Khu Oo Reh is the General Secretary of the ethnic alliance the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the Vice Chairman of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP). In this exclusive in-depth interview, Khu Oo Reh talks about the goals of the UNFC, the current state of the peace process and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) talks, as well as the role of the international communitywho are engaging with the Burma Government and fundingthe peace process through institutions such as the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC). The views of the UNFC and ethnic armed organisations, who remain in desperate need of support in order to realise a lasting and sustainable peaceend up too often ignored, overlooked, or misunderstood by international actors. Khu Oo Reh strongly encourages the international community to listen to all sides in order to develop an understanding of the dynamics of the problems they are funding to solve.
Q: When and why was the UNFC founded, and what are the goals of the UNFC?
The UNFC was founded in 2011, just after the 2010 Burmese general election. In 2009, the Burmese military regime forced all the ceasefire armed ethnic groups to transform their troops into Border Guard Forces, or local military militias. By the pressure given by the regime some ethnic armed organisations such as the Kachin Independence Organisation, New Mon State Party, Shan State Progress Party, and a few more, rejected to transform their troops to be Border Guard Forces or local militias. […] Such ethnic armed groups, who had been in ceasefire agreements with the military regime, returned to war against the regime by joining hands with the other ethnic armed groups who were still fighting against the military regime, such as the Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party, and Chin National Front, and also the Palaung National Liberation Front. So such ethnic armed groups, who rejected to transform their troops into Border Guard Forces or local militias, got in touch with other ethnic armed groups, those who were still fighting against the military regime. And we came together, found the way to come together and work hand in hand to fight against the military regime.So we all agreed that havinga federal union that can guarantee democracy, equality, and self-determination,is the only way that we can stop all the problems that we have [had] in our country for over 60 years.
The main goal is to build a federal union based on democracy, equality, and self-determination. […] Within the UNFC we have a 12-member organisation plus four association member organisations, all together 16. Still the RCSS (Restoration Council of Shan State) and the UWSP (United Wa State Party), remain outside of the UNFC, but we have a mutual understanding. We work together on some major issues.
Q: How would you describe the current state of the peace process and the NCA?
Now [we are] ready for political dialogue, as we try very hard to conclude the nationwide ceasefire agreement with the government. We try very hard to come together, but there are still [some groups that are] out of the UNFC, some organisations are still not members of the UNFC. […] … they also should be part of the process,that’s how we understand it. So no matter what, how we are, we should have a common goal, and a common position and worktogether and build our unity. We view that before we go for political dialogue, first we have to stop all the fighting. If we cannot stop the fighting, we cannot smoothly move onto political dialogue. So we all agree that we should stop the fighting first and then move onto another step, because we really want to make sure there is no more fighting in all of the country, the country is in peace. So that is the reason that all the members of the UNFC and non-member organisations came together and worked together on the peace process.
[…] Now we are trying very hard to be there [to have NCA],but we still have some serious issues that need to be agreed with the government, for example  inclusiveness. To be honest we really want to see all the armed ethnic groups come together and sign the NCA. Another thing is  who is going to sign the NCA, we still need to agree on that […]. And also at the signing of the NCA, we want to see  international witnesses included. We propose UN, ASEAN, EU, and some neighbouring countries to be witnesses to ensure that whoever comes into power [after the forthcoming elections] implements the agreement and also [that] the process of the NCA is monitored. Who is going to monitor, if we fail to implement the agreement? So such important issues still remain to be agreed on.
Q: Why is the government trying to exclude the three groups TNLA (Ta’ang National Liberation Army), MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), and AA (Arakan Army) from the NCA?
Their reason is that those groups such as MNDAA, AA, TNLA, still not yet have bilateral agreement with the government, so first they have to enter into bilateral agreement with the government, and then later on they can join the NCA. That is the reason [put forward] by the government.
…for TNLA they said that they are ready to join with the others to sign the NCA at any time. At the same time, they are also ready for talks with the government individually as well to reach a bilateral agreement as soon as possible. But the Burmese military must stop all their military operations in the area first.If they [the Burmese army] are still fighting the group (TNLA) it is hard for them to believe in the government for talks.
Q: Why was the new Senior Delegation (SD) formed to replace the NCCT?
Because the NCCT (Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team)has repeatedly said that they tried their best to negotiate with the government. It is the upmost effort that they could make, no more beyond that, but some issues still remain to be discussed and agreed on. So for those remaining issues the NCCT thought that there should be another new team that can continue the negotiations with the government to be able to finalise this agreement.
Q: What do you expect from the forthcoming general election?
[…] It is the work of the political parties, not for us, but we have a clear stand for the general election. We won’t stop or disturb the election process. It can freely go as it is, but we foresee that even at this time there cannot be a free and fair election as far as we have seen the scenario of the activities by the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) and by the [Burmese] military, and also since the military representatives at the parliament rejected to amend the constitution. So we won’t see a free and fair election, again. So, even though we will still have to negotiate with the new coming government, whether they are new faces or old faces, we don’t really know... We don’t know. But we have to continue our talks with them. If we can conclude the NCA before the election, we still have to implement the agreement after the election with the new government, and also to discuss about the framework for political dialogue. There is still so many agenda and problems [that] remain ahead. So we expect to see more challenges.
Q: What is the UNFC’s position regarding the 2008 Constitution?
We never talk about the 2008 Constitution; we are thinking to have a new one, which could be agreed by all, the entire population in the country. Because our main goal is to build a federal union based on democracy, equality, and self-determination. So when you carefully study the 2008 Constitution [that] they have now … we better have a new one.
Q; The UNFC aims to build a federal army. What is your vision for the federal army?
When the federal union is materialisedwhich we are aiming for, under the federal system we should have a federal army, as we do have a federal government. Within the federal army, all ethnics living in the country should have anequal right to get involved, and participate, and join the position that they deserve. When you look at the Burma Army that we have now in the country, all the senior commanders are Burman, and also Buddhist. If you are a non-Burmanethnic, you cannotenjoy a higher position. […] So we feel it is very unfair.
We are not asking to found a new army, but just to restructure the army that we have in Burma. One army for all, the whole country. No matter [whether] you are Karenni, or you are Shan, you are Burman, we all can enjoy the same rights, the same equalities.
Q: What is the UNFC’s stance regardingSSR (Security Sector Reform) and DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration)?
It heavily depends on the NCA agreement that we will have; how much the agreement can guarantee [a position] for ethnic armed groups. Let me say that after signing of the NCA, if we don’t see any concrete guarantee, or, if we don’t see any promise that could materialise, we will be worried to have SSR or DDR. So itvery [much] depends on the NCA that we are going to sign, how much the agreement will guarantee for us.
Because we worry if there is no concrete agreement or guarantee for us, if we fail to have political dialogue it will be a big danger for us to go back to war once again. Or it will be big challenge how to disarm, or accept the DDR or SSR. But we do understand that for Burma Army and the government, after signing the NCA, they really want us to be ready for SSR and DDR, at any time.
Q: How does history influence the way that ethnic armed organisations feel about this?
We are still not ready for that, because we [are] used to feeling that we are not safe now. So we are worried for our self-defence because of the promises that have been broken [by the government] several times before.
Q: Does the UNFC consult civil society and groups like women’s organisations and refugee representatives about how to proceed with the peace process?
Well we are seriously thinking about the role on the CSOs(civil society organisations), and women, and youth. […] What support they can give, in which way they can help? Because we understand that when the talks for political issues come, they have to get involved.
Now the negotiations that we have with the government and the army are just to stop the fighting, but … there are some other issues to be guaranteed when the political dialogue comes. For example, the role of the political parties and the role of the CSOs, women, and youth. Particularly women’s participation in the processat the political dialogue [stage]. And also if we are going to talk about environmental issues, natural resources or education or health and human rights. So many issues need to be addressed, so those, no matter [whether] they are youth or women or CSOs, they need to represent the issues and address [them] at the talks. So now we UNFC encourage youth,women and CSOs to closely work with us.
Q: In the Law Khee Lah Summit, did the UNFC agree to have 30% women at all levels of talks?
Even [though] we agreed, whether fully 30% can get involved in all levels of talks or making decisions, or making policy or not, depends on them [the women].
If they are qualified to be in the leadership, we have no objection. At the policy making level, decision making level, and so on, it depends on their knowledge and their abilities, and their experience. We have no discrimination on that, we have no specific criteria for that. No matter [whether] you are a man or woman, if you deserve any position that’s where you will be. For example, the KNU Vice-Chairwoman [Naw Zipporah Sein] is a woman, because KNU members think that she deserves that position. The same way within the UNFC, if your own organisation nominates you as their organisation representative to the UNFC,if you qualify to be in one of the higher positions within the UNFC, and all eligible representatives vote for you for that position, finally you are there.
Q:Currently the international community is supporting the peace process mainly through institutions such as the MPC [set up by the government]. What is your view on these peace funds and aretheybenefiting the peace process?
My observation on the internationalinvolvement, also the donor countries [is that] from the very beginning they have [had] the wrong mind-set;they have [had]the wrong thinking about the process that we have now. When they are coming to Burma with the funds in support of the peace process, what they have so far understood is just mainly to engage with the government. [They are] just engaging with the [Burmese] military who has power to manage everything, who has the power to say whatever they want. So they only have one ear [for] listening to the government, listening to the [Burmese] army.
But they don’t care much about the ethnics, they all are intentionally trying to ignore the ethnics. Even [if] a few donor countries are thinking of giving a helping hand to ethnic groups, they are reluctant to do so because the majority [of the] donor countries are mainly happily working with the government through MPC or through other channels. But the problem that we have in the country, without ethnics there can be no peace at all in the country, believe me. If we don’t come for talks with the government and the army, the problems still remain huge. Withoutthe government, peace cannot come in the country either, because all the problems [that] we have in the country are problems all of us, not only the ethnics. That is the reason [why] the government and the army decided to talk with usand we agreed to talk with them, to solve the problems in the country. As the government and the army are in need, we are also in need. The need is huge, so big, and the resources that we have in our handsare not enough, so we do really need it, international support, financially, technically.
So the international community and governments have to come up with their own decision, ‘how should we approach the problem, how should we approach the process? How should we provide our support?’ There should be such a clear agenda. Beforehand,they should have all the information that they need … before they give their support. To truly bring about peace in our country.
But so far, as far as I have seen and I feel, the majority of [the] international community andcountries only have one ear. [They] heavily depend on the government and have very little access to ethnics. When we talk about this, they still disagree; they still argue that ‘oh no, no nono, the majority of our support, our fundsgo to the ethnic areas, very little to the government.’ It is not true. But one thing I can agree with is [that] so many INGO staff officers are coming to ethnic areas, right? But we are still wondering what they are doing there? In three years’ time, we didn’t see any progress, [and] we still don’t see any change, but we understand [that] they have already spent huge amount of money that they have brought from their country. But we also don’t know,where all that money goes? Only the people who engage in their activities will know. ‘Please have a fair treatment, have a fair view, on all sides. And also reach to [on] the ground situation, and find out what the real needs are, and also who are in the situation.’
Q: In your view, if the international community wants to support the peace process, what would be the best way to do that?
Before deciding to deliver support or assistance, first, they should access all groups of people in the country, they should accessall groups who are in the process, and listen to them. And then gather all their points of views, all their needs, and talk with them, which way is the best to give out assistance.
Because the government used to say that ‘oh all these ethnic armed groups are still outlaw organisations, unlawful organisations, so you should not give out any assistance to them.’ That is what the government said to all international communities and governments. And also the international community and governments have their say as well. So if they still have such a view on us, how can you bring about peace? How can you solve the problem?If you don’t have a fair treatment, if you don’t have a fair view, if you don’t have fair judgement, all the problems cannot be solved peacefully.
If they see the government that we have now as the only legal organisation, legal body, who are running the country, how did they come to power? You can ask all the voters, during the general election, whether all the voters, eligible voters, freely had the right to vote for them or not. No! Everybody knows it, no doubt at all, that’s how they came to power. So we should recognise that as a legal government? That is the main reason that we still don’t trust them, and still remain taking up arms to fight against them, not to win them, [for] a solution. The result that we want to see is a win-win solution. Noone to win [over] another, to have a fair position, to have a fair say. That’s all.
Q: What would you like to say to the international community?
Firstly, I would like to thank all international governmentsand communities who are giving a helping hand to us in all ways that they can help. I do truly appreciate that, no matter what. But, in the long run, some have their own interests and some have their own national interest. I’m not in a position to blame them. Only one message that I would like to give is ‘before coming into the country with the interest of giving support to the people in the country, please try to understand the situation, please try to reach out [to] as many people as you can. And come up with your right decision, and make sure that all your assistance goes to the right place, goes to the needy people, truly benefits the people, and truly benefits the whole country.’[…] ‘So don’t only talk to one side, but talk to all sides.Don’t listen to one side, but please listen to all sides. And come up with your own judgement. Whether you do right or wrong, it is in your hands.’ The resources that we have in our hands are not enough to bring peace in the country, so we do understand well,[that] we truly need outside assistance and help.’
[…] We are not hardliners, we are not hard. We are the ones who need peace the most. Nobody wants to suffer, nobody wants to be poor, you see? Everybody wants to be free.
The interview was conducted by Ariana Zarleen at the UNFC office in Chiang Mai on July 24, 2015. Ariana Zarleen is a co-founder and current Program Director of Burma Link, an NGO that spreads awareness of Burma’s ethnic nationalities and displaced people, and shares their voices and stories locally and internationally.