An important step towards returning peace to Myanmar, after more than six decades of civil war, kicks off today, Aug. 31, with the start of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference.
Previous efforts to bring all the ethnic rebel groups to the negotiating table have failed for various reasons, largely the gaping mistrust between successive military governments and the ethnic armed organizations, many of whom have been fighting for autonomy since the formation of the Union of Myanmar in 1948. But this may be about to change.
The new civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who swept to a massive electoral victory last November, has made bringing peace to the country her top priority.
“There can be no development without peace,” she has repeatedly told parliament, the ethnic groups and diplomats. The previous government of President Thein Sein also saw the importance of this, and launched a peace process but it floundered almost from the start.
Undaunted by the enormity of the task of bringing peace to Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi – in her position as State Counselor, and effectively the prime minister – is now on the verge of taking the fragile process to a new level, involving crucial political dialogue, which is essential if the peace pacts that have been negotiated over the years are to be transformed into a lasting peace. This necessitates constitutional change and the acceptance of a federal state.
"Ceasefires have existed in the country since 1989, but ceasefires are not the same as peace, either locally or nationwide," said Martin Smith, a writer and expert on Myanmar's ethnic affairs. “To achieve that, a political settlement is needed, involving all the ethnic armed groups.”
Thein Sein’s efforts largely failed because he and his negotiators pursued an ad hoc approach to the process and clearly used the peace talks for the government’s own political agenda. And more critically rather than unify the ethnic groups involved in the process, they left them more divided than before.
The whole process was predicated on the ethnic groups agreeing to a national ceasefire agreement (NCA) – something that previous military governments have been loathe to contemplate, and preferred to keep the peace pacts bilateral and hence reduce the ethnic groups’ potential political power. These decades of military exploitation have left the ethnic groups understandably distrustful and skeptical of the military’s motives.
“Things are different now,” Colonel Yewk Serk, leader of the Shan group, which signed last year’s NCAs, the Restoration Council for Shan state, told Asia Sentinel earlier this year. For the first time since the civil war started, he said, Myanmar has a popularly elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi who commands respect. “But we’ll have to wait to see what she’s going to put on the table.”
Most ethnic leaders seem to echo these sentiments -- for the first time the armed ethnic organizations are dealing with a Myanmar leader, who truly represents the Myanmar people, as last year’s election results prove.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s initiative is the “21st Century Panglong Conference” which draws its legitimacy from the current Myanmar leader’s father and founder of the Myanmar Tatmadaw [Army], General Aung San. It ended with the Panglong Agreement signed on the 12 February 1947, signed between Aung San and several – though not all – of the country’s ethnic leaders at the time, committing the country to forming a federal state, prior to Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948.
Under the Thein Sein government, the national ceasefire agreement opened political dialogue, which in the end is the goal of all the ethnic groups. After the NCA was signed, discussions would start on the political framework for future political dialogue, essentially on constitutional change. This is the step, which many hope the 21st Century Panglong Conference will represent.
The current government inherited major obstacles from the previous government’s handling of the peace process, when only eight of the ethnic armed groups that were negotiating the NCA were prepared to sign. For its own internal political interests – the national elections that were held in November 2015 and international prestige – the government coopted the eight groups that were prepared to accept the NCA, and it was signed in October 2015.
The other seven members of the umbrella group – the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) – which originally negotiated the NCA, boycotted the ceremony. This mandated the government to proceed with a political dialogue with ethnic groups within three months.
This left the ethnic groups split but not divided. But it meant that the Aung San Suu Kyi’s government had no option but to treat the two groups separately in the preparation process for this week’s peace conference. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which did not sign last year’s ceasefire agreement, is the most suspicious of the government’s motives and they fear a hidden agenda.
“The government is not being transparent,” Gun Maw, one of the KIO’s senior leaders told Asia Sentinel an interview last week. “We are still waiting for an answer to our questions: what is the “Panglong Spirit,” he said. But more importantly he remains suspicious of the military’s motives in supporting Aung San Suu Kyi’s initiative. Behind the scenes they are controlling the agenda and process as a whole, he insists.
The ethnic leaders have good reason to be concerned about Aung San Suu Kyi having her head turned by the military. She and her chief negotiator, Tin Myo Win, had secret talks with the army commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his top peace advisors in early May, before the plans for the Panglong peace conference were formalized.
There have been several confidential meetings since on issues that have emerged during the planning stage – federalism, continued fighting and the sequencing of constitutional change. In fact the army commander met Aung San Suu Kyi before her visit to China a few weeks ago to agree a common position towards Beijing.
One of the perennial problems is the continued fighting, especially in Kachin and Shan state despite ceasefire agreements. The ethnic leaders continue to press Aung San Suu Kyi to reel in the army, but with little result so far. Ironically the Myanmar military renewed shelling KIO positions on the very first day the State Counselor’s visit to China. It is a clear warning to the KIO, that if they do not sign the NCA, the military will be intent on destroying them altogether, according to regional military intelligence sources.
So here is one of the remaining key bones of contention: to sign the ceasefire accord or not. While the armed ethnic groups are participating in the peace conference that opens on Wednesday, they know that further participation in the process that grows out of this Panglong Conference depends on signing the NCA. All the non-signatures accept this, according to the spokesman for the ethnic alliance, United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) Khu Oo Reh, who is also a leader of the Karenni National Peoples’ Party, who has also not signed the ceasefire agreement.
But they want to renegotiate the agreement before signing, something Aung San Suu said she supported when she met five of the key ethnic leaders, who had not signed the NCA last month in Yangon. One of these groups’ major concerns is the peace monitoring process after any agreement is signed – the monitoring of infringements and troop movements need to be considerably strengthened, Maj Gen Sao Sai Htoo, of the Shan State Progressive Party and Shan State Army, said.
Gun Maw said the KIO was also prepared to sign the NCA sometime in the future. He believed that if fresh negotiations started after the Panglong conference they could be completed within three to six months – though that would have to be done in parallel with the peace conference process, which is set to continue discussions in working groups, without the non-signatories’ involvement.
“That will make it very messy,” he said. “But doable.” The hope is that the military and the UNFC will call unilateral ceasefires at the same time.
The other more contentious issues are security arrangements and disarmament. These have been deferred for a later stage. Amongst the armed ethnic groups though, there is a consensus, that cross-border issues – border guards, customs and immigration – are a matter for the national government. Of course disarmament is another matter. While the armed groups maybe happy to sign ceasefire agreement, giving up their arms is another matter.
“We need to protect our people and territory,” said Gun Maw. “We will only consider that when the military’s plans are revealed, and we know what sort of federal army is on the cards.” Of course we will disarm in future, he insisted. Though that maybe after a federal constitution is implemented.
But the continued attacks by the Myanmar military may well throw a spanner into the works. "An immediate end to all fighting is essential if the peace conference is to go ahead on time," said Maj Gen Sao Sai Htoo, of the Shan State Progressive Party and Shan State Army, who attended the meeting. "Also, we cannot sign the NCA if the Myanmar troops continue to shoot and shell our people."
But all that is for the post-conference dialogue, according to many ethnic leaders. “The 21st century Panglong symbolizes an essential need to resolve long unaddressed crises in Myanmar’s national politics that have undermined state development and caused such sufferings for all peoples in the country,” said Martin Smith. “If lessons have been learned from failures in the past, the key will be listening and inclusion, not self-interest and exclusion.”
So after months of preparation and planning meetings, Aung San Suu Kyi has pulled off a significant coup with about to start. Almost all the ethnic armed groups have agreed to attend, including the Wa, who have shunned many previous attempts to involve them in the peace process, particularly under the previous government of President Thein Sein.
“It’s significant but only symbolic,” said Sai Oo of the Pyidaungsu Institute, an independent think tank that supports the ethnic groups’ discussions of constitutional change. “There will be no breakthrough,” he insisted. “The best we can hope for is an endorsement of the need to move towards a federal state.” This is in the end why all the ethnic groups are attending, to emphasize their support for federalism and their commitment to a negotiated political settlement.
While the Panglong Conference may prove in retrospect a significant step towards peace and a federal constitution. Doubts, especially on the part of the armed ethnic groups, remain about where the new process will lead to from here.