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Peace in Myanmar: So near, yet so far

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Aung San Suu Kyi

Peace has long been a mirage in Myanmar, a country that had been devastated by civil war and violence for over seventy years. But after nine years of prolonged and intense negotiations, originally launched by President Thein Sein and carried forward by Aung San Suu Kyi after she became State Councillor in 2016, an agreement on democratic and federal principles, the corner stone for a new constitution, cannot be ruled out.   

But at the same time, there are pitfall aplenty. The fourth round of the “Panglong” (peace process) talks which started on Monday in Naypyitaw is also in danger of ending in disarray. 

Although the peace process has involved Myanmar’s government, including the military, and various rebel ethnic groups, based in the country’s border areas fighting for autonomy, it has not been inclusive. 

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The warring ethnic groups in Myanmar are divided into those who have signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and those who are yet to sign or do not want to sign. The latter are excluded. Some choose not to attend. But for the peace process to be meaningful it needs to be genuinely inclusive. 

While the government has been ‘gung ho’ about the meeting, which would be the last before the elections in November, many ethnic leaders are sceptical and hesitant about participating, fearing that it would only be symbolic. Nothing of substance would be agreed upon. They also fear that there would be no room for discussions when there is sporadic and often intense fighting in the border regions.

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The peace process now involves ten armed ethnic groups which have signed the NCA. They are: the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, Arakan Liberation Party, Chin National Front, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karen National Union (KNU), Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council, the Pa-O National Liberation Organization, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the New Mon State Party, and Lahu Democratic Union.

But this does not include several key rebel armies – the Wa and the Kachin – along with at least another six groups – several still engaged in intense fighting with the Myanmar army. This set includes the Arakan Army which the government, especially the military, refuses to recognise. These were declared as terrorist earlier this year, at the military’s behest.

However, the government has intermittently been in touch and holding discussions with these non-signitory groups. The government’s main objective is to encourage them to formally enter the peace process and sign the NCA, rather than understand their concerns. 

With national elections looming there is very little incentive for these groups to sign the NCA.

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Over the past year or so, even the formal peace process had been stalled and on the verge of collapse. Substantive talks with the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) which had signed the NCA have been in the limbo for over a year, as the two main groups, the KNU and the Shan RCSS, suspended participation. But after numerous rounds of informal negotiations, the peace process got back on track earlier this year, only to be thrown off track again by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite these obstacles, preparations for the conference have gone ahead. But only a slimmed-down attendance of around 300 people, is expected. Previously, over a thousand would participate.

Behind the scenes though most of NCA signatories remained sceptical and lukewarm. As someone close to them observed: “with each Panglong meeting, less and less gets done. It’s just becoming an orchestrated performance ending in the statement of some principles.” 

And this is just what the military wants. The leader of the Shan RCSS group has continued to complain that the Tatmadaw – the Myanmar army – is not even implementing the individual ceasefire agreements signed in 2012, let alone the more recent NCA. The KNU fifth brigade put out a statement a few months ago, at the beginning of Covid, saying agreed arrangements were not being implemented. 

In the meantime, there is intermittent fighting between the army and the RCSS, the KNU, and other NCA signatories. There is even more intense fighting between the army and other ethnic groups like the Kachin and the Shan SSPP. There are fierce battles with the Arakan Army. 

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However, the conference is expected to adopt a number of agreements. The first two agreements are to enable the peace process to continue after the 2020 elections. There is an agreement on the framework for NCA implementation, in eight different categories covering military, political and administrative issues. The other centres around the sequencing of NCA implementation, including a step-by-step process for its functioning post-2020. 

There could be an agreement on adopting a series of democratic and federal principles, which were laid out by the State Counsellor in her speech to the third Panglong meeting last October. This has now been distilled into a five-point road map toward establishing a democratic federal union: including a federal tribunal, sharing power, resources and revenue between the Union and States; ensuring equal rights for States and Regions; and the basic rights of the people. These principles will then be incorporated in the Union Accord, which will then be put to parliament for ratification.

But the adoption of these principles at the current Panglong will only be laying the foundations for future political dialogue. “We need to continue discussing the details of when and how states will draft constitutions, what the limits of power are between the Union and the States, and the whole future security apparatus,” Aung San Suu Kyi had said. 

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This is likely to prove hard to achieve. For one thing, there is already a battle over terminology. The military already objects to the term State Constitution, preferring to talk about ‘a State Basic Law’ instead. 

Many ethnic leaders fear the forthcoming election will overshadow the peace process and it will be easily side lined after the current Panglong conference. Many ethnic leaders fear that if victorious the former ruling party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) will want to postpone the peace process. 

“But the worst outcome for the peace process is a USDP-military governing alliance,” said an ethnic leader.