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Interview: ‘It is time to work harder and have more unity’

File photo of ABSDF troops taking part in a ceremony to mark the founding of the group on 1 November 1988. (Photo: ABSDF / Facebook)

Yesterday, 1 November, was the 28th anniversary of the founding of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), an armed group that was formed on the Thai-Burmese border in the wake of the crackdown on nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1988. On Tuesday, it held commemoration ceremonies at its headquarters at the Dawn Taman camp in Karen State, as well as in its northern camp in Kachin State, to remember the sacrifices of those who joined their struggle. To discuss the work of the group over the past three decades as well as its future, DVB spoke to Mi Sue Pwint, a member of its Central Leading Committee.

Question: In a statement released to mark its 28th anniversary, the ABSDF said that 740 of its members had died and 400 were injured. Can you tell me over what period this was?

Answer: Students led the people to the border after the 1988 uprising. On 1 November of that year, the ABSDF was formed with the help and cooperation of the ethnic armed groups operating in border areas. Its members received military training to fight alongside its allies against [Burmese] army offensives. Since that time, many ABSDF members died in action on the front line, some were captured and killed by the enemy, some died of disease, and some were killed in accidents such as drowning while carrying out their duties. The figure includes all of these members, but not those who died after leaving the ABSDF.

Q: To what extent has the ABSDF succeeded in its objectives?

A: The ABSDF has had the aim of fighting against the military dictatorship since its founding. Another aim is to establish a federal union. We have struggled for 28 years to achieve these goals, and to keep the organisation from destruction or dissolution. Currently, we can say that we are actively working in the peace process to have a political dialogue based on the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). We have had this kind of chance only once in our 28 years.

In the past, the repressive military regimes would never talk with the ethnic armed groups on an equal basis. There was no good will. In this situation, the ABSDF together with the ethnic armed groups could only fight. Under the current situation, however, we have an opportunity [for progress] with the NCA. Also, there is a new government elected by the people; but on the other hand, the military still has a strong hold. Under these circumstances, we are trying to pursue our goals through inclusiveness and political dialogue. We are now leading the way with these objectives.   

Q: Now that the NCA has been signed and there is a dialogue for genuine political change, do you think there is still a need for a student army?

A: The main point is that the ABSDF should continue to exist until we have achieved our aims of democracy and establishing a federal union. We are working very hard to play a role in politics. So this is not a time to ask if the ABSDF is still needed, but a time for ex-members and new members who believe in our policies to join and support the ABSDF.

Q: Apart from the peace process, what other roles would the ABSDF like to have?

A: The main thing now is to work toward a federal union. Now we have a national-level dialogue. The KNU is having discussions in Karen State and in areas where Karen people live, and other ethnic groups are working in their respective areas. At the same time, we, the ABSDF, are trying to have harmonized policies on federalism, so that we can live together among the people all across Burma. We are having discussions in order to draft the best policies.

The ABSDF is not based on ethnicity or on territory. With this as our foundation, we are in a good position to help form a federal union in which people of all ethnicities can live together. We can say that this is the most crucial moment in our 28 years of struggle. Because of this, we should not miss this chance for political dialogue, and we need a lot of strength to get the best solutions. It is time to work a lot harder and have more unity.

Q: Your members have sacrificed a lot over the past 28 years. What plans do you have for the future of your current members?

A: We need to consider the well-being of our members, including their resettlement and job opportunities. We have had some discussions in the ABSDF Central Leading Committee about which policies we should set. The situation of the armed groups depends largely on the progress of the political dialogue, so the main thing at this time is to maintain our members’ belief in the future federal union.

Q: How far away are you from reaching your goal?

A: Since our thinking is based on political dialogue, I think we need to pass another three to five years. Until then, we need to have all the strength we can muster. That is our main focus now.

Q: What do you think about the peace process being implemented under the current National League for Democracy government?

A: As we all know, since the first session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, fighting [in conflict areas] has intensified. This is a big concern. The most important thing is not to give up on the political dialogue. We are going forward in the belief that if the political dialogue progresses, the fighting with decrease. We want the military to understand the underlying reasons why the ethnic armed groups entered the armed struggle.

We have seen that since the first session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, where people had an opportunity to listen and consider the views of ethnic peoples, the military has been more careful about how it deals with the ethnic armed groups. Anyway, our history shows that by not solving the problems of ethnic people or addressing their needs, we have had only civil war for more than 60 years. Under the new government, we should strive to end that civil war together.

I would also like to encourage the [government] army to have trust in the political dialogue. If there is anything that creates greater concern, such as the intensification of offensives, it will reduce the momentum of the political dialogue and reduce trust. The political dialogue, in which we are fully engaged with complete conviction, suffers when there is more fighting.

The main point is that there is a role for the army and there are ways to address its concerns. We should all take responsibility for keeping the political dialogue going successfully. It’s the duty of all the parties.