By: Larry Jagan

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.