‘Ideal peacemaker’: Nobel Prize nominee says Cambodia best suited to solve Myanmar crisis

File photo of the Karen National Liberation Army and People’s Defence Force examining two detained soldiers after they captured an army outpost in the southern part of Myawaddy township in Kayin state, Myanmar, March 11, 2024. - AP

SPEAKING to Khmer Times in an exclusive interview, a renowned Myanmar activist and 2024 Nobel Peace Prize nominee proposed that Cambodia take a leading role within Asean, in cooperation with the two more powerful nations in Asia, to bring real peace and ceasefire to that war-torn country, an initiative he describes as the “Phnom Penh Peace Process.”

Maung Zarni is a UK-exiled Myanmar human rights activist, well-known for his strong opposition to the violence in Rakhine State and the Rohingya refugee crisis.

He also founded and led the Free Burma Coalition, which spearheaded the Internet-based human rights movement leading to a successful international boycott against Myanmar’s military regime from 1995 to 2004. Zharni also serves as a fellow of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

In mid-April this year, the Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia (FORSEA) and the Free Rohingya Coalition (FRC) jointly announced that the renowned Northern Irish peace activist Mairead Corrigan Maguire, herself a recipient of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, had nominated Zarni for the prestigious prize.

If Zarni wins the award, he would be the second Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Burma or Myanmar. The first winner from the South-East Asian country was Aung San Suu Kyi, the former State Counsellor of Myanmar, who remains under house arrest, according to the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar military, which overthrew the democratically-elected government three years ago.

Appearing on a Cross-Talk episode yesterday, Zarni said being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize is a great honour for him, but the continuous deadly battle in his country still leaves him downhearted.

“Ten years ago, we had Aung San Suu Kyi working together with the Myanmar military to open up the country to normalise Myanmar’s relations with ASEAN as well as with Western countries and international organisations, but since the military coup three years ago, the country’s young people have risen up because they could not push for peaceful democratic transition,” he said.

“We have widespread armed rebellions against the military junta across the country,” he said.

Zarni claimed that over 50% of Myanmar’s territories have been falling into the hands of different ethnic armed organisations, and he described that as “a good thing.”

“It’s a good thing that different ethnic groups, different organisations, and different movements are reclaiming administrative autonomy and control of their own regions,” he explained.

“The Burmese public has been very pleased as armed resistance organisations such as the Karen National Union, Arakan Army, or others have reclaimed autonomy because the country can only experience peace if we have a political system that treats every group freely and equally rather than one group, whether it’s the military or Burmese ethnic group, controlling everything and acting as if they were colonial masters, which is a recipe for conflict.”

Zarni said that the morale of the junta’s army is now very low, as proven by “desertion and losses of military bases all over the country. However, he added that acts of violence are still being committed in places all over the country, particularly in the Western state against the Rohingya refugee.

According to the statement released by 28 non-governmental organisations representing Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim refugees from Rakhine State on Wednesday, the Arakan Army has ordered Rohingya residents to evacuate Buthidaung downtown, where one-third of survivors of the 2017 genocide live, by May 18, using the directive with threats, violence, and arson.

“According to eyewitnesses, in the past 5 days, thousands of homes have been burned while there are lootings and some killing,” Zarni said. “Meanwhile, tens of thousands have been evacuated from their homes and are now living in the wild without food or medicine.”

Nevertheless, he assures that there is still a way out and hope for peace and a ceasefire in Myanmar, in spite of the complexity.

“It is just a matter of different groups having the will to fight or to make peace,” he said. “We (the people of Myanmar) have been fighting since independence in 1948. It keeps going on.”

Zarni said Cambodia, Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN member state, is a great example for Myanmar to follow, given the Kingdom’s experience through years of civil war and success story in bringing peace to the people.

“You went through a genocide and lost 2 million people in the Khmer Rouge, but the current leadership of Cambodia managed to get the international community to take an interest, and after the genocide, they eventually had the Paris (Peace) Conference and Agreements, which were part of the peace process,” he said.

Zarni went on to praise the win-win policy initiated by former Prime Minister Hun Sen, which saw the Khmer Rouge force integrated into the new society while the top Khmer Rouge leaders were later captured and placed on trial.

“It is painful, as I understand it, but no one was attacking each other again after 20 years of civil war after the genocide,” he added. “I believe something like this should happen again.”

Zarni suggests that Cambodia take a leading role in what he called “the Phnom Penh Peace Process” to bring peace to his country and people while the Asian powers, including China, India, and other ASEAN countries provide their support and assistance to the process, starting with the overall recognition that Myanmar is not able to build peace itself.

“Maybe we can have the Phnom Penh Peace Process and the Phnom Penh Peace Conference, where everybody would be brought in,” he said. “The key is that the Junta must be put under pressure by China, making sure that everyone needs to join this process.”

Zarni said former Prime Minister and current Senate President Hun Sen has shown enough willingness to address the issue by asking to meet Aung San Suu Kyi during a meeting with Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, although the request has been denied.

“The situation has changed now; Ang San Suu Ky no longer has the authority to tell the entire society to make peace,” he explained. “That’s why the peace process must involve the leaderships of different armed organisations, as Aung San Suu Kyi alone can no longer be a dialogue partner with the military.”

“The military junta needs to be told that the Asian powers want to facilitate the peace process, and Cambodia is the best place.”

Zarni believes that the Western powers, including the US and European Union, have never brought any real solution to the Myanmar crisis.

“All they have are sanctions and punishment; they are not working,” he explained. “We need to find a different approach that has to involve both China, India, and Asean. If this can be arranged, the military junta will submit to this kind of process.”

Zarni clarified that the concept he believes in does not involve separating Myanmar into different entities, despite the people’s diversity and the existence of multiple armed organisations.

“If you have worked out just a few principles, first everybody stopped shooting, say for three months, while all parties stay where they are; nobody attacks anybody,” he said. “Then the junta must agree to talk to everybody.”

“The country must follow a federal system, meaning that different groups share or discuss to share the leadership and the power. Non-Bama or Myanmar ethnic nationalities want authority to administer their own regions.

"That is legitimate and needs to be respected. The military will say they do not want to be punished when they share power. Everything must be done in order to bring humanitarian aid to those who have been displaced and students going back to schools and universities.”

He was alluding to situation in which the junta leaders would only agree to share power if they are not punished by the other parties.

While this might be an extremely complicated process, Zarni said he trusts Hun Sen to be able to lead efforts to bring about peace.

“I think former Prime Minister Hun Sen has the right ideas, but his ideas need to be expanded to include the new but very important players, which are ethnic resistance leaders, not just Ang San Suu Kyi,” he added.

Zarni believes that a zero sum victory against the Myanmar military or “the junta collapse” is not conceivable, noting that protracted civil war, which in fact began in the year of Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948, has devastated the society, economy and nation building.

The civil war has only benefited outside great powers and it is time for all groups to wage peace, he said. - KHMER TIMES

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