The seven obstacles to peace

The second 21st Century Panglong conference finally began on Wednesday but the peace process faces some major hurdles.


THE SECOND 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference was due to convene in Nay Pyi Taw on May 24, nearly four months later than originally scheduled.

It will bring together about 700 participants from key stakeholders in a peace process aimed at ending decades of civil conflict and moving Myanmar a step closer to becoming a federal democratic Union.

The largely symbolic first 21st Century Panglong conference that ended after four days on September 3 last year was devoted mainly to policy papers read by each of the participating ethnic groups.

This week’s event, which is scheduled to last five days, will be devoted to more substantive issues.

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It comes as the peace process continues to face major challenges, including fighting between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan states and differences over the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

1. The NCA question

The biggest obstacle to peace is to persuade all ethnic armed groups to sign the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Of the 18 groups involved in negotiations after the peace process was launched by the previous government, only eight were parties to the NCA signed in October 2015.

Negotiations with non-signatory groups have continued since the National League for Democracy government took office but little progress has been made. In another challenge to the peace process, the attitude of some groups towards signing the NCA – a pre-requisite for participation in political dialogue – has hardened.

In a related development, divisions over the NCA have emerged within the United Nationalities Federal Council, which represents seven non-signatory groups.

They include the New Mon State Party, whose central executive committee members were reported to have agreed unanimously to sign the NCA at a meeting at the party’s headquarters at Ye Chaung Phya in Mon State in early May.

There have also been reports that other UNFC members – the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (North), Karenni National Progressive Party, Arakan National Council and Lahu Democratic Union – were prepared to sign the NCA but they have not been confirmed.


Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, centre, at the Panglong monument on February 12 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Panglong Conference. (Teza Hlaing | Frontier)

Not surprisingly, issues related to the NCA were high on the agenda at a meeting in Nay Pyi Taw on May 12 of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee. The tripartite panel, comprising representatives of the government and the Tatmadaw, members of political parties and signatories of the NCA, is chaired by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Government spokesperson U Zaw Htay told reporters after the meeting that the UPDJC was prepared to allow non-signatory groups to attend the second 21st Century Panglong peace conference as participants if they commit in writing to sign the NCA.

He was also quoted as saying it had been agreed to allow non-signatories to attend as “special guests”.

One of the most significant decisions at the UPDJC meeting was an agreement that the states and regions should be able to draft their own constitutions. Zaw Htay said the issue would be on the agenda at the peace conference.

Colonel Hkun Okker, a leader of the Pa-O National Liberation Organisation, hailed the decision on constitutions. “This has never happened before in Myanmar’s history, but we got it today,” he told reporters after the meeting.

U Min Zin, the executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar, said the move on state and regional constitutions could encourage some UNFC members to sign the NCA.

“It will be interesting to see whether the New Mon State Party and the Karenni National Progressive Party sign the NCA because of the move on constitutions,” he told Frontier.

2. Existing ceasefires

Another big challenge to an inclusive peace process is the groups that are opposed to signing the NCA on the grounds that they have already signed bilateral ceasefire agreements with previous governments.

These groups include the United Wa State Party and its armed wing, the United Wa State Army, one of the country’s most powerful ethnic armed organisations.

In late February, the UWSP hosted a meeting of these groups at its headquarters at Panghsang, on the border with China in northeastern Shan State, to discuss a paper it circulated ahead of the event that amounted to a rejection of the current peace process structure.

The meeting, which pointedly took place when the second 21st Century Panglong conference was originally scheduled, was also attended by another of the most powerful ethnic armed groups, the Kachin Independence Army, as well as the SSPP-SSA(North), Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, known as the Kokang group, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.

A statement issued after the meeting reaffirmed opposition to a process based on the NCA and insisted on negotiations linked to previous bilateral ceasefire accords.

At the time, the KIA was a member of the UNFC. However, there have been unconfirmed reports that the KIA resigned from the UNFC in a letter dated April 29. Another indication of differences within the UNFC has been the unconfirmed reports that the SSPP/SSA(North) was prepared to sign the NCA.


Protesters gather near Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon during a peace march earlier this year, amid heightened clashes in the north of the country. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

However, other groups at the Panghsang meeting have remained firm in their stand against the NCA.

They include the TNLA whose vice chairman, Tar Jode Jar, told Frontier the group backs the approach taken by the UWSP.

Zaw Htay has made clear that the opposition of the TNLA, AA and MNDAA to signing the NCA meant that they would continue to be excluded from the peace process. The government excluded the three groups from signing the NCA and they were not invited to the first 21st Century Panglong conference.

Min Zin said the KIA, which is involved in a military alliance with the TNLA, MNDAA and AA that has launched coordinated attacks against government targets in northern Shan, was also moving closer to the stand taken by the UWSP.

3. A different direction

Another setback for the peace process has involved the effort to encourage as many ethnic armed groups as possible to participate, if permitted to do so, in the political dialogue process provided for under the NCA.

Official records show that of the seven meetings to discuss a framework for political dialogue that have occurred since the NLD government took office more than a year ago, non-signatory groups have attended only two of the gatherings.

This raises the possibility that non-signatory groups could raise objections in future to the way the political dialogue is being conducted. However, no major criticism has been heard so far from non-signatory groups to the implementation of this element of the peace process. It involves holding national-level political dialogues in the states and regions and sending the results to working committees and the secretariat of the UPDJC, which makes  selections that are submitted to the 21st Century Panglong conferences.

4. Keeping promises

The national-level political dialogues launched after the first 21st Century Panglong conference that ended early last September have generally run smoothly. However, there has been discontent in some areas where the dialogues have not yet been permitted, such as Rakhine and Shan states.

The states and groups that have held the dialogues are Kayin (Karen National Union, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, KNU/KNLA Peace Council), Shan (RCSS/SSA-South, Pa-O National Liberation Organisation) and Chin (Chin National Front). Dialogues in the regions have been held in Bago and Tanintharyi.

Civil society groups also have input to the peace process, and the first national CSO Forum in Nay Pyi Taw in late February was asked by the UPDJC to discuss humanitarian support, environmental conservation and resource-sharing.

Organisers of the event, attended by 540 representatives from 300 organisations, were critical of the restrictions set by the UPDJC for the forum, at which participants discussed topics ranging from land grabs and internal conflict to constitutional reform.

“When we meet with people in the field, it is not appropriate to restrict them to discuss certain topics,” U Thwin Lin Aung, a member of the forum organising committee, told a news conference after the event.

Moreover, the UPDJC will not discuss security, but only issues related to politics, social affairs, the economy and land issues during other national level political dialogues.

“The problems will turn out to be more complicated [if we talk about more issues]. That is why a negotiating team has been set up by the UPDJC,” said U Hla Maung Shwe, a secretary of the UPDJC.

At its May 12 meeting, the UPDJC agreed that further discussion was needed on the relationship between politics and religion before it could be negotiated at a 21st Century Panglong peace conference.

Zaw Htay said it was not the appropriate time to discuss such a sensitive issue.

“We cannot allow it to be discussed during the national-level political dialogues and at the conference, which will be attended by 700 people,” he said.

The six topics approved by the UPDJC for discussion at the conference focus on politics, the economy, society, security, land and the environment under a future federal democratic Union.

5. Conference rules

Participation in the next peace conference is also emerging as a contentious issue.

The government’s insistence that only non-signatory groups that make a commitment to sign the ceasefire will be able to attend would appear to rule out participation by most of the groups that attended the February meeting hosted by the UWSP, assuming that any of them would want to take part.

There has also been disagreement over representation at the conference. It will be attended by representatives of the government, MPs, Tatmadaw, ethnic armed groups and political parties, but there have been calls for potential participants including academic Min Zin and pro-democracy activist U Ko Ko Gyi to take part.


Naval cadets in Nay Pyi Taw in the audience for a military procession marking Armed Forces Day in March. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Under guidelines set by the UPDJC, the discussion at the conference of topics involving Union affairs, such as federalism, security and national reconciliation, will require the prior support of 75 percent of each of the five groups and approval will require the support of 75 percent of all participants.

Other issues will be taken into consideration if they have the support of 50 percent of each group and will be approved with the backing of 65 percent of all participants.

6. Constitutional reform

The UPDJC is planning to submit 41 discussion points to the conference: 21 political points, 10 economic points, four points involving social affairs and six points involving land and environmental issues.

The agenda also includes discussion on such issues as upholding national sovereignty, state and regional constitutions, upholding the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches, and equal rights for national ethnic groups.

Min Zin, the political analyst, said it was clear the government was moving to set some policies based on federalism. “But we have to keep watching what happens to these basic policies in terms of implementation and if they will be a sufficient incentive for non-signatory groups [to sign the NCA],” he said.

Government representatives on the UPDJC have said they want to ensure that policy decisions made at the conference will be acceptable to all stakeholders, including non-signatory groups when and if they eventually participate in the process.

Zaw Htay expressed confidence that the basic policies to emerge from the conference would be acceptable to all stakeholders. “The facts in the basic policies will be acceptable to the non-signatory groups, too,” he told Frontier.

Zaw Htay also dismissed misgivings raised by Tar Jode Jar, and a non-government member of the UPDJC who requested anonymity, over the role of the 2008 Constitution in the peace process.

“The 2008 Constitution will have to be amended if there is a Union agreement … this process will not be carried out under the framework of the 2008 Constitution,” he said.

7. Civilian politics

Agreements reached during the conference will become part of the agreement on creating a federal democratic Union, but the UPDJC is yet to decide if they will be submitted to the Union Hluttaw for enactment as laws in line with the political road map.

Zaw Htay said the UPDJC would decide after further discussion whether any decisions from the conference would be sent to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.

“There will be so much more that will need to be done after the principles are agreed,” he said.

“If we agree in principle that the regions and states can draft their own constitutions, we will have so much more to discuss, including how the constitutions will be drafted. If we agree on the principle, it will be easy to decide on the next steps; from that step, they [non-signatories] can participate,” Zaw Htay said.

Referring to signatory groups, Min Zin said the government was likely to come under pressure over the transitional program outlined in article 25 of the NCA.

Since signing the NCA nearly 20 months ago, the signatory groups had seen little improvement in health care, education, social affairs, economic growth, environmental preservation, stability and the promotion of the languages, literature and culture of national races, all of which were provided for under the ceasefire agreement, he said.

Demands from signatories over these issues may get louder, Min Zin added.

He said that because a government is in office for five years, the more it wants to succeed, the more it needs to make compromises and must therefore be careful with the risks it takes.

“The Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups are not under the same timeframe pressure as a government; their planning horizon is longer and they can stand firm on their objectives,” the analyst said.

It will take considerable time to rebuild the nation and establish its identity as a federal democratic Union that balances the interests of different groups. Some want to delay the process and it will be essential to move forward with care, he said, adding that compromises will be necessary.

“Such a process is rarely successful if it is hurried,” Min Zin said.

TOP PHOTO: A tank crew participates in a procession during Armed Forces Day celebrations in Nay Pyi Taw, March 2017. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

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