The obstacles to success at the next peace conference

Differences over the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement remain a major source of contention among stakeholders in the peace process and may affect participation at the second 21st Century Panglong conference.


THE National League for Democracy government under State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is due to open the second 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference in Nay Pyi Taw on May 24. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is overseeing the peace process and has made it her government’s top priority, has pledged to try to achieve unanimous agreement at the conference, which was originally due to take place in February.

The peace process is facing many challenges, including problems with the national level political dialogues due to have been held throughout the country ahead of the conference. However, the biggest challenge to the peace process remains differences among stakeholders over the so-called National Ceasefire Agreement, signed by eight armed ethnic groups in October 2015.

There is uncertainty about whether non-signatory groups, represented by the United Nationalities Federal Council, will agree to sign the NCA. Another complication is opposition from the Wa, Mongla and other ethnic groups to a process based on the NCA. These issues have raised concern that the second 21st Century Panglong conference may not be a success. I’d like to discuss the probable result of the conference.

The criteria for a successful conference will include whether certain groups will be allowed to take part, and if so, if they will attend. And, if they attend will they be able to give policy presentations?

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At the first 21st Century Panglong conference, which opened in Nay Pyi Taw in late August last year, the UWSA sent a delegation of low-ranking officials to the first conference, which it attended reluctantly and only because of pressure from China. A misunderstanding over accreditation saw the Wa walk-out of the conference. The UWSA’s policy paper was not read out and it was not published in a book of the conference proceedings.

The decision to allow all participating ethnic groups to present policy papers was a much-praised feature of the first 21st Century Panglong conference. Their presentations, to an audience that included government and Tatmadaw leaders, were also broadcast live throughout the nation.

After decades of civil conflict, the presentations included some memorable scenes. They included that of Lieutenant-General N’Ban La, a leader of the Kachin Independence Organisation – a non-signatory of the NCA that has been fighting the Tatmadaw since a bilateral ceasefire collapsed in 2011 – reading his paper from a stage in front of which were seated Aung San Suu Kyi and other government leaders, as well as Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

In the history of our country since independence in 1948 we had never seen anything like it. Allowing the policy presentations was perhaps the most significant achievement of the first 21st Century Panglong conference.

There may not be such encouraging scenes at the second conference. Last week, unconfirmed reports emerged saying that the KIO was considering leaving the UNFC, and members of the bloc have already insisted that they will not accept observer status and will only attend as full-fledged participants.

The Tatmadaw has said that only NCA signatories will be permitted to attend as fully-fledged participants. Negotiations aimed at persuading UNFC members to sign the NCA have been continuing. As of early May it remained unclear whether UNFC members would be invited to the conference and if so, if they would attend.

The attitude of the UWSA and its allies is more problematic. They have rejected the peace process based on the NCA and are unlikely to participate in the conference. Because of this uncertainty it is possible that there will not be as many ethnic groups represented at the forthcoming conference as at the first.

Such a development would raise the question whether the conference can make decisions without the participation of all parties. This is an issue that needs to be addressed at the conference, because it is important for the peace process to include all stakeholders.

Even if the event is not inclusive, if it can make decisions that benefit all the people and are conducive towards building a federal democratic Union, then the second 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference could be said to be a success.

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