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HomeInterviewBenedict Rogers: ‘It’s a change of atmosphere not a change of system’

Benedict Rogers: ‘It’s a change of atmosphere not a change of system’

Following a year that saw the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the signing of several ceasefire deals with armed groups and the outbreak of violence in Arakan state, DVB’s David Stout sat down with Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Benedict Rogers to discuss the reform process in Burma and the realities on the ground in the country

The ceasefires have stopped fighting in many places. From what you hear from your sources on the ground, is there still inertia behind the peace process? Do you feel like things are still developing or is it stagnating?

My impression is mixed. Some of the language that has come from the government in recent weeks – with the use of terms like federalism, Panglong and talk of political dialogues – perhaps gives an indication that there is the prospect of moving to the next stage.  I’m cautious about it because we need to wait and see what it actually means in practice, but I think there might be some reasons to be cautiously optimistic that the government is at least beginning to talk in these terms, which until very recently words like federalism were deemed taboo and they seemed to be rigidly opposed to a political dialogue. So if that’s a change that gives some hope for the process moving along.

However, the impression I have for how things stand right at the moment is that it hasn’t really moved forward. I think there is a lot of concern about the current ceasefire agreements. One of the reasons the Kachin have held out for so long is because of there own experience with ceasefire agreement that never led to a political solution and was all about development. I think there’s concern that these other ceasefires could be the same and there’s a lot of emphasis on development and not enough emphasis on political dialogue and political solutions.

I think it’s a mixed picture. It’s still unclear what it’s going to lead to, but if the government’s rhetoric is to mean anything then that could be a hopeful sign.

Do you see any real differences between the current peace process and the similar process that was undertaken in the early 1990s, when a lot of groups signed ceasefire deals? 

It does seem very similar to those ceasefires. I would imagine that Khin Nyunt must be smiling to himself because it looks like Aung Min and the others are copying quite a lot of what he did. I think the one difference is this language about political dialogue – they just haven’t gotten to that yet. That will be the key test if it does lead to a meaningful political dialogue. The other key test will be:  if there is a political dialogue with the groups that there are already ceasefires with, then where would the Kachin fit in? Ideally, I would hope that the Kachin would be brought into that nationwide political dialogue even though they’re still fighting because they haven’t signed a ceasefire.

From what you hear from your sources on the ground, is there anything that can stop the fighting Kachin state other than a political solution?

I think the Kachin definitely need to hear some firm reassurance that there can be a political dialogue. I don’t think they’re necessarily going to keep fighting until a full-scale dialogue actually happens. I think they need the assurance that it will happen and they need the steps toward it.

Among those steps, I think some confidence building measures would be needed such as the reduction and the withdrawal of troops from certain areas and for troops to go back to the pre-2011 lines. Those kinds of steps may enable them to stop fighting and then have a political dialogue. Definitely, what’s very clear – and they’ve now had several rounds of talks – they’re not prepared to agree to just a ceasefire along the same lines as the ceasefires that the other ethnic groups have agreed to. There needs to be clear identifiable steps toward a political dialogue for that to happen.

From your understanding, how much power does Aung Min and other peace negotiators actually have?

I’ve heard anecdotally that Aung Min has been quite surprising in the number of things he’s agreed to and the promises he’s made. Then the question arises: ‘Can he actually deliver?’

I think there are two things that limit his power. First, for the final political solution the parliament and the government need to be involved and all the ethnic nationalities need to be involved in that final stage. The other factor is the role of the military and how much Aung Min can influence the military. He can agree to things, but if the military doesn’t withdrawal from their areas and stop fighting then the war continues. The question concerns not just Aung Min, but also the president and the government’s control over the military.

As Burma continues to transition, there have been calls from some sectors and individuals to begin investigating crimes committed by non-state armed groups, including the All-Burma Student Democratic Front. From your experience working in other countries and observing how transitional justice is handled, what would you advise?

One of the countries that I had involvement with was East Timor. I wasn’t directly involved with the transitional justice process in East Timor, but I’ve read about it and know people who were involved and I spent time in East Timor when that was going on.

One of the things that I think was very good about the East Timorese transitional justice process was that it didn’t only address the crimes committed during the pre- and post-referendum period in 1999, it went all the way back to 1974, and looked at the crimes committed by all actors. However, one significant weakness of course was that it was not able to hold to account the Indonesian military and the key militia leaders who planned and orchestrated the crimes, because they were all safely back in Indonesia. Nevertheless, East Timorese militia members who had committed crimes were held accountable, through a process of community-led truth and reconciliation. There was quite a process of accountability and truth and reconciliation and from everything I’ve read [the process] had a lot of buy in from grassroots [groups]. I think one of the key lessons from East Timor was that they really did involve the people at the community level and grassroots level, and a wide consultation with communities before the process began.  I think that was very important.

They actually went as far back as the 1974 civil war in East Timor, which lasted a few months between the different factions before the Indonesian invasion. After Portugal’s withdrawal, there was a very brief, but very bloody civil wars between the groups that wanted immediate independence, those who wanted a transition with Portuguese guidance and those who wanted integration with Indonesia. The truth and reconciliation process that went on after the 1999 referendum did actually address some of the things that were committed by the different East Timorese factions and everybody accepted that and it was seen as necessary for reconciliation.

I would say three things about Burma. The first is, I think some form of transitional justice will be needed for Burma to move forward. As the UN Special Rapporteur has himself said, it must be an important part of the reform process. Exactly what form that takes, whether it’s a truth and conciliation commission along the East Timorese and South African lines or its some form of a tribunal, is a question for the different actors in Burma to determine.  Something, definitely, will be needed.

Secondly, it has to look at the record of all participants. If it’s only focused on the military then it has all sorts of weaknesses. I think it can’t just look at the ABSDF but everybody.

The third thing, because there is a tendency among some international observers to equate the records of groups like the ABSDF and some of the ethnic armed groups with the record of the military and I don’t accept that at all, I think quite clearly the overwhelming balance of crimes lies on the shoulders of the Tatmadaw. This temptation to say they’re all as bad as each other and to equate the abuses that have been committed is wrong. In terms of scale and systematic policy, you can’t equate the two. So, I think that must be kept in mind as well. But definitely, all groups should be part of some transitional justice process.

In your experience, what have you noticed about the change that’s on going at the ground level in Burma right now?

The first thing that I would say is that there is quite a difference between Rangoon and the rest of the country. In Rangoon, there’s no doubt that there is a significantly increased space for freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom to do things that were previously inconceivable. For example, a friend of mine has just launched a new monthly magazine called The Chronicle and he asked me if I would contribute an article for this magazine. He asked me to write a piece on human rights in Asia – looking at human right issues and transitions in other countries that may have some lessons that are helpful for Burma and that’s just been published.

Also at the same time, I had just given him a copy of a book about a North Korean prisoner that was born in a North Korean prison camp – a book called “Escape from Camp 14” about Shin Dong-hyuk. He had that translated into Burmese and has just started to run extracts from it in the magazine. My article and the extracts from this book about a North Korean prisoner would have never been able to be published perhaps even just six months ago and certainly a year ago, so that’s an indication of the change.

I definitely feel there are conversations that can take place that couldn’t take place before. People feel more relaxed and there is a sense of excitement in Rangoon. I would describe what’s happening at the moment as a change of atmosphere and not yet a change of system. Hopefully the change of system will come, but you need the change of atmosphere to lead to changes in the system. But if it’s only a change of atmosphere then that’s concerning because atmospheres can change between hot and cold. We’re not yet in a stage where the reforms are really kind of secure and we can’t be fully confident that things are moving forward. I think there’s a lot moving forward, but it’s a change of atmosphere not a change of system.

When you go outside of Rangoon, particularly when you think of what’s been happening in the ethnic areas especially Rakhine [Arakan] and Kachin, it’s clear that there is a very long way to go.

Among the contacts you speak with in the ethnic areas, what are their feelings?

The sense from them is that they’re not really feeling the reforms at the moment. I’ve spoken to Kachin and Rohingya in particular, who clearly are in a category of their own because of active conflict and a campaign of violence, so they’re very, understandably sceptical and cynical about the whole thing. But you have to remember they’re still facing soldiers with guns, so it’s no surprising that they’re sceptical.

Some of my Chin contacts have said they haven’t really felt a noticeable difference – particularly in the area of religious freedom. The Chin Human Rights Organisation published a report a couple of months ago specifically on religious discrimination and persecution. I talked to Chin people in Rangoon on my recent visit and their view was that there has not really been any change with regards to religious freedom. Actually, some of them were quite concerned. One of them said, “Democracy alone is not a guarantee of religious freedom or ethnic rights”.

I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make the reforms really felt on the ground throughout the whole country and not just in the Rangoon bubble. I think there’s also a lot of work that needs to be done in building bridges between the different actors and ethnic parties and groups and the NLD [National League for Democracy]. There is still a gap there.

For example, some of the ethnic representatives I talked to were expressing these concerns about religious and ethnic rights and that democracy will not necessarily lead to the protection of these rights. I asked them, “Do you talk to the NLD about these concerns?” and they said they’d like to but didn’t have that communication. I think there’s a real need to strengthen those links and ensure that the NLD and other democratic parties take into account the concerns of the ethnic nationalities. Aung San Suu Kyi often talks about ethnic issues during interviews and speeches, but I think it needs to be felt throughout the organisation and at the grassroots level.


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