Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (L) shakes hands with ethnic rebel leader General Gun Maw (R) from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), at the conclusion of a peace conference in Naypyidaw on September 3, 2016. Photo: AFP / Aung Htet

Government delegates and ethnic armed group representatives met in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai from January 12-14, the latest confab in a national peace process launched by Myanmar’s democratically elected government in 2015. Like previous meetings in the process, the sides failed to make any headway in resolving the country’s decades-long and now escalating civil war.

The National League for Democracy-led government — and, behind it, the powerful autonomous military — continues to demand that ethnic armed groups sign an elaborate ceasefire agreement before any political dialogue on regional autonomy takes place. Ethnic armies submitted an eight-point proposal in August 2015 under the previous military government’s peace process that suggested the government should unilaterally announce a national ceasefire so talks could begin towards forming a federal union, a long-held ethnic group demand.

The military’s peace conference led to what previous President Thein Sein, a retired military general, trumpeted as a “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement”, even though only three armed groups and five other small ethnic outfits comprised of non-governmental organizations rather than resistance armies. None of the major armed groups now fighting in the country’s northern Kachin State and northeastern Shan State signed that October 2015 accord. There are currently around 20 armed groups active across the country, not including small-scale militias and government controlled border guard forces.

State Counselor and de facto government leader Aung San Suu Kyi will convene another peace process event in February as part of her “Panglong 21” initiative, a nod to the landmark agreement her independence hero father Aung San and ethnic Kachin, Shan and Chin representatives signed in Shan State’s Panglong town on February 12, 1947. That agreement paved the way for Myanmar’s independence from British colonialism and the formation a short-lived federal union on January 4 the following year. The peace prospects for Suu Kyi’s Panglong 21, however, seem slim given the intense government-insurgent fighting now ravaging the country’s northern regions.

“We, together with representatives of the Kachin public, would like to participate in a genuine political dialogue where we discuss political issues, but there is a fundamental difference in our conceptual understanding of the peace process,” said Gen. Sumlut Gun Maw, vice chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). “The ethnic armed organizations demand that we should work together to create a federal union while the government says that signing a ceasefire agreement is a requirement for discussing our demands, and that talks will take place only after signing such an agreement.”

Ethnic representatives point to a long history of broken promises and say they now require solid guarantees and on-the-ground results before entering into yet another ceasefire agreement. Peace talks in 1958, 1963, 1980, the late 1980s and early 1990s led to nothing more than government offers of rehabilitation and insistences that ethnic armed groups be transformed into state-supervised local militia forces. The empty offers have frequently been coupled with promises of lucrative business opportunities for ethnic leaders. Now, it appears Suu Kyi’s elected government will continue the failed policies of its military predecessors, dashing hopes that her civilian cabinet would take a more enlightened approach to the country’s ethnic conflicts.

Military spokesmen repeatedly say they are duty-bound to defend the 2008 constitution, which is neither federal in character nor particularly democratic. Military appointees representing 25% of parliament’s seats have the power to block any constitutional amendment that would replace the current centralized government system with a federal structure. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, defended the military-drafted charter in a speech to the European Union’s Military Committee last November, saying “The Myanmar Armed Forces, being a strong and powerful national political force, has maintained an entrenched political role in Myanmar throughout the successive eras.” As such, the military will clearly have the final word in any deal brokered with ethnic groups.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan (3rd R) meets Myanmar’s armed forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (R) along with fellow commissioners Mya Thidar (L), Laetitia Van Den Assum (back L) and Ghassan Salame in Naypyidaw. Photo: AFP / Advisory Commission on Rakhine State / Aung Kyaw Moe

One notable difference from previous peace efforts is the involvement of foreign groups and individuals. With many foreigners competing with each other for funds and recognition, their often hidden role has added a new layer of controversy to the process. “The international interlocutors are actually facilitating the military’s hard-line approach by refusing to understand the grievances of Myanmar’s ethnic communities, by saying it’s all about business and economic interests — and oft-repeated cliché of Yangon-based Western diplomats,” said one Myanmar-based foreign analyst who requested anonymity. Ethnic representatives have consistently denied those cynical claims.

Foreign involvement has also arguably made the situation worse by granting the military international respectability and legitimacy it previously lacked, often at the expense of ethnic aspirations

Foreign counsel, including learning from other countries’ post-conflict experiences, can be useful for transitional countries like Myanmar. The content and form of the foreign guidance so far, however, has had limited, if any, positive impact on Myanmar’s peace process. The war in Myanmar’s northern regions is now more intense than at any time since the 1980s, which much of the fighting beginning soon after former President Thein Sein announced his peace plan. Foreign involvement has also arguably made the situation worse by granting the military international respectability and legitimacy it previously lacked, often at the expense of ethnic aspirations.

The bitterness and disappointment felt in many ethnic areas has been met with little sympathy from the majority Burman population. That has been seen in recent demonstrations held in Yangon and other cities in support of the military’s ongoing ethnic war campaigns. A motorcycle-riding peace protester who rode past a recent pro-military event in the central city of Mandalay with a sign reading “stop the war” was severely beaten by the ralliers. Even people aligned with the pro-democracy NLD have recently organized campaigns to collect donations for frontline troops fighting in the north. Despite official rhetoric of reconciliation, the prospects for peace seem increasingly remote.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of several books on Myanmar. He is currently a journalist with Asia Pacific Media Services.

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