The Panglong peace process is precariously poised
Myanmar's stalled peace process is precariously poised, and may now be in danger of falling apart all together, as mistrust and hostility between some of the ethnic groups and the military worsened significantly. The fragile relationships between the three key players deteriorated further on the eve of the anniversary of the signing of a key peace pact, and the hopes of kick-starting negotiations and bringing the groups back to the table took a tumble for the worst.
For some time now the peace talks have been at an impasse: with the country's armed ethnic groups continuing to keep their options open, the military or Tatmadaw continuing to resist the ethnic leaders various demands, and the government offering little or no leadership in promoting a genuine dialogue that could lead to the creation of a democratic and federal state. The elections in 2020 are also casting a long shadow over the ongoing attempts to find a lasting solution to the country's civil war.
Today marks the fourth anniversary of the signing of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the government -- then led by President Thein Sein -- and eight ethnic armed organisations. It was heralded at the time as a significant breakthrough in Myanmar's long struggle for peace. But in fact, it was largely symbolic and further divided the ethnic groups, rather than providing an impetus to bring them together with a unified vision.
Little of substance has actually happened since then, though two more ethnic organisations signed the NCA last year. Talks between the government, military and the ethnic groups have continued, both formally and informally, as well as collectively and bilaterally over the last four years. In many parts of the country, which had experienced the devastation of civil war over the last sixty years, there has been an uneasy peace, or least "the cessation of hostilities" -- described as akin to "a frozen peace" by many experts involved in the peace process behind the scenes.
"It's at a fragile equilibrium in a frozen conflict: no fighting but no agreement," said a diplomat in Yangon who closely follows the process.
The NCA was intended to allow ethnic organisations, the military and the government to start a political dialogue that was intended to move the country towards creating a democratic, federal state. But over the last twelve months these talks have been suspended with two of the signatories to the NCA -- the Karen National Union (KNU) and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) -- effectively withdrawing from the process, albeit temporarily.
The anniversary, to be celebrated in style in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, was to be attended by all the signatories to the NCA: the ten ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), the president, and top government officials including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and the top military brass, including commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The intention was to bring everyone around the table to try to launch a renewed effort to break the deadlock.
"The peace process is entering a critical juncture," said an Asian diplomat who has been following developments in Myanmar for more than a decade. The EAOs have to decide whether to come back to the table or not. The fear is that if talks don't restart in the near future, the peace process will disintegrate and return the country to civil war.
The military leaders are particularly worried that if no one comes back to the negotiation table, it means back to civil war, according to military sources. They are concerned that if the status quo drags on -- until after elections -- there is a danger they will lose control, with ethnic political parties increasing their parliamentary representation and influencing the national government to be less accommodating towards the Tatmadaw.
After the hiatus over the last twelve months, the government put great stress on the anniversary in the hope that it could also help lay the ground work for another meeting of the country's top-level peace committee -- dubbed the "Panglong Process". The inertia in the dialogue process has meant that this conference has not met since mid-2018. Taking advantage of the anniversary to pull all the EAO leaders together, the plan was to hold the preparatory committee -- with them to organise the next Panglong Conference in the early part of 2020.
Before that, there was to be a set of bilateral meetings: with the KNU and the RCSS leaders meeting separately with Aung San Suu Kyi, followed with separate meetings with Min Aung Hlaing. The hope was that these could clear the roadblocks to resuming the political dialogue, that the State Counsellor hopes will lead to a constitutional change.
But these hopes took a jolt over the weekend, when the Tatmadaw refused to allow the RCSS leader, Yawk Serk to travel overland from the Thai-Myanmar border to Naypyitaw through the Shan provincial capital Taunggi. According to military sources the route had been "negotiated" beforehand, but the Shan leader insisted on holding public meetings en route.
This is totally anathema to the military leadership, especially in Taunggi, where they fear it would lead to a mass meeting calling for Shan independence. Myanmar's military commander, Min Aung Hlaing and the Shan leader do not trust each other, and have had a bitter exchange of words over the past year since their acrimonious public falling out during the high-level meeting in Naypyitaw in mid-October -- at the leaders' "retreat" also meant to celebrate the anniversary of the NCA.
Discussions on reconvening the next Panglong Conference are now postponed, with diminishing hopes that the EAOs will return to the table anytime soon. But that is only part of the story, for the other groups that are not yet part of the NCA and the dialogue process need to be included in any future Panglong meeting.
A significant part of the problem is that as a result of the NCA four years ago, a division was created between those ethnic groups who signed the pact and those who did not. This has effectively divided the peace process into a bilateral affair -- with the ten EAOs which signed the NCA continuing some form of political dialogue, while the "non-ceasefire groups" still talking to the government and the military about ending their simmering conflict and entering the peace process proper.
With the RCSS leader retreating to his base and refusing to participate in the NCA anniversary and the preparations for the next Panglong Conference, the peace process maybe on the brink of collapse.
The elections next year are a further complicating factor. Many ethnic leaders believe nothing is going to happen next year because the governing National League for Democracy and other political parties will be preoccupied with the campaign. Though unstated, they clearly feel waiting until after the elections, and dealing with the new government is in their best interests.
The onus now is on Aung San Suu Kyi to step up and provide strong leadership: provide the much-needed comprehensive vision and detailed roadmap to creating a democratic federal state. "Otherwise all hell will break out!" said an ethnic leader, who declined to be identified.
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.
Former BBC World Service News Editor
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News Editor for the region.