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On May 24, when Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi opens the second round of her signature 21st Century Panglong peace conference, a high-stakes initiative to end decades of debilitating and divisive civil war, the outcomes and upshots will be pivotal to her democratically elected administration.
The meeting will aim to draw on the unifying symbolism of the original Panglong conference held by Suu Kyi’s national founder father, Aung San, who signed an agreement with ethnic Shan, Kachin and Chin representatives on February 12, 1947 at the small Shan state market town of Panglong. The agreement paved the way for the declaration of independence from British colonial rule the following year.
Despite the historic parallels and Suu Kyi’s strong political clout, few observers believe the upcoming meeting will meaningfully advance national reconciliation without a significant change in tack. Suu Kyi’s insistence that all armed groups agree to an elaborate National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) before holding any political talks towards the creation of a federal union remains a major sticking point.
So, too, are major battles underway between government forces and ethnic armed organizations in northern Kachin, northeastern Shan and western Rakhine states. While Suu Kyi speaks of peace and reconciliation, military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has simultaneously ramped up lethal offensives that have led to the heaviest fighting since the conflict-ridden 1980s.
Suu Kyi has made peacemaking a top policy priority, some say to the detriment of other pressing matters such as bureaucratic, economic and legal reforms. It is one of the few policy areas where she has appeared in public meeting representatives from across political and ethnic spectrums.
But her failure to establish anything resembling peace in the country’s north and northeast, and ongoing communal violence in Rakhine state have severely tainted her previous image as a persecuted pro-democracy icon. The perception shift has been particularly damning as a former recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle against military repression and advocacy for peaceful reconciliation.
Ethnic group representatives who have attended meetings with a working committee preparing for the talks say they are appalled by what they liken more to bullying than negotiation, with the military giving them only two options: accept the 2008 constitution, which solidifies a powerful political role for the military over a highly centralized political system, or face annihilation on the battlefield.
The 2008 constitution, drafted under military rule and promulgated after what most independent observers viewed as a rigged and fraudulent referendum, gives the military effective veto power over any bid to change important clauses in the charter. It also gives the military autonomous control over crucial security related ministries, namely defense, border affairs and home.
Ethnic representatives argue that without a new federal constitution that could be put to a genuinely free and fair referendum, prospects for ending the war will remain dim. All ethnic groups want “full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas,” as enshrined in the original 1947 Panglong Agreement brokered by Suu Kyi’s independence hero father.
Myanmar’s federal constitution was abrogated and replaced by iron-fisted rule after a 1962 military coup that ushered in nearly five decades of soldier-led governance. Myanmar’s ethnic wars represent some of the longest running conflicts in the world.
Officially, eight armed groups signed the NCA in October 2015. Of those only three — Shan State Restoration Council, Karen National Union and Democratic Karen Benevolent Army — actually have armed forces. The remaining five are small groups, claiming to represent the interests of Karen, Pa-O, Chin and Rakhine (Arakanese) ethnic groups, may best be described as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
On March 30, Suu Kyi announced that five more key groups – New Mon State Party, Karenni National Progressive Party, Arakan National Congress, Lahu Democratic Union and Wa National Organization – were poised to sign the NCA. The groups have since denied they took any such decision.
While the first two groups have armed wings, the other three could hardly be described as “key ethnic armed groups”, as most are even smaller than the five NGO-type groups that signed the 2015 agreement. But Suu Kyi appears concentrated on boosting the number of NCA signatories, even if they are largely insignificant to resolving the wars, in an apparent bid to conceal the policy’s underlying failure.
Meanwhile, major groups that have not signed the NCA — Kachin Independence Army, United Wa State Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Shan State Army/Shan State Progress Party, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State, and Arakan Army — account for more than 80% of the country’s armed rebels.
Failed peace processes are nothing new in Myanmar, previously known as Burma. In 1958, a caretaker government led by General Ne Win offered an amnesty without political concessions to communists, army mutineers and ethnic rebels. Those who accepted were granted business concessions, similar to the terms offered to the few signatories of the current NCA.
Peace talks were held in 1963 in which Ne Win’s coup-installed government demanded surrender and offered only “rehabilitation.” Groups that accepted were converted into “home guard units”, known as Ka Kwe Ye, which were allowed to conduct business, including opium trading, in their native areas. The deal ushered the rise of Myanmar’s most notorious drug lords, including Lo Hsing Han and Khun Sa.
In 1980, the government announced a new amnesty for rebels and political prisoners. At that time, separate talks were held with the KIA and the Communist Party of Burma that eventually broke down on the government’s offer of only rehabilitation for unconditional surrender.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government entered ceasefire agreements with about two dozen armed groups in exchange for lucrative business concessions, including a deal with the KIA that held for 17 years before faltering in 2011 when the group started making fresh demands for federalism.
The NCA’s only achievement so far appears to be creating rifts between signatories and non-signatories and internal divisions among those who have signed. Within Karen National Union, for example, there is deep disagreement among leaders and those who believe they have sold out their long struggle for autonomy for short-sighted business deals.
Even the smallest of the signatories have been granted lucrative business concessions, including rights to sell imported used cars from neighboring Thailand. Bigger groups have invested heavily in real estate and palm oil plantations.
The main difference between current and past talks is the heavy involvement of foreign peacemakers and lavish international funding in Suu Kyi’s initiative, interventions that have further skewed incentives and motivations.
History shows central demands for ethnic groups’ unconditional surrender — now dubbed as ‘DDR’ for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration by authorities — in exchange for business concessions seldom hold and are not a long-term solution to what is at root a political problem.
If Suu Kyi truly wants peace and reconciliation, she could take the moral high ground by announcing a unilateral government ceasefire rather than insisting ethnic armed groups sign an agreement many of them legitimately view as a military trap.
But until the Noble Peace Prize laureate stands up to the military and offers ethnic groups genuine self-determination and autonomy, her signature initiative risks repeating past failed efforts and leaving behind a country more at war than when she was elected as a reconciliatory peacemaker.