Waking peace talks from ‘hibernation’: an interview with Dr Min Zaw Oo

Frontier speaks with Dr Min Zaw Oo, founder of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, about what it would take to revive deadlocked peace negotiations.

By BEN DUNANT | FRONTIER

Myanmar’s peace process, which aims to resolve more than half a century of civil conflict between Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed groups fighting for autonomy, was launched in 2011 to international fanfare. One man who returned from a career abroad to take part in it was Dr Min Zaw Oo.

Min Zaw Oo joined fellow students in the 1988 democratic uprising and later served in a rebel army, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, for four years before winning a scholarship to study in the United States. He completed a PhD in conflict resolution at George Mason University, Virginia, and was a security analyst for the US military and US-funded development projects, including in Afghanistan.

On his return to Myanmar in 2012, he was made director of ceasefire negotiations at the Myanmar Peace Center, where he supported discussions that led to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, signed by the Tatmadaw and eight ethnic armed groups in 2015, and since joined by two more.

When the MPC was dissolved in 2016, Min Zaw Oo was appointed to direct the technical secretariat of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee, which monitors the compliance of armed parties to the NCA. In mid 2017, he left the JMC and founded the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, an independent think tank, where he is executive director.

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In monthly briefing papers, and in a review of conflict trends in 2018 that was released in April, MIPS presents what it says is an objective account of armed conflict in Myanmar, with rare statistical data at the township level. Frontier sat down with Min Zaw Oo at MIPS’s office in Yangon to discuss the overall health of the peace process, which has produced few results since the NCA was first signed. The transcript below is abridged and has been edited for clarity.

What do you see as the chief value of your research and analysis?

Our goal is to demonstrate the conflict trends in this country, whether they are leading to escalation or de-escalation, and how groups are positioned against each other. With peace and conflict in Myanmar, it’s very difficult to have an overall, bird’s eye view because the conflict dynamics from one group to another are different. Peace process stakeholders are very good at zooming in on their own conflict, but they may not be aware of how it is with other groups.

In Myanmar, this kind of data is often classified and the Tatmadaw usually don’t release it, especially regarding specific clashes. We want to bring data transparency, and allow all stakeholders to see the whole conflict. Another perspective we would like to bring is that conflict, development and investment are very much interrelated. We want the investment and business communities to see how conflict is affecting where they operate or intend to invest.

Ethnic armed groups tend to see their struggle less as a civil conflict and more as resistance to forces occupying their homelands. Does your approach risk taking politics out of conflict, and does a focus on documenting armed clashes risk obscuring the continued militarisation of areas covered by a ceasefire?

In our reports, we have a section dedicated to political dialogue and its progress. We do mention the structural nature of the conflict, and what might be required for a political settlement.

Our data sets capture all the issues you have mentioned. When it comes to militarisation, it’s something seen all over the world. In any conflict, a ceasefire usually doesn’t remove militarisation. Ceasefires usually stop the fighting, and the next phase is what we call the separation of forces. In Myanmar, we are still at the very beginning of the ceasefire phase. That’s why both sides are going to maintain their deployments, their troops in the area. This is a very normal ceasefire situation.

Those reporting on conflict in Myanmar face a challenge. Although ethnic armed groups are often keen to talk to journalists and get their version of events across, the Tatmadaw rarely responds, though this has somewhat changed recently, with more press conferences and greater phone contact. Why is this?

Tatmadaw distrust of journalists and the media community has been entrenched for a long time. Also, if you look at Tatmadaw spokespersons, they are military career people; these officers are very careful not to say anything that could hurt their career. Definitely, the Tatmadaw is trying to fix its public relations, but I don’t think that what the Tatmadaw has been trying recently is sufficient to really allow journalists to cover their side of the story. They are still not telling them enough.

There’s been much speculation but little reliable information about the Tatmadaw’s capacity for psychological warfare, or psy-ops, online and on social media. What have you found in your research?

We monitor social media daily, watching about 500 accounts, including those that are pro Tatmadaw, pro ethnic armed group and other types, and we grade them according to a system. What I want to say is, the international media portrayal of Tatmadaw psy-ops is overstated. They do have psy-ops, they do have a team, but it shouldn’t be overstated.

When I was in Afghanistan, I used to work with US Army psy-ops, providing research data to them. Sophisticated pys-ops usually involve assessing targets and doing a lot of research to understand what they are thinking. But in Myanmar, it’s a very obsolete model from the Second World War. If they can’t even hide their IP addresses, that tells a story about whether it’s sophisticated or not.

We study a lot of propaganda from both sides on Facebook, and from the way that the Tatmadaw officially releases information, and the way that pro Tatmadaw accounts present information, you can see that they are not very sophisticated. Ethnic armed groups often have more sophisticated psy-ops and public relations capabilities than the Tatmadaw. The two groups that are really good at using social media are the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army] and the Arakan Army, which are both run by younger generations compared to other groups.

Dr Min Zaw Oo left armed rebellion against the junta to study in the US. He returned to Myanmar in 2012 to help steer peace negotiations. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

Dr Min Zaw Oo left armed rebellion against the junta to study in the US. He returned to Myanmar in 2012 to help steer peace negotiations. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

You’ve said previously that the peace process is now ‘in hibernation’. What do you mean by that?

In the peace process, the objective is to secure a political settlement and also to settle the future of armed groups. All stakeholders in the peace process understand this, but we are still very far from reaching both a political settlement and the settlement of security issues. But on the other hand, all the signatories, including the Tatmadaw, don’t want to reverse the peace process. They don’t want to go back to fighting. So, the process itself is frozen, or in hibernation.

As mentioned in your 2018 review, the Tatmadaw has begun spreading a message, ‘peace by 2020’. What could this mean, given the state of the peace process?

The Tatmadaw did not explicitly say what they meant by ‘peace by 2020’. But from the way that things are unfolding, we can assess that the Tatmadaw may be moving towards bilateral ceasefires with groups that have not yet signed ceasefires. The Tatmadaw has changed its stance from not recognising the Arakan Army, the TNLA and MNDA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army] to a point where these groups have become dialogue partners. But if there were any bilateral ceasefires, they would include a commitment to eventually sign the NCA.

The Tatmadaw position towards the AA is that, as long as you are in Laiza or somewhere else operating with your allies [in northern Myanmar], you should be part of the ceasefire process. But any ceasefire will not apply to Rakhine State.

But by moving the goalposts in talking primarily about bilateral ceasefires, are we seeing a regression to a 1990s situation, where there’s little expectation of political progress and a focus instead on short-term stability?

Actually, it’s not so much a regression as a role reversal. In the past, the Tatmadaw was the one who refused to talk about a political settlement, only wanting ceasefires. And at the time the ethnic armed groups said, we want political dialogue. Actually, the concept of the nationwide ceasefire agreement came from a demand of the ethnic armed groups in the 1990s and 2000s. But the military never accepted it. But in 2013, the government changed the policy, to one that accepted the demand of the ethnic armed groups for multilateral negotiations, and to have a nationwide ceasefire agreement and also political dialogue. And that became the NCA.

So now, in a role reversal, the Tatmadaw and the government say, now we have the process, we have the NCA, everyone should come and converge on this process, and we should follow its path. But some of the ethnic armed groups say no, we don’t want this, we want something else, so now let’s only talk about ceasefires, and the political dialogue maybe later.

But political dialogue hasn’t really gone anywhere for NCA signatories. Other ethnic armed groups might think, why should we commit to something that looks like a trap? Do you think they have a point? Does the NCA itself, and the structure for political dialogue it establishes, need to be changed?

I think the problem with the NCA is not with the agreement, but with the implementation. The NCA was written in a way that the progress of the peace process depends on the implementation of the agreement, but there are many shortfalls in the implementation. If other [non-signatory] groups are thinking of a new agreement, I don’t think it will come to anything fruitful. If you don’t fix the implementation problems with the NCA, how can you have another agreement? You’re going to have the same problems again,

I was in the room, sitting and listening to the negotiations [in 2015]. The only argument made by groups that did not sign the NCA was the lack of inclusivity, because the government was refusing to accept three groups, the TNLA, AA and MNDAA, because of their involvement in the Kokang offensive [from February 2015, in the Kokang region of northern Shan State]. It was not the text of the NCA, but the inclusivity issue.

When we look at the political dialogue, the main demands made by the ethnic armed groups are still there for discussion, even if agreement hasn’t been reached on them. Self-determination and ethnic rights – they are considered legitimate demands that need discussion. One of the biggest demands made historically is federalism. The NCA is the only official document in Myanmar that mentions federalism.

In your report for 2018, you say that the National League for Democracy administration has ceded any leadership role in the peace process to the Tatmadaw, and has instead become a mediator. But isn’t this inevitable if under the constitution the civilian government doesn’t control the troops?

Under the constitution, the [Tatmadaw] commander-in-chief answers to the president. But in this new peace process [under the NLD government], at the very top level of the peace architecture, the decision-making level, the NRPC [National Reconciliation and Peace Centre] doesn’t include those ultimate decision makers: the president and the commander-in-chief. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the chairperson [of the NRPC} and can represent the government. But when it comes to the military, it is the commander-in-chief who makes policy, and he is not part of the NRPC. This is a shortfall in the peace architecture.

If there’s to be an effective architecture, then the president has to be there. The president is the one who can bring in the commander-in-chief, deputy-commander in chief and other decision-makers. The absence of this makes the government position itself more as a facilitator than the leader of the peace process.

During his administration, President U Thein Sein formed the UPCC, the Union Peace-making Central Committee. That committee included top leaders in the government [and the Tatmadaw]. The president has to form a new body that can play the ultimate decision-making part in the peace process.

But the Thein Sein administration was seemingly able to steer the process because it was made up of former generals, and therefore had the trust of the Tatmadaw, which the NLD does not. You could change the formal structure of the peace process, but would an NLD president really be able to lead it?

If you never go into water, it’s difficult to say whether or not you can swim. I think it would be worthwhile for the government to try it.

In your report, you cite a misalignment between the civilian government and the Tatmadaw on ‘federal principles’ as another obstacle in the peace process. What do you mean by this?

From our experience of negotiations around the NCA, it’s very critical that the government and Tatmadaw adopt common positions to negotiate with the ethnic armed groups. The government and Tatmadaw should reach some sort of agreement on federal principles, and this is linked to the current constitutional amendment process [launched earlier this year via a parliamentary committee at the initiative of the NLD]. Without agreement between the government and Tatmadaw on constitutional amendments, we can’t have a peace agreement.

The NLD hasn’t shown a list of amendments that it would like to make to the constitution. But a major difficulty is that, if there’s a constitutional amendment in the parliament, the ethnic armed groups will have no ownership over it.

So you think this is a flaw in the current parliamentary initiative – that it’s detached from the peace process? Should the two be joined somehow?

They have to be linked up. The idea of the peace process is, we are trying to make constitutional amendments through political dialogue.

You mention in your report that the Tatmadaw has become more intransigent, more inflexible in negotiations. Is this the biggest obstacle to peace?

The Tatmadaw’s behaviour is mixed. On the military side, the Tatmadaw showed a lot of flexibility in 2018. But on the political side, the Tatmadaw was less flexible [in the third Panglong union peace conference] compared to the second union peace conference. That demonstrates that the Tatmadaw may have a different timeline when it comes to the peace process. The Tatmadaw may not be ready for a political settlement before 2020.

The Tatmadaw might be waiting for a different government after the 2020 election?

We don’t know. We can speculate, but we would rather not speculate.

TOP PHOTO: State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi prepares for a group photo at a peace event in Panglong, Shan State on Union Day, February 12, 2017. (AFP)

By Ben Dunant

By Ben Dunant

Ben Dunant has been working as a journalist and researcher in Myanmar since 2014. He is Managing Editor at Frontier and has also contributed to Voice of America, Nikkei Asian Review, The Diplomat and New Mandala.
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