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Following Thein Sein’s recent cabinet reshuffle, former Railway Minister and peace mediator Aung Min was transferred to a new post within the President’s Office as the Minister of Ethnic Affairs. He has been tasked with overseeing issues concerning the country’s ethnic nationalities. DVB’s Aye Chan Naing sat down with Aung Min to discuss the government’s ongoing negotiations with armed ethnic groups.
You’ve been tasked with handling affairs concerning ethnic nationals and have been negotiating with armed ethnic groups for several months – can you give us an update on the situation?
With many of the armed ethnic groups, we have completed the first step of the process by signing ceasefire agreements with every group except the Kachin Independence Army. Concerning the second step, we are continuing to focus on political dialogues, development, resettlement and rehabilitation. And for the third step, a conference will be held in the Parliament’s Lower House with all the ethnic groups. We will be talking, making suggestions, discussing and negotiating with each other to reach a mutual agreement and once we get to that, we will have genuine, perpetual peace.
But the KNU [Karen National Union] mentioned that the talks with them also included discussing initiating potential business ventures during the ceasefire period. However, the KNU said they’d rather prioritise a political solution. Moreover, some NGOs decried that there has been no transparency in building model villages in the border regions with international assistance, including the [Norwegian] Peace Initiative etc., and that only the government knows certain information. What would you like to say about this?
With the peace process, the government would never commit to something without taking advice from the ethnic armed groups and ethnic leaders. We’d talk with them first. If they are not eager to engage in economic development and just want to deal with political issues first, then it will be handled according to their will.
If they want to talks politics first then we’ll prioritise politics. If they want to talk about business, we’ll talk about business. Or if they want to prioritise resettling the IDPs and war refugees, we’ll assist them with it. Some groups said they wanted to focus on demining, but then there are other groups saying they wouldn’t want to clear up the mines now because that would make them defenceless if the government troops return to attack them. We follow their will – we won’t do anything without their consent.
Also, I would like to talk about the NGOs for a bit here. The NGOs have been assisting ethnic groups, civilians, war refugees and migrant workers in the border regions. We regard their assistance to them as assistance to the government since they are doing the jobs the government is supposed to be doing.
If there is peace in Burma, there should be no reason for the groups mentioned earlier to stay in foreign countries – they should be able to return home freely and safely. We’ve told the NGOs that there are no objections or restrictions for them coming inside the country and continuing to provide assistance. We will help provide an environment to do that and some of the NGOs expressed concern that their operations might be restricted. But I honestly think, no matter what NGOs come to Burma, helping people in Burma is the same as helping the government. So I’ve been telling NGOs at the border, there are around 30 of them there, to come back to their homeland and continue to provide help and that we are grateful for their deeds.
As you mentioned earlier, negotiations with most ethnic armed groups have been successful apart from the Kachin – fighting with this group has been going on for more than a year so far – and moreover, there are clashes resuming with the Shan. What kind of difficulties are we having here?
Concerning the Shan, we’ve signed a ceasefire agreement with them. There is a condition in the agreement saying that troops are not allowed to bear arms outside their territory. With the Shan, although we signed the ceasefire, we have yet to discuss demarcation – so troops on the ground basically had no idea where their territory is and where it isn’t. Some units have accidently travelled out of their territories, which led to a few clashes – and there were no causalities in any of the clashes that took place in Shan state. I believe these issues will be resolved once we have completed demarcation.
The issue with the Kachin has been going on before our government came to power and we are left to solve it. As I was tasked to see to this, I’ve met with the [KIA] three times. There we discussed that troops need to return to their own positions to bring about a ceasefire and that their withdrawal must be carried out step-by-step. The KIA in turn proposed to withdraw Burmese troops and I presented this to senior leaders and they agreed with some of those plans. Troops withdrawal was going to be discussed in the fourth meeting [with the KIA].
Since the Burmese troops are under command of the Tatmadaw, Armed Forces’ Deputy Commander-in-Chief General Soe Win has to be apart of the discussion. The KIA wanted to hold the meeting in their territory, but since General Soe Win is joining, we suggested holding it in our territory – in Bhamo or Muse – but they suggested Lweje or Ruili, which are not actually that far from the positions we suggested.
But due to regulations, it’s impossible for an Armed Forces’ Deputy Commander-in-Chief to join talks in China – this is why we suggested inside Burma instead. Currently, we have sent a letter to the KIA, where the President suggested to stop looking elsewhere and instead hold the talks in Naypyidaw, before him, and the government will assist with their security, transportation and accommodation will be taken care of.
I don’t think there’s a better offer than this. If we manage to have the talks, then we get to withdraw troops and eventually reach a political dialogue – then the peace mission will be a success. So, we are stuck at this stage, but it’s not a big deal at all. Once we reach an understanding, all these issues will be solved spontaneously. I would like to say we are making the effort.
There are a number of refugees in Kachin state fleeing into China and they were being sent back by China…
There were around 30,000 refugees who fled into China and also there’s about the same amount in the Kachin [KIA] territory as well as in Bhamo and Myitkyina. So there are an estimated 90,000 refugees in total. We would like to help those who got sent back from Burma – they are our ethnic nationalities and I had urged them to return to their homes and that I take responsibility for them. The government is making the effort to sign a ceasefire and anyone who fires upon residents living in their own village is violating the law. So it’s beyond my comprehension why they would rather flee elsewhere, when they can live at home in their village. I would like to urge them to return home instead of suffering under the wind and rain, while their children are missing out on their education and having health problems – we will take full responsibility.
How supportive is the Tatmadaw considering the crucial role they have in the peace process you are carrying out. Are they cooperative? To what extent does the[Tatmadaw] participate?
Some members in the parliament have asked the Tatmadaw what role they are playing in the peace talks and the [Tatmadaw representatives] answered. I’ll tell you what they said:
‘The Tatmadaw is working synchronously under the supervision of the President. The President said there has been a ceasefire and warned the [Tatmadaw] not to fight with [ethnic armed groups] except in self-defence. Clashes taking place recently are [due to misunderstandings] and should cease once troop positions are relocated. For now, we have troops on both sides moving ahead of their lines, so clashes are [expected] with a situation like this. Troops will run into skirmishes when travelling from one place to another for various reasons. I think this should be solved once we reposition the units and clear them out of [overlapping] areas.
This Peace Conference with all the ethnic groups that you mentioned earlier, when do you expect this will happen?
After the first step, we will take the second step, which includes starting procedures for political dialogues, development, resettlement and rehabilitation. Development, resettlement and rehabilitation processes are easy – they are doable as long as you have money and donors have promised to provide assistance with this.
Now, I would like to say something about the political dialogue here. It may take time depending on topics proposed [by the groups] but it could also be sooner if we are able to answer them sooner. Once we’re passed that, we’ll begin the discussion in the parliament. Now, the president has given us a mandate with the Ministry of the President’s Office deal [that was established with the reshuffle]. So when will we get the job done? Well, there will be a new government following the 2015 elections and we would like to get it done before then. If possible, we would like to get it done tomorrow but if not, at least we aim to accomplish this before 2015.