This week’s Panglong peace conference – the last before the election – is likely to see agreements on a wide range of issues, but negotiators and analysts warn that much of the language is vague and could create difficulties in the future.
By SWE LEI MON | FRONTIER
This week’s 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference will be the National League for Democracy’s last chance to salvage some success from Myanmar’s faltering peace process before the November elections.
The conference in Nay Pyi Taw will be the first in more than two years, and negotiators are hopeful of reaching up to 20 agreements with the 10 signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
These agreements cover a wide range of areas, including continuing the peace process after 2020, implementing the NCA, and basic principles for a future federal union.
However, the credibility of the event has been damaged by the refusal of seven non-signatories to attend due to the government’s exclusion of the Arakan Army.
There were further setbacks in late July, when disputes emerged with ceasefire signatories over efforts to reform the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee, an important peace process institution that seeks to investigate and resolve violations of the NCA.
The peace process falters
Political negotiations with the eight initial signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement kicked off with the first Union Peace Conference in January 2016 – a mostly symbolic event overseen by the outgoing Union Solidarity and Development Party government.
In August 2016, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee set a target of holding a Union Peace Conference every six months. However, progress has been much slower than expected, and the NLD has only been able to hold three such conferences.
The last Panglong meeting, in July 2018, saw little progress, with political and security matters largely off the table, and ethnic armed groups and the military locked in a dispute over “non-secession”.
Following a disastrous leaders’ summit in October 2018, the two most important ethnic armed groups that have signed the NCA – the Karen National Union and the Restoration Council of Shan State – suspended their participation in the negotiations, saying they needed time to review the whole peace process.
Fighting soon resumed between the RCSS and the Tatmadaw in northern Shan State, and the KNU has reported sporadic clashes in Hpapun Township with government forces.
U Aung Naing Oo, the executive director of Center for Peace and Reconciliation, said lack of trust had been a major factor in talks breaking down. “If they talk about big issues like secession and a single army when trust is low, there will definitely be a deadlock,” said Aung Naing Oo, who was previously involved with the Myanmar Peace Center and, more recently, the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee.
It took more than a year of informal talks to convince the KNU and RCSS to resume formal discussions.
“Over the course of a year there were a lot of informal bilateral and group meetings between the government, the military and the armed groups in order to get back on the formal path again,” said U Hla Maung Shwe, an adviser to the government’s Peace Commission who has been involved in the peace process in 2011.
The peace process formally resumed in January, with the convening of the eighth Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting. All sides agreed to hold a Panglong conference by the end of April – the last during this term of the National League for Democracy government. However, the session had to be pushed back to mid-year because of the emergence of COVID-19, which precluded large gatherings. After several further delays, negotiators settled on August 19-21.
The other half of the peace process
But political negotiations are only one half of the peace process. After the government and eight ethnic armed groups signed the NCA in October 2015, they set up Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committees at the national, or Union, level and the state level to implement parts of the NCA, monitor signatories’ adherence to the Code of Conduct, and investigate alleged violations. These JMC meetings stopped when the KNU and RCSS suspended their participation.
When the peace process resumed in January, all sides agreed to restart meetings of the JMC. Although a meeting of the Union-level JMC, or JMC-U, took place on July 7-8, the process has not been straightforward.
Disagreements have emerged between the Tatmadaw and some ethnic armed groups over when to resume state-level meetings, said one person involved in the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While all sides agreed to restart meetings at the JICM in January, the source said, armed groups assumed this meant both Union and state-level meetings. The Tatmadaw has insisted it only refers to meetings of the JMC-U, and that any issues with the JMC-S should be resolved bilaterally.
At negotiations in late July, a major armed group announced that it wanted to reform the state-level JMC, and the Tatmadaw objected on the grounds there had been no agreement to resume JMC-S meetings. “There were two days of arguments, but finally the armed groups stepped back from their demand,” the source said.
The source would not say which group had raised the JMC-S issue, but revealed it was “an armed group that said that they will return to the peace talks after reforming the JMC”.
This appears to be a reference to the RCSS, which said in a November 1, 2018, statement that it was reconsidering its participation in JMC meetings, describing the bodies as “unfair” and some of their decisions “unjustified”.
The disagreement threatened to derail the Panglong conference, because the armed groups said the reforms of JMC-S should be discussed before the next UPDJC meeting and the conference.
In the end, though, both sides agreed to hold discussions on the JMC-S alongside the upcoming peace conference.
“They can still discuss what they need to about the JMC-S but at the same time they will continue to political talks so that political agreements can be finalised at the 21st Century Panglong conference,” said Khun Okkar, former chairman of the Pa-O National Liberation Army, one of the 10 signatories to the NCA.
The disagreements between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups over the resumption of JMC meetings were the reason for delays in holding the Panglong conference, said the person involved in negotiations.
At a coordination meeting in early July, it was agreed the Panglong meeting would be held on August 12-14, but after the dispute in late July the conference had to be pushed back a week.
Nevertheless, the JMC is in urgent need of reform, agreed one peace process insider. “The role of the JMC has been missing from the peace process,” he said.
A major problem is that all of the government representatives on the JMC are from the Tatmadaw, because the NLD administration has refused to get involved.
“The Tatmadaw has assigned the government representatives at the insistence of the [NLD] government. The government never meets with its own representatives so the JMC is separate from the rest of the peace process. The JMC will not work if there are only armies involved,” he said.
Although the JMC also has civilian representatives, they are chosen by the military and the ethnic armed groups, so are not in a strong position to mediate between the two sides.
What’s on the table at Panglong?
While the JMC issue remains unresolved, negotiators have been making more progress on political discussions.
Over eight rounds of formal meetings, negotiators have managed to finalise several agreements to sign at the Panglong conference this week, said Hla Maung Shwe, the Peace Commission adviser. Once finalised they will form Part 3 of the Union Accord.
There are three main agreements within Part 3. The first is a framework for implementing the NCA, the second is a framework for continuing talks beyond 2020, and the third covers basic principles for a future federal union.
The implementation framework features 15 points, including one that commits signatories to continuing the peace process beyond 2020. The framework will also permit bilateral meetings to be held in parallel with formal peace meetings, and enable the UPDJC to adjust the political dialogue based on agreements at Panglong conferences. The Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups will also be required to meet bilaterally to “negotiate facts” in the NCA, according to the agreement, although it is unclear exactly what this will mean in practice.
But numerous sources agreed that for the government, Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups the second and third agreements, which cover the future of the peace talks and the basic principles, are more important.
“The thing [ethnic armed groups] want the most is an agreement that whichever government prevails in the election, it will continue discussions on these agreements,” Hla Maung Shwe said. “The second thing is to start discussions on a federal system.”
The second agreement features two parts: future processes and implementation beyond 2020. There are eight agreed topics for future processes: building a federal system, governance reform, the economy and development, financial authority, lands and resources, building democracy, social cohesion and security unification. Regarding implementation, negotiations settled on three phases: political negotiation, technical negotiation and implementation.
Nai Aung Ma Ngay, a New Mon State Party central executive member, said negotiators have reached five agreements on the basic principles for establishing a federal union: building a federal union; implementing a federal tribunal; sharing power, resources and revenue between the Union and states; ensuring equal rights for states and regions; and basic rights of the people.
Negotiators have also agreed that states will have the right to draft their own constitutions, although this will not yet be included in the Union Accord.
Aung Ma Ngay said another point of difference at the upcoming Panglong conference is that negotiators plan to include a requirement that implementation begin even before the entire Union Accord is completed. He pointed out that the lack of such a stipulation meant that the 51 points previously included in the Union Accord have still not been implemented.
“We’ve agreed not to wait until finalising the whole Union Accord, but to implement each component as we are ready to do so,” he said.
Despite the large number of agreements that have been finalised prior to Panglong, sources told Frontier that a lot of the wording was vague, which could create difficulties down the road when details get hashed out.
“There is no doubt it will be challenging to negotiate after decades of mistrust and fighting,” said KNU/KNLA-Peace Council secretary Naw Ka Paw Htoo, temporary chair of the Peace Process Steering Team, the coordination body for ethnic armed groups that have signed the NCA. “We could not reach a perfect agreement. We must have the courage to accept this. It may be unsatisfying, but it is not disappointing.”
Hla Maung Shwe said both sides expect to confirm about 20 agreements for inclusion in Part 3 of the Union Accord, which will then go to the national parliament for ratification.
But he said the number of agreements mattered less than the fact that the door for peace talks remains open.
Major players left out
Although a significant number of agreements are likely, the most important players in a future peace agreement will not be present when formalities begin on Wednesday.
Only signatories to the NCA are allowed to participate in Panglong conferences, but many of the country’s largest armed groups – mostly along the northern border with China – are yet to ink the accord.
They have attended previous conferences as observers, holding bilateral meetings with the government and the military on the sidelines. There were hopes they would also attend this time, but this was dealt a blow when the National Reconciliation and Peace Center said in early August the Arakan Army would not be invited. Government spokesperson U Zaw Htay said this was for legal reasons, an apparent reference to the government designating the AA a terrorist group in March.
The AA, which has been locked in heavy fighting with the Tatmadaw since December 2018, is a member of the country’s largest armed group coalition, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee. The NRPC invited six other members of the FPNCC to attend the conference, but after an August 13 meeting in the United Wa State Army headquarters of Panghsang its members announced they would not travel to Nay Pyi Taw.
Separately, the Karenni National Progressive Party said in a letter to conference organisers that it would not be attending this week either. Although Zaw Htay said this was likely because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the group’s secretary, Shwe Myo Thant, told 7 Day News on August 12 that it rejected the invitation because representatives would only be allowed to attend the opening ceremony.
Although the FPNCC cited COVID-19-related health concerns for not attending Panglong, the decision was almost certainly a response to the AA not being invited.
Lamai Gumja, a member of the Kachin State-based Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG), which is mediating between the government and FPNCC, told Frontier that the bloc has a policy of all-inclusivity, and would only attend talks if all member organisations were invited.
“We sent invitations to the groups three days ago. They said that they’d attend only if all members are invited,” he told Frontier on August 11.
Lamai Gumja said that excluding the AA will have significant repercussions for the entire peace process. “Panglong is a conference for all ethnic groups, so they should invite everyone,” he said.
Author and political analyst U Maung Maung Soe agreed.
“The armed groups will be more cautious with the government if they feel it’s trying to divide them. If they don’t invite the AA, it will be difficult to negotiate with their allies, the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] and the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army], in the future,” he said.
AA spokesperson Khaing Thukha said that excluding the group from the Panglong conference was an attempt to sow division among FPNCC members, and showed the government lacked the commitment to resolving political disputes through negotiation. “It’s very obvious they want to ruin our unity,” he said.
Blocking negotiations would only result in further conflict, he warned.
“If the Myanmar government has nothing to say to us – if they assume that there is no need to negotiate with us – it’s very clear what we should do in future: we will continue our work in solidarity with the Rakhine people to pursue our right to self-determination.”