From the moment it took power earlier this year, Myanmar's new administration has promoted peace as its top priority. Authorities are pinning their hopes on the 21st Century Panglong Conference, named for the Panglong Agreement held in 1947 in a village by the same name in Shan State. Although it may be the best chance of achieving peace that the country has had for decades, the military could still derail it.
The meeting was chaired by Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended with an agreement on a federal Constitution. The text was discarded following Gen. Ne Win's 1962 putsch but nonetheless has come to represent an example of how the central government and the ethnic minorities can cut a deal on mutual coexistence.
That is why it comes as little surprise that the new administration is trying present the new meeting as a successor to the one held nearly 70 years ago. The current government came to power in fair elections, enjoys widespread popular support – even among ethnic minorities, who by and large voted for it – and is headed by Suu Kyi, whose personal prestige is lending credibility to the peace negotiations.
Even so, the road to peace is likely to prove difficult as a multitude of hurdles stand in the way, from a poorly defined vision of federalism to the thorny issue of sharing natural resources, which are abundant but mostly concentrated in ethnic areas. So complicated is the matter that it is not even clear what will be on the table when the conference finally takes off. It was supposed to be held in early July and has already been postponed twice.
One of the few certainties is that the new administration's main task is dealing with the military, the Tatmadaw, which remains powerful and is largely independent from civilian authorities. The 2008 Constitution grants the armed forces de facto veto power over constitutional amendments, as well as the right to choose the ministers of home affairs, border affairs and defense. The text also entitles the military to a majority in the National Defense and Security Council and the right to take over sovereign power if threats to the unity of the country arise.
The Tatmadaw's support is essential if peace is to be achieved, but their position is far from clear. When a National Ceasefire Agreement was signed last October, it was hardly national, since only eight of the 15 groups invited to the negotiations adhered. The armed forces said that only signatories could take part to the political dialogue. The rest would have to be contented with observer status.
In May, however, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army's commander-in-chief, was quoted as saying he wanted “eternal peace.” Even the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar's largest ethnic armed group, fielding something like 40,000 active soldiers and auxiliaries, is poised to attend the conference, together with the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA). Both had not taken part to the NCA.
What the Tatmadaw seems unwilling to compromise on is the issue of three groups – the Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – which have been involved in recent fighting with government troops. In early July, Aung San Suu Kyi said all groups will be invited to the peace table and negotiations are underway, but the military's top brass has so far argued that these groups can join only if they are willing to disarm.
The three organizations have shown no desire to cave to such a demand, and in May issued a joint statement in which they “strongly protest the Myanmar Tatmadaw’s (Burma Army) position of refusing to hold peace talk with us and demanding our three organizations to lay down arms.”
If they are not on board, other ethnic armed groups will find it hard to back any deal, as many fear that the military could aim at weakening the insurgents by signing a peace agreement with some groups to concentrate on others. In February, La Nan, the Joint General Secretary of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of the country's largest insurgent groups, told this writer that the army has always played divide and rule with the ethnic organizations. "They are still using this tactic, even inside single groups," he contended.
A partial peace agreement would also pose implementation problems, argues Tom Kramer, an expert of Myanmar's ethnic affairs with the Transnational Institute. “Leaving some groups out would be a huge risk,” he says. “What if, for example, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) signs and then the Tatmadaw wants to pass through KIO territory to attack the TNLA? It would not work.”
Recent history is hardly encouraging. In 2009, the military attacked the MNDAA, which had signed a bilateral ceasefire with the government in 1989, driving them out of the country. They resurfaced in early 2015, when bitter fighting raged in the hills of northern Shan State, on the border with China.
In 2011, with Thein Sein's semi-civilian government already in place, the Tatmadaw also ended a 17-year-old ceasefire agreement with the KIO, unleashing what Kachin leaders describe as the worst fighting since their organization was created in 1961. Thousands of people have been displaced and remain displaced in camps across Kachin State, both on the government and the insurgent sides.
The stark difference between ongoing fighting and the democratization process has left observers wondering whether the government and the military see eye to eye when it comes to achieving peace.
"We need to learn from the history of the KIO's 17 years ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military," said Lum Zawng, a lawyer and General secretary of All Kachin Youth Union. "They [the army] always demanded to disarm first and accept the 2008 Constitution, but no ethnic armed organization wants to disarm first. They have always said that talks and a political agreement should come first."
Negotiators are also grappling with fighting among ethnic armed groups themselves, and especially between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the TNLA, which started last fall, right after the signing of the national ceasefire. There is widespread suspicion that the armed forces may be supporting the RCSS, since their troops have to cross government-controlled areas to reinforce their presence near TNLA territory.
Besides fueling fears that the armed forces are not as committed to peace as they claim to be, clashes among minorities represent a headache for peace negotiators, for they hint at divisions among different ethnic groups living in the same areas.
“Attacks on the TNLA by the RCSS highlight a nationwide problem of how main ethnic groups will address concerns and demands of smaller ethnic groups within their states,” said Mark Farmaner, the Director of Burma Campaign UK, a human rights advocacy group. “These problems will be very complex to work through.”