Myanmarâ€™s peace process is slowly unraveling as the discussions between the government and the ethnic groups involved remains marred by confusion, indecision and division. Days away from the next round of the 21st Century Panglong or national peace conference, there is still no clear idea of who is attending, in what capacity or what the agenda is. If the meeting does take place â€“ it will be ceremonial rather than substantive. At worst, it might completely stall the process altogether.
â€œNo one has a clear understanding of what the meetingâ€™s purpose is,â€ said several ethnic representatives involved in the discussions, though they did not want to be quoted. The interests of the two sides â€“ the government and the ethnic groups â€“ are divergent. Centered on what is the priority in the peace process: ceasefire agreements or political dialogue.
The government is intent on making the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) the key to participation. This has divided the ethnic groups involved in the process, because of an increasing lack of trust in the governmentâ€™s intentions â€“ or more particularly that of the military. For their part, the ethnic organizations want political dialogue to be central to the process, and for all the ethnic groups to be full represented.
The government has continued to insist that only those groups who have signed the ceasefire agreement can participate fully. Those who have not will only be allowed to attend as guest or observers. This has been highly divisive as only 8 armed, rebel groups have so far signed the NCAâ€“ which they did under the previous Thein Sein regime, in October 2015. But the government insists the other groups who had previously been part of the original peace talks â€“ under the umbrella of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) â€“ 11 groups in all, now known as the non-signatures, must sign the NCA or a compromise document, a Deed of Commitment (DoC), to participate fully.
This has sown increased division amongst the ethnic organizations, who see it as a deliberate tactic to divide the ethnic groups. â€œThe military has always met ethnic groups separately in order to prevent them from uniting. It is their tactic,â€ according to Vice Chairman of the Taâ€™ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) Brig-Gen Tarr Jode Jarr. The TNLA is no longer a member of the UNFC and has joined the newly created Northern Alliance of groups who operate near the northern border with China. Recently the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Wa National Organization (WNO) also resigned from the UNFC, and are fully fledged members of the Northern Alliance.
Meanwhile, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) announced that it will sign the NCA â€“ after secret meetings directly with the Myanmar military in Thailand, after Myanmar troops attacked the ethnic groups liaison office and resulted in thousands of Mon civlians fleeing across the border for safety. But another of the UNFC, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) said recently that it would not sign the NCA or the DoC â€“ nor attend the upcoming conference as an observer. It is unclear at the moment how the other UNFC members will line up.
There is little incentive for the remaining ethnic groups to sign the NCA. After all even one of the previous governmentâ€™s peace negotiators, Aung Naing Oo wrote in an opinion piece published by the Myanmar Times that â€œthe NCA is just an agreement and everyone is free to walk out if it does not work.â€ If as with the DoC, this agreement is non-binding, signing it seems pointless.
The NCA is in effect neither nation-wide, nor a ceasefire or an agreement. Fighting in the ethnic border areas has been far more intense since the renewed â€œpeaceâ€ efforts of both the current and previous governments. Even for those groups that signed the NCA, skirmishes have continued. But the government has continued to dangle the signing of the ceasefire agreement as the key to the door to political discussions — that would lead to the establishment of a democratic federal state, and necessitate changing the 2008 constitution.
What the ethnic groups, as whole want, as soon as possible is this political dialogue. This is what the agenda of the next round of Panglong should really be. Preparing the content and timetable for these talks, rather than insisting that all groups sign the NCA as the prerequisite. The formation of yet another ethnic alliance — the Northern Alliance, involving most ethnic groups in the north along the Chinese border â€“ has changed the peace-negotiating paradigm. These groups are Arakan Army (mainly based in Kachin state), Taâ€™ang National Liberation Front (TNLA), the KIO, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA, known as the Kokang), the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP or Shan State Army-North), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the WNO.
Under the UWSA, the Northern Alliance has formed the Federal Union Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (UPNCC) as a counter-strategy to the NCA process. These groups are insisting on negotiating directly with the Myanmar Army. They have urged the Army to cease its offensives in ethnic areas and to meet with their committee soon. They also announced their intention to send the committee to attend the Panglong conference. But it is unclear if they will attend as observers.
â€œIf Daw Aung San Suu Kyiâ€™s government and the Tatmadaw [the Myanmar Army] want peace in the country, they should have courage and let all ethnic armed groups attend the conference. There should be no restrictions. Otherwise, it will be difficult to build a Union,â€ said Brig-Gen Tar Phone Kyaw, General Secretary of the TNLA
This may prove to be a game-changer, for they seem to have Chinaâ€™s support. While Beijing has re-iterated its support for Aung San Suu Kyiâ€™s peace initiative, and wants peace and stability along the Sino-Burma border, its cross-border support for groups like the UWSA remains strong. Apart from that the Wa army is strong and feared by the Myanmar generals. They are unlikely to launch military offensives into Wa territory. So, these two considerations may force the government re-think on how to move the peace process forward. Within the next week, after the Panglong conference, some answers may become clearer.
[Larry Jagan is a journalist and Myanmar specialist, based in Yangon. He is also the author of several books and many academic articles on Myanmar. He has spent more than forty years covering the Asia region. He was Asia editor for the BBC World Service for more than a decade.]