states because those areas have many races living together. 

The main problem is they are making a major issue on race identity. In Shan State there are Pa'o, Wa, Palaung, Lahu, Lisu, Kachin, as well as the Shan. So people from races other than Shan want their own state. The Wa are the strongest resistance group and they want their own Wa State - so do the Pa'o, Palaung, Lahu, Lisu, etc. These kinds of demand stem from states based on ethnicity. 

Nai Han Tha said Tanintharyi and Irrawaddy divisions have many races mixed and living together and he wants those areas to be nationality based states not as one ethnic base (he indirectly means a Burman race) division. 

But Tanintharyi division and Irrawaddy division are names of regions not based on any race. That is the reason divisions in Myanmar have no argument about race issues. The race and identity issue has only been raised in seven states. 

The main ideology of this issue is ethnic minorities want to control Burmans, who are the country's majority race, by proposing eight states in a federal system that has seven ethnic states and one Burman state. 

So, when they need to make a decision, a vote of 7-1 can beat the Burmans. This idea was presented by the Shans chiefs in 1962 before the military takeover. 

This idea will be rejected outright by the Army, as well as the ruling NLD party, because over half of the population is Burman. 

They would never accept having one vote while the rest have seven votes; it is not a realistic solution. Also, the Shan deny being a minority. They say we are a majority in our own state and created the term "ethnic nationalities". 

Some other races in Shan State also use the term "ethnic nationalities" but they are a minority under the Shan. Although, everyone can be a majority in their own areas, which has stimulated demand for their own states and created tension different groups, especially in Shan and Kachin states. 

To solve the problem everyone has to abandon states named according to ethnicity and use names of the area not their race. 

Shan State, for example, would become a Kanbawza State, while Kachin State would become Myitkyina State. 

America has 50 states but the number is not a problem because they don't have ethnic names. Myanmar needs to copy that idea. 

People living in a state need to believe that the area they live in belongs to them, not a particular race that may solve their problems. 

Suu Kyi is the only hope for ethnic people making a deal for peace that they long for. 

Unfortunately, she alone does not have the power to reach an agreement with ethnic groups. She needs a green light from the Army commander. 

So, ethnic leaders need to consider her as a fair and neutral negotiator between them and the Army.