The Elders

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Myanmar: finding a shared vision, building trust

In March 2014 Gro Harlem Brundtland and Martti Ahtisaari returned to Myanmar for the Elders’ second visit to the country. They also travelled to the Thailand-Myanmar border to meet communities exiled by more than 60 years of civil war.

The Elders travelled to Nay Pyi Taw, the capital, for meetings with senior officials. They met again with President Thein Sein and discussed with him prospects for a political dialogue with the ethnic minorities, as part of promoting efforts to bring an end to the decades-long civil conflict. They also discussed the challenges of inclusive economic development and the need to amend Myanmar’s constitution.

Concluding the visit, Gro Harlem Brundtland said:

“As the President himself told us during this visit, Myanmar is a young democracy. We would add that it is also an ambitious one, blessed with an incredibly diverse and energetic civil society wanting to fully operate within the democratic process.”

Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces (Tatmadaw) also hosted the Elders for in-depth discussions about the peace process together with his top officers. They spoke about President Ahtisaari’s experience in helping secure a peace agreement in Aceh in 2005. The Elders raised the importance of mutual understanding among all parties if any peace process is to succeed.

Gro Harlem Brundtland commented later:

“Conflicts often weaken or suspend democracy, while democratic institutions designed to build nationwide consensus reduce the risk of internal conflict. All parties to the conflict should contribute wisely and constructively to help bring about this new beginning.”

Earlier in the visit, the Elders met with Thura Shwe Mann (Speaker of the Parliament). This was the Elders’ first meeting with him.

During their conversation, he emphasised that any amendment to Myanmar’s constitution should be made in the national interest, and highlighted the urgency of reaching a nationwide ceasefire to alleviate the suffering caused by the conflict.

During a discussion with U Aung Min – the minister in charge of the peace process, whom the Elders also met on their previous visit – the government’s lead negotiator highlighted the Tatmadaw’s commitment to the latest ceasefire discussions as an encouraging sign that a comprehensive agreement could be reached.

From Nay Pyi Taw the Elders travelled north to Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State, where fighting continues between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army.

At a camp for people displaced by the long-standing conflict, set up in the grounds of a Baptist church, the Elders sat down with the camp’s residents to hear about the conditions under which they were prepared to return to their home villages.

The Elders were received by Kachin State Chief Minister La John Ngan Sai, from the ruling USDP Party, and the Kachin State cabinet.

The Chief Minister told the Elders that that his administration’s priority was to pursue economic development and maintain stability. He emphasised that these two objectives go hand in hand.

In Myitkyina the Elders also heard from a range of civil society groups including the Kachin Women Union, a group of students and local elders.

They expressed a range of concerns about the authorities’ historic treatment of the Kachin people. Citing inadequacies in the design of the nationwide census, difficulties encountered in reaching a ceasefire and the situation faced by internally displaced persons (IDPs), these groups generally expressed a feeling of mistrust towards the government and the Tatmadaw.

After their meetings in Myitkyina, the Elders travelled onward to the Thai side of the Myanmar-Thailand border.

They went to Mae La, a refugee camp established in 1984 to support mostly Karen populations fleeing conflict and discrimination inside Myanmar. The camp hosts more than 40,000 refugees today.

Pastor Robert, who leads the Karen Refugee Committee, described the uncertainty felt by camp residents who face the prospect of one day returning to Myanmar. These refugees feel that they lack adequate information about the situation and opportunities available to them in the country. Many of the younger residents have lived in Mae La most of their lives, or were born in the camp.

At Mae La, the Elders also met with medical staff at a hospital operated by French NGO Première Urgence - Aide Médicale Internationale (PU-AMI), which serves the entire camp’s population. Some patients also travel from outside the camp to receive treatment at the PU-AMI hospital.

Martti Ahtisaari commented:

“It is very impressive to see how these communities have, with international support, built good quality clinics, schools and expertise over several decades. This human capacity, inside Myanmar and in exile, is the very basis upon which to build lasting peace and still needs the support of the international community.”

In the nearby town of Mae Sot, the Elders visited Mae Tao Clinic, a community hospital established by Dr Cynthia Maung in 1989, to support the refugee population and migrants from Myanmar.

Among the health services it provides, the clinic offers prosthetics and rehabilitation for landmine victims, treats malaria and has a paediatric ward.

Martti Ahtisaari later remarked:

“Once a nationwide ceasefire can be agreed by all sides, hopefully soon, there is an opportunity for further trust-building by integrating these services – these doctors and teachers – into the country’s own structures. A country needs a productive, skilled and healthy population ruled by mutual interest and trust.”

In Mae Sot the Elders also met with Karen civil society organisations including the Karen Women’s Organization, Karen Department of Health and Welfare, Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People, Karen Education Department, Karen Youth Organization, and Karen Human Rights Group. In this photo, K’nyaw Paw, General Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, speaks to the Elders.

They described their concerns over Myanmar’s large-scale development projects, in Karen State and elsewhere, especially their worry that these initiatives are moving faster than the peace process. They stressed that responsible development requires political reform and consultation with the local populations.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Elders met members of the Women’s League of Burma to discuss the importance of women’s participation in the peace process.

They feel excluded from peace negotiations, insofar as discussions have focused on the nationwide ceasefire and involved only senior male cadres from the government, army and ethnic armed groups. They highlighted that women have suffered most from the conflict and have a crucial role to play in helping to build long-term peace in the country.

The Elders also met with representatives of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) – an umbrella body for the different ethnic armed groups. In this picture, Martti Ahtisaari is seen speaking to Col. Hkun Okker (Chairman, Pa-o National Liberation Organization) and David Tharckabaw (Vice-President, Karen National Union).

The UNFC representatives expressed cautious optimism mixed with historic reservations about the ceasefire process. They were pleased that all parties had agreed to work on the same version of the ceasefire proposal rather than promoting different texts. They were keen to move quickly to the next stage, a national political dialogue on future constitutional arrangements in Myanmar, after the planned national ceasefire accord.

On the last day of the visit, Editor-in-Chief of Democratic Voice of Burma Aye Chan Naing interviewed the Elders in Chiang Mai. Giving his impressions on the visit, Martti Ahtisaari said in the interview:

“People have to feel they have a stake in the peace process. When they can express their views and concerns – and these are discussed – this paves the way for a totally new beginning in the society.”

Gro Harlem Brundtland added:

“Both parties have to have more patience than they have ever had. The government has to make this as all-inclusive as possible.”

Photos: Kaung Htet / The Elders

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