Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Myanmar must not let pass this moment for peace

After 60 years of war, our people dream about peace. If the government and the Tatmadaw are truly committed, we can achieve a Nationwide Ceasefire deal soon
Over the last 17 months negotiations between the Myanmar government and the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) have sought a nationwide ceasefire agreement. Negotiations must continue until a path to peace is found.

We hope the negotiating team from the Tatmadaw (the military) and the government are united in this desire. U Aung Min leads the government's delegation. I head the ethnic delegation, consisting of 16 EAOs that form the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT). Both parties share many perspectives but disagree on others. Both sides have put a great deal of effort into reaching a nationwide ceasefire agreement, and we are almost there.

After the recent summit of EAO leaders in Law Khee Lar in Karen State, the draft text is ready to be signed with some minor, but essential, amendments. To proceed, the Tatmadaw must cease its armed offensives and include all members of the NCCT as signatories to the ceasefire accord. In addition to the United Nations, Asean and the Chinese government, the United States government as well as other foreign governments should be included as witnesses to the signing. By taking these relatively minor steps, the Tatmadaw and the government would be demonstrating a true willingness to working towards a peaceful future.

We believe these demands are reasonable, given the ongoing deadly offensives against the EAOs that have resulted in thousands of refugees fleeing their homes and homelands. We cannot celebrate progress towards a ceasefire when immense suffering continues. Instead, we remain on a knife edge between failure and success. The endorsement of an agreement that does not deal with the difficult realities of obtaining true peace does not walk the last mile towards a nationwide ceasefire.

The past year and a half of talks have been fraught with difficulty and tension, but there has been an underlying friendship and faith. Together, both sides have faced many challenges, but have always returned to the negotiating table, trusting that a ceasefire agreement can be reached.

Distrust of the government is a by-product of decades of civil war. Memories are not quickly erased. Trust is based not only on words but on actions that back up those words. Trust is built over time. I believe that all ethnic and Bamar nationalities strongly desire peace throughout the country, and that they want each and every nationality to share equally in the same rights.

That aim, however, can only be achieved with appropriate protections and actions. Rights must be guaranteed and enshrined, not offered in a light or cursory manner. The constitution must lay out a true federal union for Myanmar.

We appreciate President Thein Sein's acknowledgement of federalism as an essential component and stepping stone towards peace and democracy. These words have kept alive our hope in the government's willingness to enact peace. These words, though, are challenged by the military's insistence on continuing its offensives during the whole negotiation process.

We want peace, but we must face the facts. The Tatmadaw has been launching major offensives in Kachin and Shan states, and most recently in Rakhine (Arakan) State. It has clashed with the Kachin, Kokang and Rakhine people. Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons occupy Kachin, and the same numbers are beginning to appear in Shan.

These incidents are not positive indicators for the willingness to create peace in our time, but we have moved on.

We have been encouraged by messages from U Aung Min and U Thein Sein, but equally discouraged to see that the military realities on the ground do not correspond. We hope that the Tatmadaw and the government are on the same path for peace.

We should not forget that for 50 years Burma was ruled by military dictatorship, with a defined policy of suppressing and discriminating against the ethnic nationalities along the borders, including in Bamar areas.

Most Burmese have suffered under harsh repression, but only the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities have lived with the constant cruelty of war. The negotiations are between the oppressor and those oppressed under the former regime.

No one wants peace more than us. We are not holding onto arms to attack, but to defend our people's rights, as was promised us in the Panglong Agreement in 1947.

War is cruelty. It destroys our minds. It destroys our livelihoods, our hopes for the future and our natural resources. Our children have had limited access to education and prospects for better lives. We have seen too many lost generations in the ethnic states and in the Bamar areas too. If we are able to move forward on equal terms, we will succeed.

The negotiations concern a nationwide ceasefire as a first step towards negotiations for a political solution. Without amendments in the existing political framework, defined in the military constitution of 2008, there will be no peace. We are all aware that the political talks will be even more difficult, but also more important, since it must include power-sharing and federalism. The president should be credited for being clear about the importance of federalism. Last week military members of parliament, under direct command of the military chiefs, voted against amending Article 436(A), which gives the military veto power over amendments to the constitution. The president said one thing regarding the offensive against the Kachin, and the commander-in-chief did the opposite.

The voting in parliament is a concern. For any success, a commitment from the president and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing are needed because the latter holds veto power. This will be a main issue in the political talks. It will be a challenge, but one that we have been fighting over for 70 years.

It is possible to come together and sign a final agreement for an NCA. And, in doing so, we should indeed close our eyes and consider our children and grandchildren. This must occur before anyone pulls the trigger.

Let us remind ourselves that we are now in a unique position to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement. If it will lead to successful talks, it will be an act for the history books, for the president, for the opposition, for the military, for the EAOs, but most of all, for the people of Burma, in Bamar and the ethnic areas, whom we all should serve.

Nai Hong Sar is leader of the ethnic negotiation team and head of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team. 

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