If Myanmar wants peace, genuine engagement is vital

We hope that the visit to Myay Taing Kan represents an attitude shift from the government. 

WUNDWIN, in southern Mandalay Region, is not a township that is often in the news, but recently it received an important visitor: State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

She organised an open air, town hall-style meeting in Myay Taing Kan village to discuss the peace process and power supply (the village was chosen because it had recently been connected to the national grid).

We have quibbled with the National League for Democracy’s handling of both these issues since it took office. The state counsellor also made some objectionable comments during the meeting, not least of all her advice to listen to state media for news about the government. The implication was that independent media couldn’t be trusted to provide accurate information. At Frontier, we also recommend reading or listening to state media – but only in moderation, as part of a balanced media diet.

The visit to Myay Taing Kan may well be a publicity stunt (state media, naturally, gave it plenty of coverage). But while ostensibly a meeting with residents of a single village, because it was broadcast live on state media and covered extensively in private media, the messages from Aung San Suu Kyi will have reached a wide audience.

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We hope that it represents a shift in attitude from the government; that it marks a new approach in which communication, openness and dialogue are prioritised – particularly in the context of the peace process.

While the second 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference took place in Nay Pyi Taw in late May ended with some positive headlines, it actually showed that the peace process under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership had stalled.

While it was positive to get the seven groups belonging to the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee to the capital, other non-signatories belonging to the United Nationalities Federal Council refused to attend. Signatories came very close to refusing to sign off on 37 principles to be included in a future Union Peace Accord. Meanwhile, fighting has continued in northern Myanmar between the Tatmadaw and several ethnic armed groups that are members of the FPNCC.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at the National League of Democracy government on the peace process has been its inability – or lack of desire – to engage in genuine, respectful dialogue with peace stakeholders. It was doing too much dictating, and not enough listening. This created the perception – correct or not – that the NLD, like the military rulers before it, was only concerned with the interests of the Bamar majority.

It was an approach that was never going to build trust, which is so essential for bringing an end to decades of fighting.

Clearly, a new approach was needed.

And there are signs that the government might – just might – be listening. Consider some of the activities that it has undertaken over the past month or so. It has held informal talks with the UNFC’s Delegation for Political Negotiation, and a discussion with peace stakeholders in Yangon. From August 11-13, the government convened the Forum on Myanmar Democratic Transition, at which some key issues related to the country’s future were discussed quite openly.

Earlier, in July, Aung San Suu Kyi travelled to Kachin State and met officials from the Kachin Baptist Convention, one of the most prominent Kachin organisations in the state.

Now, you could say this is just talk. And you’d be right. But it appears to be the good kind – the kind that can lead to improved trust and understanding, and positive outcomes.

One of the government’s biggest failings has been its ability to communicate. It has been terrible at selling its plans – on the peace process, the economy, Rakhine State; you name it – to key stakeholders and the public more broadly. This has turned off many of the people that it needs in its corner, fighting for a better future for the country.

Much has been made of the civilian government’s lack of control over the activities of the Tatmadaw, whose actions appear to suggest it is intent on bringing an end to the civil war through force rather than negotiation.

With this in mind, the influence the government can have on the outcome of the peace process is limited. But it can maximise its impact by genuinely engaging with other peace stakeholders and sending a message that it is working in the interests of all people.

This editorial was first published in the August 24 issue of Frontier. 

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