Obstacles on the road to peace

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wants the forthcoming peace conference to be inclusive but that will depend on changes to the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the attitude of the Tatmadaw.

By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

Advanced negotiations are underway as preparations continue for the 21st Century Panglong Conference, the national peace talks to be chaired by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The main difference between the 21st Century Panglong Conference and the Union Peace Conference hosted in January by then President U Thein Sein is that Suu Kyi is trying to ensure the event she chairs will be all-inclusive.

The State Counsellor wants the participation of non-signatories as well as signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed last October by Thein Sein’s government and eight of the 15 armed ethnic groups that had been involved in long-running peace negotiations.

The National League for Democracy government is trying to find a way for the conference to include groups blocked by the Tatmadaw from signing the NCA. They include the Kokang rebel group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, as well as the ethnic Palaung Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army.

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The 21st Century Panglong Conference, named after the agreement reached between Bogyoke Aung San and Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders at Panglong in Shan State in 1947, is planned to take place late July or early August.

Suu Kyi will need to overcome some obstacles to achieve her objective of an all-inclusive conference.

The biggest will be securing the participation of non-signatories of the NCA. Most are members of the United Nationalities Federal Council, headed by the Kachin Independence Organisation. The KIO was among the groups that refused to sign the NCA because it was not inclusive.

Efforts are continuing to secure the participation of non-signatory armed groups in a meeting proposed for early July to draft a framework for the 21st Century Panglong Conference. It is hoped that minor amendments to the NCA will result in it being signed by non-signatories, including the KIO, and make them eligible to participate in the conference.

The government is trying to arrange a meeting between Suu Kyi and the UNFC. The ethnic alliance is yet to accept the invitation because it wants answers to questions put to the head of the government peace team, Dr Tin Myo Win, when he met UNFC delegates in Chiang Mai in early June.

The UNFC wants to know if non-signatories of the NCA will be allowed to attend the 21st Century Panglong Conference in an official capacity and whether the MNDAA, TNLA and AA will be permitted to sign the NCA.

The UNFC says a meeting with Suu Kyi will be possible after it receives a response to its questions. So it’s likely that there will need to be another meeting in Chiang Mai between the government peace team headed by Tin Myo Win and the UNFC.

Another challenge to the peace process is whether the MNDAA, TNLA and AA will be permitted to participate in the conference. Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has set two conditions for participation.

The first is that the groups must officially renounce armed struggle. The second is that KIO must guarantee that the AA and TNLA will lay down their arms. The United Wa State Army and the Mong La-based National Democratic Alliance Army must provide a similar guarantee for the MNDAA.

The conditions set by the Tatmadaw, despite being softer than its previous demand of total surrender, might be difficult for the groups to accept. Negotiations over the conditions may take time.

The National League for Democracy government has inherited from the Thein Sein administration two problems related to the NCA. They involve the Tatmadaw’s refusal to allow the MNDAA, TNLA and AA sign the ceasefire accord and that it be signed by the KIO-led UNFC as a precondition to taking part in the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

Another challenge will be persuading powerful ethnic armed groups such as the UWSA and the NDAA to take part in the conference. They say they do not need to sign the NCA because they have had bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government since 1989.

They attribute development in their areas to a lack of fighting and are adamant they will not sign the NCA. This raises an obstacle to Suu Kyi’s hopes for an inclusive peace conference because only signatories of the NCA can attend as official delegates.

The situation is complicated and it is unlikely that the 21st Century Panglong Conference will take place late July or early August as envisaged by Suu Kyi.

The Panglong Agreement signed by her father and Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders in 1947 was negotiated in days. The 21st Century Panglong Conference will be the first of many gatherings to discuss political and economic issues as the NLD continues the process of bringing peace to the country, an objective Suu Kyi has said will be her government’s first priority.

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