The politics of Myanmar’s peace conference

Published on August 31, 2016

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Nikkei Asian Review – August 31, 2016

Myanmar’s much vaunted 21st Century Panglong Conference that runs from Aug. 31 to Sept 4 in the capital, Naypyitaw, is the latest official effort to resolve decades of conflict between ethnic groups and the country’s military.

The conference will be chaired by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, who is aiming to conclude the unfinished business of her late father, General Aung San. In 1947, the independence hero met with key ethnic leaders in the frontier town of Panglong and signed an accord to form a loose federation ahead of the withdrawal of Britain, the colonial power. Following Aung San’s assassination later that year, the agreement foundered and Myanmar has since suffered decades of insurgency and strife.

The five-day gathering is intended to be the first of a series of meetings to be convened at six-month intervals. As conference delegates descend on Naypyitaw, a number of recent developments give reason for hope.

This time, the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of nine ethnic armed organizations, has agreed to participate, increasing the conference’s chances of success. This grouping had declined to participate in the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which was signed by eight armed groups and the government of former President Thein Sein last October. Representatives of the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army, two powerful forces on the Chinese border that refused to sign the previous ceasefire agreement, have also pledged to attend.

Along with representatives from local political parties and other interest groups, the conference will also be boosted by the presence of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will be a guest of the summit in his first visit to Myanmar since Suu Kyi took office.

Just two weeks before the conference, Suu Kyi concluded a successful visit to China — her first since taking the reins of government — which featured cordial meetings with government leaders and a statement of China’s commitment to the peace process. With a number of insurgent groups based on China’s border, securing Beijing’s support was a crucial step toward brokering an eventual settlement of the various conflicts.

Ahead of her planned mid-September visit to the U.S., Suu Kyi has stated that her government will pursue a non-aligned foreign policy. Her move to avoid raising human rights issues during her China visit, however, is likely to have caused concern in some quarters in the U.S. — as did her earlier reluctance to address sectarian tensions. Officials within her new administration clearly hope that any concrete progress at this week’s peace talks may blunt such criticism.

Challenges ahead

A number of challenges remain on the horizon. The first is lingering hostilities between the Myanmar army and three ethnic armed organizations operating near the Chinese border in Shan State. The three groups — the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army — have been engaged in clashes with military forces in recent years. While their participation in the peace conference would have helped the government’s aim to appear “all inclusive,” they have rejected military demands to commit to disarmament as a precondition to attending the summit.

The NLD government’s support for the military’s precondition could be construed as an attempt to appease the military leadership, which holds 25% of all parliamentary seats and a veto over changes to the country’s constitution. In earlier peace negotiations, the military had initially demanded commitments to disarmament – a condition that was somewhat relaxed. Now, with the participation of the previously reluctant UNFC, the military could also be signaling a strategic calculation to increase pressure on or neutralize the three armed groups.

Without the three hold-out groups, the conference will fall short of Suu Kyi’s promises of an all-inclusive summit. If the military, operating independently of civilian oversight, continues to clash with the three groups, there is a further danger that the peace process could stall, particularly if the UNFC — in solidarity with the three groups — decides to withdraw or reduce its involvement in the talks. Given the fragile nature of the peace negotiations, it would be advisable for the government to include the three outcast groups on similar, more lenient terms extended to other ethnic groups, even if a commitment to disarm is not reached.

Another threat is the military, which still wields an inordinate amount of political and administrative power after more than five decades of direct rule. How far it will go in yielding to civilian authority remains an open question, and despite its participation in the peace process, it is uncertain whether the military’s top brass will respect and comply with the agreements reached at the coming conference.

Another concern is whether the military will agree to support the type of federal model advocated by ethnic armed organizations and political parties. Ethnic leaders want sweeping constitutional revisions to provide for greater local autonomy and economic development in border areas. Such a settlement would probably take years to negotiate and would ultimately require the assent of the military, which maintains an effective veto on constitutional reform through its parliamentary bloc.

While ethnic armed groups are determined to set Myanmar on the path of what they call a “genuine federalism” or “self-determination” during the conference, the Myanmar military thus far seem more focused on securing greater control over ethnic areas. It remains to be seen how Suu Kyi and her government will juggle these vastly different priorities.

With the entire world watching, many observers hope the peace talks will provide an effective and workable platform on which to build national reconciliation between Myanmar’s disparate groups. Ultimately, however, the real work of peace is just beginning.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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