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Myanmar returns to Panglong after 70 years of ethnic strife

"In our country, we have so many minorities, so many ethnic people," says Nai Thet Lwin, Myanmar's newly created minister for ethnic affairs. "We have to think about them -- we can't leave them behind."

YANGON -- Nai Thet Lwin, 75, is Myanmar's new minister for ethnic affairs. He heads a ministry recently created by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to take in hand the local insurgencies that have bedeviled the country since independence from Britain in early 1948.

When Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) government came into office on April 1, she instructed all her ministers to produce 100-day plans, which are expected to be implemented soon. Later, at a ceasefire joint monitoring committee (JMC) in Naypyitaw, Suu Kyi called for a 21st-century Panglong Conference at the end of July or early August. The historic Panglong Agreement in early 1947 in Shan state was an unprecedented understanding between the central government and some of the countries larger ethnic groups. It was organized by Suu Kyi's father, pre-independence hero General Aung San, who was assassinated the same year.

In October last year, the government of President Thein Sein signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight of 15 ethnic armed groups that had agreed to come to the negotiating table. While the oldest insurgency of the Karen National Union signed, holdouts included the relatively well-armed United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army.

Nai Thet Lwin studied philosophy at university, and in his business career worked in the rubber, food, and hospitality industries. He entered politics in 1958, joined the Mon Development Party in 1961, and was involved in 1988's nationwide prodemocracy uprising. He was elected for Mawlamyine in the 1990 general election that was ignored by the ruling military, or tatmadaw, and was later chairman of the Mon National Party. The minister believes that after a nationwide ceasefire, equal rights for all will be attainanable under a revised constitution, and are a prerequisite for "genuine federal democracy". He recently spoke with the Nikkei Asian Review. Edited excerpts:

Q: What is the role of the ministry of ethnic affairs?

A: Previous governments had no such ministry. The NLD government has reduced the number of other ministries to prioritize ethnic affairs. In our country, we have so many minorities, so many ethnic people. We have to think about them -- we can't leave them behind. If we want peace, we have to come up with an inclusive agreement. A law to protect ethnic minorities was promulgated in February 2015, but there was no ministry to enforce it in those days. Now a minister has been appointed to create this ministry, and we must work hard for ethnic rights and to protect different cultures.

Q: President Thein Sein's government also tried to address these issues. How will you make a difference?

A: The new government is trying to establish a democratic federal union. But first of all, we have to hold a 21st century Panglong-style conference. We need political dialogue with all minority groups. The new president, Htin Kyaw, spoke at his inauguration speech about national reconciliation, federalism, and peace.

Q.:How will federal democracy here be different?

A: Federal democracy has yet to be constructed in our country. It exists in different forms in the U.S., Switzerland, some European Union countries, Canada, Australia, and India. All our nationals must agree on federalism, but I can't say what form it will take until after the conference.

Q: You are a Mon in a country that is majority Burman. What will federalism give ethnic minorities?

A: Equal rights. If we have equal rights in all areas, there will be no more clashes. Those in minority areas will not need to ask permission from central government all the time. Their respective chief ministers can make decisions for themselves.

Q: All the current regional chief ministers were appointed in March by the ruling NLD.

A: According to the 2008 constitution, the president appoints chief ministers. If we can amend the constitution, regional parliaments will be able to appoint their own. There will not be chief ministers appointed by the president.

Q: How long will it take to amend the constitution?

A: After the nationwide ceasefire agreement, there will be political dialogue. It must be inclusive with the tatmadaw, ethnic armed groups, and nongovernmental organizations involved. Then a new constitution must be agreed by all, and the 2008 state constitution can be overhauled.

Q: Can these processes be accomplished in this government's five-year term?

A: The president and state counselor cannot dictate a timeline. Since everybody voted for the NLD, you can see what the people's desire is, but we will have to wait and see. If they can't change in five or 10 years, we may lose track of the path to democracy. If there is more international pressure, we may get what we want. The peace process is very important, but we can't do it alone at the ministry. The president and state counselor will need to be involved, and we will help.

Q: What is happening with the ceasefire?

A: The tatmadaw does not want to negotiate with the Arakan Army or the Ta Aung Palaing National Liberation Army, but Suu Kyi wants everyone included. She wants political matters sorted out with political dialogue. I think the tatmadaw should also accept that.

Q: Some ethnic groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Arakan Army want to retain their arms. Does this fit in with genuine federal democracy?

A: There must be only one tatmadaw, and only one commander in chief. If the big groups accept, the smaller groups will automatically fall in line. As far as I know, all groups would prefer peace to bearing arms.

Q. During more than 50 years of military rule, there was also suppression of ethnic culture and education.

A: Not only education and culture, but the economy as well. With no job opportunities, people went abroad. I would like big countries like Japan to give us assistance now.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Thurein Hla Htway

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