‘So few ethnic party MPs in parliament will cause serious weaknesses when discussing ethnic affairs’


Dr. Manam Tu Ja

Dr. Manam Tu Ja, former vice-chairman of KIO and now the leader of the Kachin State Democratic Party which won four seats in the Nov. 8 elections, at his home on Jan 6, 2016. (Thin Lei Win/Myanmar Now)

Manam Tu Ja is a well-known Kachin leader, who served 34 years in the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). He led the KIO delegation that participated in the military-run National Convention, a controversial process that resulted in the drafting of the 2008 constitution. 

The 70-year-old was vice-president of KIO when he left the organisation in 2009 to enter the world of party politics, but his Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP) was barred from registering for the flawed 2010 general elections. Ahead of the historic 2015 vote, the trained dentist formed the Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP), which fielded 55 candidates, ultimately winning four seats, including one in national Parliament. He lost his race in Myitkyina constituency. 

During the Nov. 8 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won by a landslide, crushing the army-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and surprising many by also winning big in ethnic minority-dominated areas where ethnic political parties had expected to do well. In Kachin State, two Kachin parties, including the KSDP, only managed to win a total of five seats. 

Myanmar Now chief correspondent Thin Lei Win spoke to Dr.Tu Ja at his home in Myitkyina about the future of the peace process, the continued fighting in Kachin State, and what the election results mean for ethnic parties such as KSDP and their demands for federalism.

Question: What are your thoughts on the results of the Nov. 8 elections? 

Answer: The National League for Democracy (NLD) is the only party, among the big ones, that could bring about change on a national scale. And there’s only (one) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. That’s why everyone voted for them. 

We are heading towards a federal union. The president said it in his Independence Day speech recently. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also mentioned this. The only question is what kind of federalism this is going to be. The meaning of “federal” concerns self-administration, equality, power-sharing and resource-sharing. If we are going in this direction, in the states, ethic leaders will have to manage their states. But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said that the first priority of their party is to achieve peace, then a federal union. Now, the NLD has just swept to power, but once they have settled down, I believe the NLD will share power between the state level and the central level. We will still be in this transition process for four to five years.

We pay proper regard to NLD, but they should also understand that after they have formed a government and embarked on programmes, they should not ignore ethnic parties or capable persons from ethnic groups. The main thing is to form a strong and stable government led by the NLD and staffed with capable people.  

Q: Are there any contacts between Kachin leaders and the NLD? Any plans for discussions? 

A: They are very busy at the moment. Their senior members, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have said they have plans to hold discussions with ethnic parties and to include other parties in their government. But there have not been any discussions as yet. The election results show that the number of ethnic candidates in Parliament is very low. There are ethnic candidates from the NLD in Parliament but we’d like to see more candidates from the ethnic parties there. Except for (MPs from) Rakhine and Shan states, there are very few. This would lead to serious weaknesses when discussing ethnic affairs. Ethnic affairs play a crucial role in the peace-making process in Myanmar. There would be peace only when this issue is discussed in detail and solutions are found. 

Q: Do you think vote-splitting was the reason for the failure of ethnic political parties during the elections, or was it because voters only looked at the national rivalry between NLD and USDP? 

A: One thing that is different in Kachin compared to Rakhine, Shan, Pa-O and Palaung areas is that (the Kachin) have more separate political parties and also (groups) of different faiths (Buddhist, Baptist, Catholic, etc). Some are biased and only favour their own religion. No matter how much we urged the voters to vote based on people’s capabilities and to not have any party or religious biases, some didn’t accept it. We need to take lessons from this for the next 2020 general elections. The parties need to be united, and educate the voters to avoid religious bias.

Q: Do you think the results will make it easier to merge ethnic political parties for the 2020 vote?

A: There are many who are suggesting Kachin parties should be united. We can’t continue in this vein in 2020. 

Q: Do you feel any frustration or dissatisfaction that your party won in only four constituencies?

A: I have to say it’s fortunate that we at least won four seats. In truth, we should have won more seats. In Rakhine, parties urged voters to vote for NLD at the central level, but to vote for Rakhine parties at the state level and that worked very well. Here, the NLD swept all the seats. 

Q: How important is the Union Peace Conference that is being held from Jan. 12 with the ethnic armed groups that signed the so-called nationwide ceasefire accord?

A: This conference is metaphorically dubbed as the second Panglong Conference because it includes ethnic armed groups, political parties, the government, members of Parliament, the military, ethnic representatives and experts from various sectors. Only eight ethnic armed groups signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. There are still 13 armed groups that have yet to sign. These groups would have to hold discussions with the upcoming NLD government and sign the NCA before attending the conference. It will happen this year. Everything would be resolved and the conference would be a success when all the relevant stakeholders from all the ethnic groups could participate. (Editor’s note: the Kachin Independence Army did not sign the NCA.)

Q: Some have criticised the KIO for not signing the NCA and said its inflexibility is the reason why fighting has not stopped. What do you say to that? 

A: It was agreed that the parties would meet in Naypyitaw on Sept. 9 to embark on concrete steps to sign the NCA. Both the president and the army chief were to be present, as well as the chairman, or vice chairman, of the ethnic armed groups. The first disappointment arose when the army chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing went on a trip instead. The government’s peace negotiator U Aung Min explained afterwards that the military chief’s tour was already scheduled. But KIO felt they were not welcomed, that the military doesn’t buy into this (process). 

Another factor was that the government wanted to sign the ceasefire deal only with the big ethnic armed groups whereas the ethnic groups wanted everyone to sign at the same time regardless of size. Thirdly, the KIO asked for cessation of the ongoing military offensive but the request was refused. I’m just being open here, I am not blaming anybody. 

Q: What should be done to raise trust between the two sides?

A: At first, President Thein Sein proposed separate talks with individual ethnic armed groups. But the other side wanted a meeting involving all the stakeholders. The government finally accepted it. The first breakthrough over trust was when the president also accepted that political means are required to resolve political problems. No previous governments had done so. This was the first step of gaining trust (between the two sides). But somehow, when the time came, it did not result in signing (the ceasefire deal). It’s like you’ve already built a new house, and then demolishing it just before house warming. Both sides did not want to give in. We have to take that as a lesson.

Q: Some have criticised the lack of women involved in the peace process. What do you think? 

A: They have to be involved. Our party prioritises women and we don’t discriminate them. But this process is new so it may be that they have little interest or perhaps their qualification is weak, and that’s why the numbers are low. But their participation is increasing daily. They should be involved in both the political dialogue (on peace) and Parliament. The women asked for a 30 percent quota in drafting political framework. I suggested it should be “at least 30 percent,” otherwise it could be seen that you can’t go beyond 30 percent.

Q: Kachin is suffering from the consequences of natural resources extraction. What measures should be taken to tackle it?

A: Resources-sharing and power-sharing are very important. The main issue is the authority of the state governments - how much power do the state governments have. At the moment, everything is controlled by the central government. It’s a central monopoly. The rule of law is weak and that’s why the situation is as it is. Kachin people are the owners of the natural resources in Kachin State. Yet they haven’t seen the benefits of the resources. Instead the resources are almost depleted after being exploited by people who only have their self-interest, working with the authorities. Kachin State is rich in natural resources, but its people are poor. This is because the system is bad.

Q: How long do you think it would take for Myanmar to achieve peace, both in Kachin and beyond?

A: It will not happen overnight. It is likely to take 5 to 10 years. Even the current (peace) conference could be organised only after four or five years of negotiations. This would be held every four months and under the agreement there are many topics to discuss. You’d have to discuss this for three or four years to reach a union-level accord. Then you still have to implement agreements on politics and military affairs. It might not even happen by 2020.

Before, when people said it might take 5 to 10 years I used to think it’s because they are dragging their heels. We are impatient, you see. But look at it now - that’s really how long it takes.

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