U Hla Maung Shwe began working as a senior advisor to the Myanmar Peace Centerand as a secretary in the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) under former president U Thein Sein’s administration. He has continued to advise the government’s peace team under the National League for Democracy-led administration.Freelance reporter Chit Min Tun from the Mon News Agency interviewed U Hla Maung Shwe to ask him about changes to the peace process, and current challenges, including those posed by ethnic armed groups that recently announced they do not support the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The seven [newly allied] ethnic armed groups from the northeast have said they don’t want to sign the NCA. They said they will follow an alternative path to peace that does not include the NCA. The Tatmadaw, the government and the Hluttaw say they will follow the NCA. Are there any plans to negotiate this divide?
A: The policy given to us is to negotiate in line with the NCA, this is the path that has currently been laid out. We will negotiate with any groups that recognise this path.
We can meet the groups separately or as a group of four, but the meeting needs to be in line with the NCA path. We understand that we can’t meet with new groups.
Q: The government won’t meet with the seven northern groups together [they have declared that they will only meet together, as a bloc]. How will you overcome this stumbling bloc to negotiate for peace? Isn’t it better to meet first and find solutions for the disagreements?
A: The non-NCA path won’t work for us.
Q: Three journalists and a member of an ethnic armed organization which has signed the NCA have [in two separate incidents] been arrested under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act. Can this have any impact the peace process?
A: Trust-building is essential to the peace process. I believe both sides will be able to reduce these difficulties if they trust each other. In our view, this Section 17 (1) and (2) [of the Unlawful Association Act] are obstacles that need to be overcome in order to pave the way for trust building.
Q: Some people are calling for a review of the NCA. What’s your view on this since you were also involved in the peace process as it was carried out by the former U Thein Sein administration?
A: The NCA did not come into existence so easily. We had to negotiate by trying our best to build trust while the two sides were engaged in fighting each other. I believe nobody should carry out [such a review] irresponsibly.
The NCA outlines policies. [The EAOs] have the right to discuss the framework for political dialogue and the ToR [Terms of Reference]. So, the NCA doesn’t need to be reviewed because we can negotiate the specifics of the framework and the ToR. I believe it can be done when both sides meet again.
Q: I heard that there is a new peace negotiation path being established by the NDAA [National Democratic Alliance Army] and the UWSA [United Wa State Army]. Is it a separate agreement or is it a kind of negotiation under the NCA?
A: As far as I understand, the ceasefire agreement between the Tatmadaw and the NDAA and the UWSA is one of the longest ceasefire agreements in the world. As long as there aren’t any conflicts between the two sides, it would be easier to negotiate with them for the NCA. That’s the kind of approach being taken in dealing with them.
But, the current policy is under the NCA, so they are included under the NCA path.
Q: U Thein Sein’s government didn’t allow the LDU [Lahu Democratic Union], the WNO [Wa National Organization] or the ANC [Arakan National Council] to sign the NCA, but they were allowed to attend the political dialogue. If other members of [the United Nationalities Federal Council – UNFC] sign the ceasefire, will these three members be allowed to sign now as well?
A: We are now discussing this issue with the DPN [Delegation for Political Negotiation]. These groups are included in the DPN under the UNFC. They will sign the ceasefire agreement when we finish the discussions with the DPN if everything goes well. When these groups sign the NCA, they won’t be signing as the UNFC. Each group will have to sign it separately. The previous eight groups did the same. So I believe they will have to sign it separately.
Q: Lastly, I want to know about how you will open the path for the northern groups currently engaged in ongoing fighting – the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army (AA) – to take part in the peace dialogue.
A: We have been instructed to negotiate within the NCA path so we will follow this instruction. We will help these [ethnic armed organizations] by clarifying whatever things they might be unclear about.
Another thing is…that we need to find a solution to signing the NCA by quickly overcoming the eight-point [proposal or preconditions laid out by the UNFC before they agree to sign the ceasefire pact]. Respective leaders will decide after they meet. No matter what group it is, the organizations we have recognised will need to try to achieve the national reconciliation via political dialogues after they sign the NCA.
There is no other way forward for us except for the organizations to first sign the NCA and try to achieve national reconciliation via the national-level political dialogues and the Union Peace Conferences – also called the 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference. Afterward, we can end the peace process and start building the federal democratic Union.