We are not hardliners – we are the ones who want peace the most’: Khu Oo Reh, General Secretary of UNFC
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 community who are engaging with the Myanmar Government and funding the 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 peace end 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.
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 having a 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.
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 work together 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.
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 do 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.
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.
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 and by the military, and also since the military representatives at the parliament rejected to amend the constitution.
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.
What is the UNFC’s stance regarding SSR (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 it very [much] depends on the NCA that we are going to sign, how much the agreement will guarantee for us.
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.
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 are they benefiting the peace process?
My observation on the international involvement, 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.
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.
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.
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 access all groups who are in the process, and listen to them. And then gather all their points of view, all their needs, and talk with them, which way is the best to give out assistance.
What would you like to say to the international community?
Firstly, I would like to thank all international governments and 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.’
[…] 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 Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities and displaced people, and shares their voices and stories locally and internationally.
Khu Oo Reh.