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Myanmar's latest peace talks expose Suu Kyi rift with military

Generals Remain Suspicious Of Civilian Push For Constitutional Reform

Myanmar's Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, left, speaks with Aung San Suu Kyi.   © Reuters

Government officials, military leaders and ethnic armed groups have concluded a peace agreement that Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi describes as historic but underscores the sharp divide between her civilian cabinet and the armed forces.

The fourth session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference finished on Friday in Naypyitaw, the national capital. It was Suu Kyi's fourth and final push for peace with insurgent ethnic minorities ahead of national elections on Nov. 8. Part III of the Union Accord, signed on Friday, includes a framework to implement the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and basic principles to establish a democratic federal union.

Few, however, expect widespread peace any time soon in a country wracked by chronic ethnic insurgencies since soon after World War II.

On display at the conference was the personal rift between Suu Kyi, the elected head of government, and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief. Tension between the two was manifest from the outset.

"Peacebuilding is more meaningful than the silence of gunfire, bomb explosions and armed clashes," Suu Kyi said on Wednesday with many stakeholders present, including armed group leaders and Min Aung Hlaing himself.

"Instead, peacebuilding is aimed at rooting out the underlying attitude that caused the 'bad politics' which focused on the power of weapons to gain impact, get respect and achieve success," she said. She also noted that amendment of the military-drafted constitution is needed.

Suu Kyi was stone faced delivering her address, and remained so when the army chief spoke. Constitutional reform was among the promises she made ahead of a landslide election victory in 2015 by her party, the National League for Democracy. Her amendment efforts have yet to gain traction.

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement of early 2015 created a framework for a peace process towards the end of the previous government of President Thein Sein, a retired general. A clause in the NCA stipulated that decisions rising out of political dialogue "shall be the basis for amending, repealing and adding provisions to the constitution and laws."

In his address, Min Aung Hlaing implied that the NLD wanted to use the peace talks to further its own interests.

"I would like to point out that some organizations want to link the peace process with other processes," he said. "There is nothing more important than the interests of the nation."

Min Aung Hlaing also came across as aggressive to dissident ethnic minority elements when he said everyone in Myanmar already enjoys equality.

"Ethnic armed organizations have opposed the Union," he said. "If one studies history objectively, it can be seen that the military has protected the Union and its successive governments."

After Suu Kyi entered office, her civilian government and the military tried to foster a better working relationship. She had regular secret meetings with Min Aung Hlaing until the middle of 2018, according to a senior government official who spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review on condition of anonymity. The meetings ended when Suu Kyi broached the thorny issue of constitutional amendment.

The relationship had already become severely strained by heavy military operations in Rakhine state against the Rohingya Muslim minority that resulted in an exodus of over 700,000 to Bangladesh in late 2017.

There was further tension in early 2019 when the NLD submitted a parliamentary motion to form a committee to draft amendments to the constitution.

"Using the peace talks and 21st century Panglong Peace Conference to amend the constitution is more realistic than just having negotiations in parliament," Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, told Nikkei. "The peace talks include all parties -- not just the government and the military but also ethnic groups."

Than Soe Naing said Min Aung Hlaing's reservations about the constitutional moves and peace talks are well known, but not insurmountable. "He will retire one day and the peace process will be with us after that," he said.

Ethnic representatives said they were only demanding their birthrights, not asking that anything new be granted.

"The constitution gives us individual rights, but we still need collective rights for our self-determination," P'doh Saw Tah Doh Moo, secretary general of the Karen National Union, told Nikkei. "Only federalism can bring that."

"This is the first step, a positive one," he said of the conference. "But we will have to carry on after 2020 to find peace and build the nation together."