By: Larry Jagan

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.