Signs of Myanmar peace grow stronger
Myanmar's ethnic armed groups are edging closer to participating in the planned peace summit at the end of next month. The Union Peace Conference was proposed earlier this year by the country's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in an attempt to bring together all ethnic groups and with the military and the government to lay the foundations for a re-invigorated peace process -- which would in turn lead to creating a democratic and federal state, bringing lasting peace to the country.
Increasing rapprochement between the country's top army chief, Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has raised hopes that the military -- which many ethnic leaders accuse of dragging its feet -- has formed a new working relationship which augurs well for the success of the peace process.
Over the last few months there has been a series of preparatory meetings, in Nay Pyi Taw, Yangon and, earlier this week, in Chiang Mai, with the purpose of deciding what the agenda should be for the meeting, and who would participate. Now the stage is set for the ethnic groups to decide whether to shun the summit or take part. At one of the biggest ever gatherings of ethnic groups -- involving leaders of the armed organisations, ethnic political parties and community groups -- in the coming week in Maijyang near the Chinese border in Kachin-held territory a final decision will be made.
Three crucial issues have emerged in the lead up to this conference -- political dialogue, ceasefire agreements and "inclusive" participation -- which may yet split the ethnic stance. Already there are deep divisions. Last October, eight armed rebel groups signed a national ceasefire agreement (NCA) with the Thein Sein government. Many other groups declined to sign because the process lacked transparency and inclusiveness.
Larry Jagan is a Myanmar specialist and former BBC World Service News Editor for the region.
According to the NCA, a political dialogue was to take place within three months of the signing of the pact. For the ethnic groups, political or constitutional change is crucial to ensuring peace and stability in the country, after nearly 60 years of violence in the ethnic areas. "Ceasefires have existed in the country since 1989, but ceasefires are not the same as peace, either locally or nationwide," said Martin Smith, writer and expert on Myanmar's ethnic affairs. To achieve that, a political settlement is needed, involving all the ethnic armed groups.
But for many of the ethnic leaders, the fear is that the military are using the occasion to split the precarious bonds of unity that exist between the armed groups. "After more than six decades of fighting, we have learnt we cannot trust the military," Col Hkun Okker, a senior member of the Pa-Oh National Liberation Organisation (PNLO), which signed the NCA last year, told the Bangkok Post recently.
For groups that are yet to sign the ceasefire, their biggest concern is continued fighting in their areas. This featured prominently at the recent meeting between leaders of the key ethnic armed groups, who are yet to sign the NCA, and Ms Suu Kyi who is trying to resolve issues which prevent them from participating in the summit.
"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." When it was raised with the state counsellor, she was rather dismissive, said Khu Oo Reh, the spokesman for the ethnic alliance, United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).
There are also reservations about the government's insistence on all ethnic armed groups signing the ceasefire agreement before joining the peace process after next month's summit takes place. But that was something on which there was a meeting of the minds between the UNFC members and Ms Suu Kyi, who is chairman of the national peace committee.
Ms Suu Kyi agreed there were flaws in the NCA document and was open to re-negotiating some clauses, Nai Layeh Kaung, commander-in-chief of the New State Mon Party said after meeting her. But no time-frame was established for this.
"Only with a revised NCA can we even consider signing," the Mon leader said.
In the aftermath of this historic meeting between Ms Suu Kyi and the ethnic leaders, there are signs progress is being made behind the scenes on these issues with the state counsellor preparing the groundwork.
There are also indications that Ms Suu Kyi and Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing are developing a close working relationship. There have been several secret meetings between them, largely to discuss the peace process, according to military sources. Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing also paid a personal visit to Ms Suu Kyi's lakeside residence.
More importantly, she had an hour's private chat with the general and her peace envoy, Dr Tin Myo Win -- largely about the peace process, NLD sources said. There is yet another meeting planned with ethnic leaders who are yet to sign the NCA before the peace conference.
"There are strong hopes that the toing and froing between The Lady and the general will yield results and open the door for a thoroughly inclusive NCA," said a senior ethnic leader, who declined to be identified.