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Both government and military must agree on ethnic issues

(Interview) - Because the new Burmese civilian government and the Burmese army are contending for power, initially the government needs to negotiate among its own members to establish peace in the nation, said Naing Han Tha, the general secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). The UNFC’s six member organizations are the Karen National Union (KNU), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Chin National Front (CNF), Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA). Mizzima correspondent Tun Tun interviewed Naing Han Tha on ethnic issues, a cease-fire agreement and UNFC policy.

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Question: What is the major demand of UNFC members?

Answer: We are a multi-ethnic country, so our major demand is to build a genuine federal union. Ethnic people need to have autonomy and racial equality. In short, our demand is to build a genuine union based on the Panglong Agreement of 1947.
 
Question: The government said that the country is a ‘Union system.’ You want a federal system in accordance with the Panglong Agreement. What’s the difference?

Answer: For us, first of all, we want to build a genuine union, and then we can promote national unity.  But the ruling new government cannot understand this. We think that the government degrades non-Burman ethnic people as secondary citizens. And the government wants ethnic people to follow its leadership and it wants a ‘one central government system.’ We cannot accept this. That’s the difference.
 
Under the ruling government, Burma comprises states. But we do not have regional opportunities and autonomy in the states. For example, ethnic people cannot officially study their relevant native languages and their own literature in the states. So, it is impossible to accept a system of so-called states where we cannot enjoy our rights.
 
Question: The new Burmese government urged groups to establish peace through Parliament. Does the UNFC have any plans to try to make peace through Parliament?
 
Answer: We don’t have any plan to work in the Parliament, and I don’t think we can do it because we are not MPs, and the 2008 Constitution has limitations. If we do activities in accordance with the Constitution, we will not be able to work freely.
 
Question: Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a nationwide cease-fire from the government and all ethnic groups and offered to mediate between both sides. Do you think that her offer can be implemented?
 
Answer: As for us, we welcome her effort. We support it. It is a task Aung San Suu Kyi should do. But, whether her effort will be fruitful or not mainly depends on the ruling government.
 
Question: Although the president has talked about peace, government troops have launched offensives against ethnic armed groups. Some observers have said that it this is a problem regarding power sharing between the president and the army. Do you agree?

Answer: We think so. Even after the 2010 election, the government does not have absolute power and the army is separate from the government. The Parliament is separate from the army. Power has been shared based on former Senior-General Than Shwe’s strategy. So, every time they do something, we have to think, ‘What are they really doing? Do they have the authority and power? Do all agree about the issue?’ Sometimes it’s difficult to know, and we have to consider everything.
 
Question: So to achieve national peace, the president and the army have to agree first.

Answer: Yes. That’s needed. I think negotiating between them is really needed.  Some of them may want to solve political problems via peaceful ways while some may want to use military means. They need to negotiate (between themselves) on the ethnic issues, and they all need to reach agreement. For instance, some of them may want to grant ethnic people some rights, while some may not agree. If they have different views, it will be difficult to establish a basic framework of ground rules on discussions about ethnic issues.
 
Question: If there were an opportunity, what would the UNFC tell the government to do first?

Answer: Do not launch military offensives against ethnic armed groups. If they do not launch offensives, we won’t fight. Then we can gain understanding and agree to negotiate a temporary cease-fire. Then, we will find ways to hold political dialogues. If they do that, we can negotiate.

We want the junta [government] to stop fighting, especially in Kachin, Shan and Karen states. We want the government to order a nationwide cease-fire. We would honour that agreement.

Question: And what if the Burmese army does not stop fighting?

Answer: Then in self-defense we [ethnic armed groups] will cooperate with each other and resist; we believe that we have no other options.

In our nation, civil war has raged for more than 60 years.  On the other hand, our nation is rich in vast natural resources. But, because of the civil war, we cannot enjoy the benefits from natural resources.

Our country is underdeveloped and poor. People have faced many problems. Due to the civil war, not only ethnic people have suffered, but also [ethnic] Burmans who cannot enjoy the country’s independence. A civil war doesn’t benefit any racial group or the nation. So, if we choose military options, the problems will not be solved. The best way is to find a political solution to solve the problems as quickly as possible.