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Three days after the third session of the Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong (UPC), which was held from 11 to 16 July 2018, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) interviewed Dr. Lian H. Sakhong. As vice-chairman of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) and vice-chairman of the Chin National Front (CNF), Dr. Sakhong has been intensively involved in the peace process from the beginning. In the interview, he reflected on the outcome of the peace conference with regard to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) based on his own experiences.

Foremost, Dr. Lian expressed his sincere appreciation for keeping the peace process alive by successfully conducting the third UPC. While affirming that all peace negotiators from the government, the military, the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and all other stakeholders involved are striving for genuine peace, he made the following comments about the outcome and structure of the peace conference.

Firstly, Dr. Lian spoke about the fourteen-point agreement reached during the third UPC. Although he considered those points to be noble and valuable, he also admitted that they lacked the capacity to end the seven decades of civil war in Myanmar, to allow constitutional reform and to build a democratic federal union as envisioned in the NCA. Moreover, Dr. Lian regretted that the main issues of the peace process such as ethnic equality, self-determination, protection of minority rights, non-secession from the Union and the formation of a single army were not on the agenda of the peace conference.

Secondly, Dr. Lian marked the difference between his expectation before he entered the political dialogue and the reality after he had done so. He stated that Myanmar’s political problem is much deeper and more difficult to solve than he had previously expected, as the country’s political leaders all have different views on their problems and adopt different strategies to find a solution. Dr. Lian argued that issues such as the fundamental rights of people, duties and responsibilities of citizens, protection of minority rights and citizenship of ethnic children and people born in the EAO camps, including the issue of citizenship in Rakhine State, should be relatively easy to resolve through a joint effort by all stakeholders in the peace process. He deplored that this effort has not been made so far.

Thirdly, Dr. Lian emphasised the importance of combining the top-down and bottom-up approaches to the peace process. He pointed out that the 1947 Panglong Agreement was signed by the top leaders of the interim government of Burma Proper (Bama majority areas) and the Frontier Areas (non-Bama areas) without any public consultation or participation. As a result, people on the ground were not aware of the significance of the signing of the agreement in building the Union, which weakened the implementation of the agreement. With this as an example, the EAOs have demanded national-level political dialogues to include the people on the ground in the peace process, which has been included as one of the NCA’s seven roadmaps. However, the EAOs, and in particular the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), are not permitted to openly and freely conduct the Shan national-level political dialogue. The lack of concrete action to take steps on this matter is believed to reinforce the mistrust between the government, the military and the EAOs.

Fourthly, Dr. Lian addressed the lack of equality in Myanmar in its post-independence period. He said the non-Bama ethnic groups feel that they are not receiving the same treatment, opportunities, responsibility and rights as the Bama ethnic group for taking responsibility for building a union that they have all constructed together. He stated that “what must be done to achieve equality is a serious problem that the people of Myanmar must find a solution to”. It is said that there are 21 major ethnic armed groups in Myanmar that have been fighting for equality and self-determination since the country’s independence in 1948.

Fifthly, Dr. Lian pointed out the different perspectives and opinions of the EAOs, the military and the former government on setting up the structure of the peace process. He said the EAOs were strongly convinced that there should be a Union Peace Leading Steering Committee consisting of the top leaders of the government, the military and the EAOs, which should have been given the rights and power to decide on the most difficult issues in the peace process. However, without giving clear reasons, the former government and the military did not agree to form this committee. For Dr. Lian, the failure to form this body was one of the NCA’s biggest losses. It can be argued that this is why the current peace process has no mechanism that can break political deadlocks in the peace process.

Sixthly, Dr. Lian spoke about the nature of the current Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM), which is the highest mechanism for overseeing and guiding the implementation of the NCA. He said that although the JICM is the highest mechanism created, its nature differs from the Union Peace Leading Steering Committee that the EAOs previously proposed to the former government, since the current JICM does not have the rights and power to make any decisions during the political dialogue. The JICM is therefore not a mechanism that can break political deadlocks. In addition, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), in charge of conducting the political dialogue, and the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC), in charge of preventing the recurrence of armed clashes, were established. Dr. Lian pointed out that the NLD-led government was supposed to conduct the JICM meetings first, but instead held the UPDJC meetings first, the JCM meetings second and the JICM meetings last. Conducting the JICM meetings last seems to minimize the role of the highest mechanism in the implementation of the NCA.

Seventhly and lastly, Dr. Lian highlighted the need to set up an office for the UPDJC, which conducts the political dialogue with the aim of finding the root causes of the ethnic conflicts in Myanmar and their possible solutions. He argued that the UPDJC is the main mechanism for political dialogue in Myanmar and deplores the fact that it has no office. Meanwhile, the government of Myanmar has the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC) in both Yangon and Naypyidaw, the EAOs have the NCA-S EAO office in Yangon, and the political parties in the UPDJC have their own office in Yangon as well. Moreover, the military is also expected to have its own office for the peace process. However, the main body in the peace process, the UPDJC, consisting of representatives of the government, the military, the EAOs and the political parties, has to conduct the political dialogue without a proper office. Dr. Sakhong argued that the lack of an office strongly undermines the UPDJC’s role in promoting mutual trust between the different stakeholders.

What is apparent from the interview with Dr. Lian H. Sakhong is that the nature, structure, position and power of the JICM and the UPDJC do not seem effective and sufficient to promote mutual trust between the stakeholders and to ensure a lasting peace for the people of Myanmar. Finding ways to reform the JICM into a mechanism that has the rights and powers to take decisions on specific issues during the peace process and to set up an office for the UPDJC to properly conduct the political dialogue therefore seems both essential and important.

The interview with Dr. Lian H. Sakhong is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bk98lQNF9MM&t=49s

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