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In the week before the third session of the Union Peace Conference - 21st Century Panglong, The Irrawaddy published an interview with Dr. Lian H. Sakhong on why peace is so elusive in Myanmar. As vice-chairman of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) and vice-chairman of the Chin National Front (CNF), Dr. Lian has been intensely involved in the peace process from the very beginning. In the interview, Dr. Lian spoke passionately about the root cause why Myanmar has not reached peace yet, the hurdles to overcome and how to overcome them, and the need for decisive leadership in the peace process.

Dr. Lian identified the failure to establish a union based on the principles of democracy, equality, and self-determination, as was envisioned in the 1947 Panglong Agreement, as the root cause of the problems Myanmar has been facing since independence. He argued that the country’s main barrier to peace is the same today as it was in the last 70 years as successive governments have failed to address the issue through either political negotiations or constitutional reform. According to Dr. Lian, a lack of collective effort by political leaders to clearly define the principles of democracy and federalism also has blurred their meanings for the people of Myanmar over time.

Nonetheless, Dr. Lian pointed out that the current Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) aims to address the aforementioned issue and should therefore be considered as a real achievement that results from years of effort by Myanmar’s government, military, ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), and political parties to jointly address the country’s political problem. The subsequent peace process, however, has not yet made as much progress as hoped.

Dr. Lian acknowledged that the signing of the NCA provided the EAOs with unprecedented opportunities to express and propose their political demands to the government and the military, as well as to the people of Myanmar, through meetings, political dialogues, media, publications, and other means. However, as Dr. Lian believes that the military and the government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) have already fully understood the demands of the EAOs, he requested both of them to decide what exactly they can accept, what they cannot accept, and what will take time for them to consider. According to Dr. Lian, the decision is now in the hands of the government and the military.

Dr. Lian marked the lack of trust between the government and the military, and between the military and the EAOs as the underlying obstacle to moving forward in the peace process. He attributed the fact that all parties have their own interpretations of the terms “democratic rights”, “equality”, “self-determination”, and “federalism”, and of the decisions made during the UPDJC meetings to a lack of trust. Dr. Lian then made four suggestions to all stakeholders to build and strengthen trust.

Firstly, Dr. Lian suggested to strengthen the trust between the NLD-led government and the military arguing that they now appear to be two governments with different voices in addressing the ethnic issues. He believes that peace negotiations to solve the ethnic issues will not be smooth and easy until the government and the military have held talks and can speak with the same voice.

            Secondly, Dr. Lian suggested to strengthen the trust between the military and the EAOs. He noted that the inability to solve the issue of non-secession is a clear example of why both sides do not seem able to build trust. As Dr. Lian strongly promotes the principles of federalism, he reiterated that federal principles have nothing to do with secession and that the EAOs collectively decided to stop demanding the right to secede in 2005 as the demand only encouraged misunderstandings, suspicion, and doubt between them and the military. Moreover, the demand would only lead to more problems for the EAOs rather than to better protection of their rights. Dr. Lian argued that the issue of non-secession could only be overcome by establishing national equality and self-determination within the Union.

 Thirdly, Dr. Lian suggested to strengthen the trust between the top leaders of the government, the military, and the EAOs. He claimed that while holding a series of meetings at the technical level is important and appreciated, these meetings lack the power and rights to make binding decisions. Dr. Lian argued that it is therefore crucial to hold meetings with the top leaders of all parties as these meetings will have the capacity to strengthen trust between all stakeholders and to overcome the current political impasses in the peace process, such as non-secession and security sector reform.

Fourthly and lastly, Dr. Lian suggested to strengthen the trust of the eleven EAOs that have not yet signed the NCA with the government. He argued that as the non-signatories are following the peace process closely, they will only have the confidence to participate in the peace process if they can see that the NCA is strictly observed, that the peace negotiators work together in a framework of political dialogue based on the NCA, that all decisions made during the UPDJC meetings are being realized, and that all peace negotiators work freely and peacefully in accordance with the framework. According to Dr. Lian, however, these conditions have not yet been fulfilled, with the national-level political dialogues, the public consultations, and the venues needed for these being restricted.

As Dr. Lian strongly believes in the power of negotiation, he stated that in his opinion “nothing is impossible”, meaning that there is no political problem in Myanmar that cannot be solved by political negotiations. Dr. Lian believes that peace is possible and that it can even be achieved within a few hours if the peace negotiators have a genuine will to reach it. He argued that Myanmar has a strong need for a decisive leader such as General Aung San, who courageously and sincerely took the political decision to build a union based on the principles of democracy, equality, and self-determination that would protect all people in the country. He then expressed his hope that either the Senior General of the Military, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the President, or an ethnic leader will become such a decisive leader.

 In the interview, Dr. Lian pointed out that the 1947 Panglong Agreement and the 2015 NCA are closely related to each other. So far, these two agreements are the only documents Myanmar possesses to support the building of a peaceful democratic federal union for its entire population. Although Panglong’s promises of democracy, equality and self-determination have not yet been realized, the current political dialogue based on the NCA, best known as the Union Peace Conference - 21st Century Panglong, aims to address these issues without harming the military and the EAOs. According to Dr. Lian, however, a decisive leader is needed to move the peace process forward, just as the Panglong Conference of 1947 needed a decisive leader such as General Aung San.

The Irrawaddy’s interview with Dr. Lian H. Sakhong is available at:     https://www.irrawaddy.com/in-person/why-peace-is-so-elusive.html

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