Myanmar’s peace process has been stalled for months, as the country’s ethnic rebel groups – fighting for autonomy – and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government try to find a solution to their impasse that has prevented it from making further headway.
Now the next meeting of the Union Peace Conference – previously dubbed the 21st Panglong, after the historic meeting between General Aung San and some ethnic leaders in 1947, which committed the country to a federal state – is set to take place on 24 May. It has been postponed several times since it was first scheduled to meet in February – on the anniversary of the signing of the original Panglong agreement.
It has been postponed at least three times since then – in March, April and the first week of May. The first meeting took place in August last year, and it was to meet every six months, to review progress and move the process forward from ceasefire agreements to political dialogue – eventually discussing establishing a democratic, federal state.
This has been Aung San Suu Kyi’s key priority since her party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) — overwhelmingly won the elections in November 2015. Since coming to power in April last year, she has continued to stress that national reconciliation and peace is the government’s most important objective. Although the first meeting – in August last year — brought almost all the ethnic groups to the table, it was high on ceremony and low on substance.
Much of the work, which made last year’s peace conference possible, had actually been done by the previous government of President Thein Sein. After nearly 4 years of negotiations, he managed to get 8 rebel groups to sign a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015 – the Karen National Union (KNU), Democratic Benevolent Karen Army, Karen Peace Council, Arakan Liberation Party, All-Burma Students Democratic Front, Palaung National Liberation Organization, the Chin National Front and the Restoration Council for Shan State or Shan State Army (RCSS).
But this has also made Aung San Suu Kyi’s task of achieving national reconciliation all the more difficult. As it has divided the ethnic groups even further – those who signed and those who did not. Nevertheless, the euphoria surrounding the inaugural Panglong meeting augured well and raised hopes that the peace process would now further progress. Unfortunately, the government had no real plan for the next stage, and the military’s belligerent attitude to those groups who had not signed the NCA deepened divisions, and stalled the process ever since.
All out airstrikes on the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) – which had actually started several years earlier – intensified, as did hostilities in Shan state – especially near the northern border with China, and then earlier this year with the Mon (in south-east Myanmar) have all increasingly raised the ethnic rebel leaders’ suspicion and mistrust of the government’s intentions and the peace process in general.
Military sources have made it clear to me on numerous occasions that this military campaign was intended to put pressure on the ethnic groups which had not signed the agreement to do so. They believe it was strategy which the State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi accepted as necessary. Many ethnic leaders also believe that to be the case. And Aung San Suu Kyi’s pointed failure to visit the Kachin refugees – thousands have been made homeless since the fighting erupted six years ago, some even fled across the border into China, and a further exodus in the wake of renewed military attacks – until earlier this year has also fuelled ethnic resentment and distrust.
But the crucial divide is the question of signing the NCA. Many of the groups who did not sign the NCA were already in an alliance with some of those that did in the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). Since last year though only nine ethnic armed groups that did not sign the government’s NCA remain in the alliance — including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Shan State Progress Party (SSP) or Shan State Army-North, New Mon State Party (NMSP), Karenni National Progressive Party and Arakan National Council. Pressure on them to sign the NCA in the forthcoming Panglong meeting has been intense.
For the government signing the NCA is pivotal. So far the government position has been unless they sign the pact, they will not be allowed to participate in the forthcoming peace conference. Most of the groups remain reluctant to sign, but want to participate in the political dialogue, the next stage in the process. Again, this is something Aung San Suu Kyi inherited from the previous regime – for the NCA as drafted under Thein Sein made signing the NCA mandatory before political dialogue could start. In fact, at the ethnic sides request, the agreement insisted that political dialogue must start within 2 months of the NCA being signed because they feared the government of Thein Sein would seek to wriggle out of their commitment to initiate a political dialogue.
But that decision has been another albatross around Aung San Suu Kyi’s neck. The groups that did not sign did so because they argued for the process to succeed it had to be inclusive – many ethnic leaders argue that was the problem with General Aung San’s original Panglong meeting.
The military insisted that 3 groups were not allowed to sign the NCA as they regarded them as renegades with no legitimacy – at the time were also members of the UNFC — the Arakan Army (AA), the Kokang or Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Palaung or Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). So, under those conditions, many members of the UNFC refused to sign – it was a “one for all” position.
That remains the key sticking point now as the government – backed by the military – have so far insisted that only those who sign the NCA at the start of the second Panglong meeting in May, would be allowed to participate as full delegates, though there is some debate within the government side as to whether the others might be present as guests or observers. This is unacceptable to groups like the KIO – but which currently not decided whether it would participate, though at present it will not sign the NCA. Several other members of UNFC, including the Mon. Sources in the ethnic coalition have indicated that most of its members will take the plunge and sign.
Everything hinges on the KIO. Their position is complicated by its dual membership of the UNFC and the newly created Northern alliance, which comprises the KIO and the SSPP, together with former UNFC members the Arakan Army (mainly based in Kachin), Ta’ang National Liberation Front and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, (known as the Kokang) and the United Wa State Army. These groups agreed earlier this year not sign the NCA but wanted to participate in the political dialogue. Sources close to the government organizers of Panglong have suggested that two bilateral meetings were under consideration – all those who have signed the NCA and the Northern Alliance.
Although the date of the next peace conference has been set, no details of agenda or participation have been made public. One thing is sure, the Myanmar’s military are key to what happens – and to date they have been “hardline” and uncompromising. There was a secret meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi – who heads the conference organizing committee, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee – and the deputy army commander General Soe Win, which run over time and is seen as an indictor that there are still problematic areas between the government and the army over the peace process.
[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.]