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Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong is the vice president of the Chin National Front, a rebel group from western Burma that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government in September 2015, together with seven other ethnic armed groups.
The NCA was hailed as a breakthrough and laid out a path to the Union Peace Conference, which all rebels are eventually supposed to join.
Following the NCA there have, however, been increased clashes between the army and some non-signatory groups, and between NCA rebels, the Shan State Army-South, and a non-signatory, the Ta’ang National Liberation Front.
In May, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government formed a preparatory committee and two subcommittees for organising the Union Peace Conference — also dubbed the 21st Century Panglong Conference — which is scheduled for late August.
Subcommittee 1 concerns NCA signatories and Subcommittee 2 the other rebel groups still outside of the NCA. Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong played a key role in the NCA process and is now Secretary 1 of Subcommittee 1.
He recently spoke with Myanmar Now about the preparations and expectations for the much-anticipated 21st Century Panglong Conference. It is named after the historic political agreement between General Aung San and ethnic leaders signed at Panglong in 1947, which faltered after Aung San’s murder and the military takeover.
Question: What is the relationship between the 21st Century Panglong Conference and the NCA?
Answer: In the NCA, we agreed that Burma must be a union based on democracy and a federal system. This approach is politically the most important.
The second priority is the political road map comprising seven steps: (1) to sign the NCA (2) to reach agreement about holding a political dialogue (3) to start a nationwide political dialogue (4) to organise the Union Peace Conference (5) to sign a Union-level agreement, which was described ‘like the Panglong Agreement of the past’ (6) to submit the agreement to the Union Parliament (7) to implement the agreement.
The ceasefire talks are now termed the 21st Century Panglong Conference. During a meeting attended by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD insisted that the peace talks at the conference must be based on the NCA. She told the meeting that both the Union Peace Conference and 21st Century Panglong Conference are beautiful names with good meaning.
The term ‘21st Century Panglong Conference’ has been used since the Lower House Committee that was formed by NLD members and ethnic parties after 1988 [when both allied against the army]. So the upcoming event is termed the Union Peace Conference or the 21st Century Panglong Conference.
Q: Can you talk about the peace conference and the framework of the political dialogue?
A: We first met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on 18 December, after the NLD had won the November 2015 elections.
We agreed that the framework of the political dialogue should be flexible and will be based on the NCA. That’s because there were some changes among stakeholders in the dialogue due to the government transition and the possible suggestions by new stakeholders or non-signatories. We need to be able to recognise their views.
We are holding discussions in line with the NCA and pursue our expectations from the time of the ’88 Uprising. So I am very optimistic about this peace conference. I also appreciate the military as a signatory of the NCA.
Q: Some criticise the peace process and say the military continues to seek total supremacy over ethnic people. How do you respond to that?
A: We need to understand whether this military is practicing supremacy, or whether that is a bad legacy of previous military leaders. Former military officers from the 1960s are those who established supremacy over ethnic people. This tendency continued during successive military regimes.
However, we found in our meetings over the last three years that most military officers actually advocate a ceasefire. They understand the feelings of ethnic minorities. We were born when civil conflict started in our country, but we are now suffering from the consequences. We should not find fault with others, accuse others of seeking supremacy or having narrow-minded attitudes. Instead, we need mutual cooperation to solve internal problems.
Q: Do you think the NLD will be hesitant in addressing Burma’s ethnic problems?
A: No, that’s not possible, because you can imagine that civil conflict has prolonged the influence of the military.
The NLD appeared together with the ’88 Uprising. Only the international communities have viewed the problems of our country as a struggle between democracy and the military dictatorship of the 1990s. They did not recognise ethnic affairs.
At present, the NCA is very crucial for the peace conference as it was signed by the military and ethnic armed groups.
Q: We have heard that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will discuss political, defense and security affairs at the conference, but that economic and social affairs will be discussed at a forum involving civil society organisations. What do you think of this proposal?
A: There are many more problems resulting from civil conflict. These problems are to be addressed immediately. To me, it does not look practical to put resettlement plans [for IDPs or refugees] under social issues in a CSO forum.
Another issue is land disputes. Most of the Karen people lived in Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions at the initial phase of civil war, but have since fled. So, resettlement programmes for them should not be put separately under social issues.
Q: Even if there is agreement on many political, defense and security issues at the conference, will the military accept amendments to the 2008 Constitution?
A: We have an agreement in the NCA that says the military will take part in the amendment of laws and the constitution if a Union-level agreement is reached through political dialogue.
Q: Aung San Suu Kyi has urged all conference stakeholders to consider giving, rather than taking from others. She said this is the ‘Panglong spirit.’ What do ethnic leaders think of these remarks?
A: We have worked for the country, but our sacrifices are not recognised. We want to sign a Panglong Agreement and will not call for unpractical demands. We will add the land of our ancestors into Burma’s sovereign territory and the fortunes of our people have been combined with the fortunes of our country. But we have not been recognised yet — this is a necessity for us.
This interview was originally published by Myanmar Now on 28 July 2016.