Suu Kyi gives peace a chance
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Suu Kyi gives peace a chance

Although armed ethnic groups have agreed to attend an important conference this week, much work remains to heal years of bitter divisions

After months of preparation and a plethora of planning meetings, Aung San Suu Kyi has pulled off a significant coup with Myanmar's peace conference.

Almost all the country's armed ethnic groups have agreed to attend, including the Wa in the north who have shunned many previous attempts to involve them in the peace process, particularly under the previous Thein Sein government.

The 21st Century Panglong Conference is due to get under way on Wednesday, attended by a mass of international dignitaries and diplomatic guests including UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and the Chinese peace envoy, who was instrumental in persuading the Wa to attend. The Yangon diplomatic corps will be there in force to welcome this significant step towards peace and a federal constitution.

But doubts remain about where the new process will lead.

"It's significant but only symbolic," said Sai Oo of the Pyidaungsu Institute, an independent think-tank. "There will be no breakthrough. The best we can hope for is an endorsement of the need to move towards a federal state."

That all ethnic groups are attending emphasises their support for federalism and commitment to a negotiated political settlement.

The conference draws its legitimacy from Ms Suu Kyi's father, Gen Aung San, the founder of the Myanmar Tatmadaw (army) and the original Panglong Conference. It ended with the Panglong Agreement signed on Feb 12, 1947, between Gen Aung San and most of the ethnic leaders, committing the country to forming a federal state prior to its independence from Britain in 1948.

Many of the current ethnic group leaders resent the name "Panglong" and Aung San Suu Kyi's constant reference to the "Panglong spirit".

"The Panglong Conference was the start of our long and bitter civil war," Karen National Union leader Kwe Htoo Win told Spectrum. "That was what sent us to the jungles."

Ethnic groups prefer to simply call the meeting a peace conference -- terminology that is now increasingly being adopted by everyone including the government.

But many ethnic leaders remain sceptical, especially about the intentions behind the conference. Originally it was billed as a one-off meeting to brainstorm issues surrounding the peace process and review the national ceasefire agreement and framework for political dialogue, essentially on constitutional change.

The government inherited major obstacles from the previous government's handling of the peace process, when only eight of the armed ethnic groups were prepared to sign the agreement.

For the sake of the national elections last year and international prestige, the government co-opted the eight groups to accept the ceasefire agreement, which they signed in October 2015. The other seven members of the United Nationalities Federal Council, an umbrella group that originally negotiated the agreement, boycotted the ceremony. This mandated the government to proceed with political dialogue with ethnic groups within three months.

Ms Suu Kyi's government was left with no other option but to treat the two groups separately in preparation for the talks.


The Kachin Independence Organisation, which did not sign last year's ceasefire agreement, is the most suspicious of the government's motives and fear a hidden agenda.

"The government is not being transparent," Gun Maw, one of the KIO's senior leaders, told Spectrum.

"We are still waiting for an answer to our questions: what is the 'Panglong spirit' and how is this conference different from the previous peace conference [held by Thein Sein in January]?

"We are participating because we need to be part of the process and to honour and acknowledge the new government. The problem is afterwards. What happens next?"

There was considerable debate about giving groups that did not sign the ceasefire only observer status, but the government understood this would leave their grand initiative dead in the water. While they were invited to attend, they will have to later sign the agreement to remain part of the peace process.

United Nationalities Federal Council general secretary Khu Oo Reh, who is also vice-chairman of the Karenni National Progressive Party, said all the non-signatories accepted this carrot-and-stick approach.

But these groups want to renegotiate the agreement before signing, something Ms Suu Kyi said she supported when she met five of the key ethnic leaders last month in Yangon. One of the groups' major concerns is peace monitoring after any agreement is signed.

Gun Maw said the KIO is prepared to sign the ceasefire agreement at some time. He believes that if fresh negotiations start after the peace conference, they could be completed in three to six months. It would have to be done in parallel with the peace conference process, which is set to continue discussions in working groups without involvement of non-signature parties. "That will make it very messy but doable," he said.

Apart from at least 21 ethnic organisations, the conference will host representatives of the government, military and parliament and the 22 political parties that won seats in the last election. The 70 political parties that did not win seats will not be participating after rejecting an offer to elect five representatives to speak on their behalf. A parallel national civil society peace conference has been scrapped.

Each group leader will have 10 minutes to address the audience but no questions or discussion will be allowed. KIO leader Gun Maw believes this approach is short-sighted if there is to be genuine political dialogue.

His other concern is the government's plan to reconvene the peace conference every six months for the next four years to consider recommendations from the five working groups. After each session, this would be tabled at parliament for approval. Gun Maw says this is a disjointed approach and it would be better to agree a national accord on peace and politics that could be approved in two years.


Some of the ethnic political parties fear the focus on the ceasefire and peace process may derail their real objective: constitutional change.

Hkun Htun Oo, leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy -- one of the larger parties in parliament after the National League for Democracy and the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party -- told Spectrum that the constitution should be changed before peace can be achieved. "It's like putting the cart before the horse," he said.

The Union Peace and Dialogue Joint Committee, which oversees the peace conference and reconvenes every six months, is chaired by Ms Suu Kyi, the state counsellor. Kyaw Tint Swe (state minister) Kwee Htoo (Karen National Union) and Tu Wei (Democratic Party) are vice-chairmen. Hla Maung Shwe (former adviser to the Myanmar Peace Centre), Sai Kyaw Nyunt (Shan Nationalities League for Democracy) and Lian Sakhong (Chin National Front) are secretaries. The committee's 15 members comprise five each from the government, armed ethnic groups that have already signed the ceasefire agreement and political parties that have seats in parliament.

There will be five working groups responsible for discussions after the peace conference on politics, security, social resettlement, the economy and land reform.

The most sensitive discussions will be on defining federalism. The Chin have already taken the lead on this issue, though their proposals will certainly find resistance from the military. Their proposals include the need to have clear divisions between states and regions; state elections of their chief minister, preferably through a parliamentary system; state power over health, education and social services; and individual constitutions for each federal state as in Germany and the United States.

Security arrangements and disarmament are also contentious issues. These have been deferred for debate later but armed ethnic groups have reached a consensus that cross-border issues -- border guards, customs and immigration -- are a matter for the national government. While armed groups may be happy to sign a ceasefire agreement, giving up their arms is another matter. "We need to protect our people and territory," said Gun Maw. "We will only consider that [disarmament] when the military's plans are revealed and we know what sort of federal army is on the cards."

Martin Smith, a writer and expert on Myanmar's ethnic affairs, said ceasefires have existed since 1989 but they are not the same as peace, either locally or nationwide. To achieve that, a political settlement is needed involving all armed ethnic groups.

Ethnic groups do not trust the military. Gun Maw feels part of the problem is that the military is controlling the process and he points to retired generals, particularly Khin Zaw Oo in the peace secretariat.

"An immediate end to all fighting is essential if the peace process is to succeed," said Maj Gen Sao Sai Htoo of the Shan State Progressive Party and Shan State Army. "We cannot sign the national ceasefire agreement if troops continue to shoot and shell our people."


China is also proving influential. Beijing convinced the Wa, based along Myanmar's northern border with China, and their Mongla allies, from the northeast corner of Myanmar between China and Thailand, to participate in the peace conference.

After two days of discussions, initially with Ms Suu Kyi and then with her chief negotiator Tin Myo Win, they tentatively agreed. But the state counsellor's recent visit to China put the seal on the arrangement.

The Wa had nine conditions for their participation, including granting licences for 20,000 cars, allowing international organisations to function in Wa areas, permitting crossings on the Thai border, 5,000 tonnes of tar for roads, allowing the Salween Dam to be built and building a road from Pangsan, the capital of Wa state, to Kunming in China.

It is unclear which conditions have been accepted but they are thought to have featured in Ms Suu Kyi's visit to Beijing at the start of this month. The Chinese peace envoy was in Pangsan with other government officials last week, so final agreements were likely to have been put into place.

Now it seems the peace conference will go ahead with the maximum participation of ethnic groups. But the question is whether it can build a consensus to move forward.

"The 21st Century Panglong Conference symbolises an essential need to resolve long-unaddressed crises in Myanmar's national politics that have undermined state development and caused such suffering for all peoples in the country," said Mr Smith.

"If lessons have been learned from past failures, the key will be listening and inclusion, not self-interest and exclusion."

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