Following his participation in talks among ethnic leaders at Law Khee La in Karen State, Salai Yaw Aung, a member of the central leading committee for the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), spoke to DVB about the outcome of the negotiations, the proposal that the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) plans to present to the Burmese government, and the steps ahead in the peace process.
Now 50, Ko Salai was at the forefront of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and one of the founder members of the ABSDF.
Q: It’s been over 25 years since you and other students founded the ABSDF. Has the revolutionary spirit changed in that time? Has your vision changed?
A: No, we have not changed our vision but the political situation has changed, not only in Burma but around the world. So our tactics have changed; when the government offered a ceasefire we accepted it.
Q: Coming to the present, ABSDF is involved with 16 ethnic militias in the NCCT who are each representative of their own nationalities. ABSDF has a somewhat different status. Are you able to agree on all points with regard to the draft ceasefire or are there fundamental differences of opinion?
A: We all agreed on the amendments for the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] at the Law Khee La meeting [at Karen National Union headquarters on 2- 9 June 2015]. The ethnic armed groups and the ABSDF have been working together for 27 years, so we know each other very well. We were worried about some wordings and some policy matters in the NCA. Historically, the government has broken its agreement on ceasefires before, so the ethnic leaders are understandably concerned about the NCA and whether the government will keep its promises. That’s why we are being very careful about the details of the NCA.
We were fighting for over six decades, so we cannot expect to resolve all the problems in one or two years. If we want to build a sustainable peace, we have to take our time.
Q: So ABSDF and all the ethnic groups agreed on 15 amendments to the draft NCA. Can you tell us exactly what those amendments are?
A: Firstly, part 5, article 3, from the ‘roadmap’ and its guarantees of political dialogue. We have highlighted the section about security sector reform – what the government calls DDR [demobilise, disarm, reintegration]. In real terms, this is about building a federal army. The security sector covers a wide range: a national security policy, policing, immigration, the judicial system.
Q: Is the NCCT committed to a federal army?
A: I think so. But the government does not accept a federal army. So we need to negotiate. I think that there can be only one army in the country and that it should include all ethnic representatives.
Q: With regard to security sector reform, has the issue of border guard forces [BGF] been discussed at talks between the NCCT and the government?
A: No, we have not yet discussed the BGF issue. But in my opinion, it will be the responsibility of each army – the Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Shan – to reform their own forces, maybe in terms of border guards or as police. We must deal with this when we discuss SSR [security sector reform]. One day we will have to deal with this. We will have to reduce our troop strength, but so will the government.
Q: What other sections have you proposed amendments to?
A: Part 3. After a ceasefire, the draft NCA states, we have to conduct matters regarding health and education, for example, ‘according to the law’. Our question is: which law will apply? Union or regional?
Another part is humanitarian assistance. We still have a system of cross-border assistance. The issue is, after signing the NCA, the government will want to control assistance. If we do not get the government’s permission, we cannot get aid. But we don’t want that. It should be discussed with local authorities.
Q: Any other specific changes to the draft?
A: Some terminologies, some words. For example, after we sign an NCA, the draft says our troops can go anywhere ‘except prohibited areas’. We want to know where these ‘prohibited areas’ are.
Q: Do you feel that each of these amendments will be acceptable to the government or do you anticipate that some may take a protracted time to resolve?
A: If the government wants a sustainable peace, they should accept them all.
Q: What about the status of the Kokang MNDAA [Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army], the TNLA [Ta-ang National Liberation Army] and the AA [Arakan Army]? The NCCT has said the process must be all-inclusive. Why is that? Why can the NCCT not go ahead and sign an NCA without those members who are still engaged in conflict with the Burmese military?
A: For us, this is a nationwide ceasefire agreement. Nationwide. The MNDAA, TNLA and AA are members of the NCCT. We want all groups to sign the NCA. If these three organisations are left behind, then the NCA has no meaning, or rather it is not meaningful. After an NCA is signed, there should be no more war.
Q: Do you believe an NCA can still be signed that includes those three groups, even if the conflict in that region is continuing?
A: I think all war must stop in Burma before we sign.
Q: Would that include demarcation of troops and disarmament?
A: After we sign an NCA, we must write out a code of conduct within one month.
Q: Which of the amendments the NCCT is proposing is the most crucial or the one which you think will be most difficult to resolve?
A: The roadmap. Part 3 is very important. This is really critical and must be discussed with the government and especially the army. The SSR is the main issue. They say ‘DDR’, we say ‘security sector reform’.
The passage in question says: ‘… in line with national political dialogue based on political framework, matters on security-related reintegration should be discussed’.
We propose replacing the wording ‘security-related reintegration’ with ‘security-related matters’. I assume the new high-level negotiation team formed at Law Khee La will have to engage in painstaking negotiations with the government on this because we already had to negotiate it quite thoroughly to come up with the current wording.
Q: How confident are you, personally, that everything will be resolved?
A: Not everything will be smooth. Sometimes it will be difficult. We need to be patient, and discuss everything step by step.
Q: So what are the next steps?
A: At the Law Khee La meeting we formed a high-level team for discussions with the government, led by [KNU Vice-president] Zipporah Sein – a 15-member committee. We hope to meet with the government again soon.
Q: Is there a possibility an NCA can be signed before the general election?
A: I’m not sure. We don’t have much time. We only have about two months. In September and October there will be an election campaign. They [the government] will be very busy, so we cannot do anything during that time. But if the government accepts our proposal for amendments, the NCA can be signed soon.