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Myanmar minister highlights potential peace dividends

TOKYO -- Myanmar's protracted peace process is entering a new phase that could ultimately see the focus shift from cease-fire to economic development, foreign investment and job creation in ethnic states, according to the country's minister in charge of peace talks.

Aung Min being interviewed in Tokyo (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

     "Once we achieve peace, there will be many problems that we have to tackle," Aung Min told the Nikkei Asian Review during a mid-April visit to Tokyo. "About 100,000 demobilized soldiers will be coming into cities, and we have to bring back 350,000 refugees, 450,000 internally displaced people. So we'll have to undertake demining, provide them shelters, food and allowances -- and we have to create jobs for them," he said. "If we can't create jobs, they might go back to armed struggle ... so job creation is very very important."

     The first priority, he said, was to finalize an unprecedented March 31 deal between the government and an alliance of 16 key ethnic armed groups on a proposed cease-fire text. A nationwide cease-fire pact would pave the way for political dialogue between ethnic groups, political parties, the military, government and others involved in the process. If such dialogue is launched before the September campaign period for national elections, the peace process could be sustained through the planned November poll, Aung Min noted.

     Much depends on the response of ethnic armed groups. "As far as the government is concerned, the [provisional cease-fire] agreement is acceptable and we are not trying to change anything," Aung Min said. "Once ethnic leaders approve the agreement, there will be a signing ceremony. Immediately after that, we will start working on the framework for political dialogue," he added.

     Leaders of the ethnic coalition have agreed to meet for a rare summit in early May -- a crucial step in order to finalize the agreement and launch the next phase of talks, he said.

     "If we don't start [political dialogue] in the next few months, the next administration might have to start the whole process from scratch -- in that sense, this is not a means to an end but an end in itself." Asked about his own political prospects, Aung Min said it was too early to determine whether President Thein Sein, who came to power in early 2011, would run again for a parliamentary seat in order to be eligible for another term. Under the constitution, parliament chooses the president some months after the election.

     Among numerous reform initiatives, Thein Sein and his administration have staked much on the peace process. In that respect, ongoing fighting in the country's northeast -- particularly around the Kokang region bordering China's Yunnan province -- remains a big concern. An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 people have been displaced by heavy fighting that has killed more than 130 soldiers and unconfirmed numbers of rebels since it erupted in February.

"No go" zones

More significant however, the Kokang rebel group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, is one of several groups not recognized by the government as part of the ethnic coalition. Some ethnic representatives seem ready to proceed without its participation while others have insisted the group could join later. Aung Min said the government would launch a separate peace initiative with the group at some point.

     Beyond the immediate push for a cease-fire, the government sees economic development as vital to sustainable peace, said Aung Min. But investors -- particularly foreign companies -- regard these former conflict areas as "no go" zones.

   Myanmar has just introduced special economic zones -- the first of which is Thilawa, a Japanese-led project near Yangon -- but Aung Min said the fastest way to draw investment to ethnic areas was to build industrial zones, which do not require special legislation.

   This would help simplify the investment process in ethnic areas, although it would require extra guarantees of protection of ethnic rights as well as of investors, he noted. In both business and development, a greater role for Japan would be "highly valued" despite a mixed history of bilateral relations over the past few decades, Aung Min noted.

    Overall, Japan has become Myanmar's biggest foreign aid donor after waiving nearly $4 billion of its debt. Politically, however, Tokyo has expressed disappointment at being denied observer status in Myanmar's peace talks. China and the United Nations have been observers at peace talks since 2013.

     The government is "seriously working on improving Japan's role in our peace process [that] remains an important area for Japanese assistance," Aung Min said.

     China -- which has drawn criticism for the inequitable nature of some of its vast infrastructure projects in Myanmar -- remains a "strategic partner," but in terms of investments and loans, it was important for Myanmar to diversify its relationships, he noted.

See excerpts from the interview:

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