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Myanmar: ‘To overcome the mistrust, it takes time’

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How can Myanmar's peace process become more inclusive – and what can the international community do to help? Martti Ahtisaari and Gro Harlem Brundtland speak to Nyein Nyein and Lin Thant from The Irrawaddy.

CHIANG MAI – The Elders, a group of independent world leaders, paid a visit to Burma and the Burmese community in Thailand last week. It was the group’s second visit to the country in six months to assess the country’s reforms and meet with key figures.

On this visit, The Elders focused on learning about Burma’s peace process and listening to refugees’ voices. The Irrawaddy reporters Nyein Nyein and Lin Thant chatted with delegation members Gro Harlem Bruntlandthe Deputy Chair of the Elders, former Norwegian Prime Minister and former Director-General of the World Health Organization – and Martti Ahtisaari – the former President of Finland and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The pair discussed their trip and gave their views on the peace process and the situation for refugees on Burma’s borders.

The Irrawaddy: What is The Elders’ role in Burma’s peace process?

Gro Harlem BrundtlandGro Harlem Bruntland: Our impression is that they – both the government and the leadership across the border – are willing to meet us, which is important. We are grateful for that, which is why we can come back and continue a dialogue and discussion with them. We are not mediators. We want to have a supporting role, getting to know key people in the process and encourage the process.

How would you evaluate your meeting with Burma President Thein Sein and the military’s Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in Nay Pyi Taw?

Gro Harlem BrundtlandGro Harlem Bruntland: The main points are they are working to promote the peace, to get ceasefires and to start the political dialogue and to deal with the constitutional questions. They are expressing this as their intentions, as you can imagine. We hear all voices when we meet groups who are experiencing conflicts, feelings and concerns, who are not happy, who feel things are too slow and who don’t trust.

We get a picture that there are considerable distances between different parties to this conflict, that there are problems to be overcome. Also compared to their intentions and their hopes we heard half a year ago, things are going slowly, as you know. The chief peace negotiator [Minister Aung Min] whom we also met twice, [hoped for a quick peace process], which has not been fulfilled. We can observe there is much to be overcome and a lot of issues that need to be addressed in the political dialogue, because there are no clear solutions to many of the issues.

Martti AhtisaariMartti Ahtisaari: We have been involved with conflicts all over the world. I don’t think conflict in Myanmar is any different from those, in a sense. There is enormous mistrust. Yet it is a natural thing and it takes a long time before people can overcome mistrust. You sit and you talk, and the dialogue hopefully is inclusive in a society so that people can feel they have a chance to express what they think. Perhaps some of their views can be taken into consideration in the peace process. But the important thing is to encourage people to move forward now.

As you said, both parties play a key role in the ceasefire and political dialogue. In the case of Burma, the Tatmadaw is one of the key players. But, in reality, it is still fighting in northern Shan State and Kachin State, and other areas. Did you discuss this issue with Min Aung Hlaing?

Gro Harlem BrundtlandGro Harlem Bruntland: We have asked questions. In fact there still are conflicts going on. Also he [Min Aung Hlaing] explained in the last four weeks or so, it is less than it was in January and February. Again it moves maybe in the right direction, although there is no stopping of every conflict yet. And there is not really a fully agreed ceasefire either. So it illustrates the need to get to the point of ceasefire, a reality, so that people can get peace, and feel confident in their own areas. It is not easy to have political dialogue when shooting is happening. This is again an argument: it is important to get to a ceasefire so we can avoid these kinds of incidences which create uncertainty and fear in the people.

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Martti Ahtsaari meet staff from PU-AMI at a hospital in Mae La refugee camp.

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Martti Ahtsaari meet staff from aid organisation PU-AMI at a hospital in Mae La refugee camp.

You also visited a camp for internally displaced persons in Myitkyina, Kachin State, and a refugee camp in the Burmese-Thai border and learnt about the peace process and the healthcare situation for those people. How would you describe the situation? And what should the international community be doing about that?

Gro Harlem BrundtlandGro Harlem Bruntland: We will urge and encourage a more inclusive process, to listen to the different groups, including thinking about the importance of expertise and training that has been going on, on health and education in the border areas here – so that that capacity there does not get lost, but is used and incorporated into a future peace situation. We have been asking those questions. Also the chief minister in Kachin State explained that health and education are crucial. They are raising conflict about the uses of natural resources, and human rights issues. But development means human rights to the people, for health and education…. You invest in the people of your country, so they are healthy and educated.

Martti AhtisaariMartti Ahtisaari: I must say that we both have been visiting many camps in our lifetimes. Both camps we visited, we were impressed, because they were well run – the people were very professional and hard-working. You always know when you see children; they cannot act. It is always nice when you walk around and see smiles on their faces. We feel very comfortable when seeing that sort of professionalism there. What we of course notice is that many have not seen anything else except the camp. It is important that we encourage the international community to continue its assistances because the conflict is not yet over. Discussions are starting more or less because the political dialogue has not properly even started yet. We can tell that there are issues when we meet our colleagues in different international organisations, in public debate and so on. It was a very positive visit to those camps, but it is always impressive when you see how well people are taking care and they themselves are actively participating in that process.

Gro Harlem Bruntland: It illustrates also that there is human capacity built into those clinics [like the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot] and those camps. They are valuable to the future of Myanmar and should be taken care of, should be used.

What would be your suggestion to solve Burma’s conflicts and the problems it is facing in its transition to democracy?

Gro Harlem BrundtlandGro Harlem Bruntland: I think, as I said before, more inclusiveness, listening to all the different ethnic groups and other groups in such a way that political dialogue can be real and include all the needs and the points of view, it is a broad range. The inclusiveness is necessary.

Martti AhtisaariMartti Ahtisaari: There has not been that much dialogue, as conflict has been raging for decades. So it is not easy to move from that to an inclusive process. We know that from all over the world; that it is the best medicine at this stage. It is very demanding and not an easy process, because people – government particularly  had not been inclusive in the past. They have different behaviours and patterns. To change that is a challenge. We need wisdom, both wise men and women, now on all sides; common wisdom in society. We have seen very wise individuals as we have been talking to them. It is our task to help them and try to encourage them and recognise that at the same time, it is not a very smooth route. To overcome the mistrust, it takes time.

This interview was first published by The Irrawaddy.

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