Will Myanmar ever hold another round of talks in its floundering 21st Century Panglong peace process? With a third round of meetings first planned for January and later pushed back to May, there is no clear sign at month’s end that the government, military and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) plan to reconvene any time soon.
The stalled initiative is the signature policy of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political detainee and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who many hoped could forge a national consensus on ending over six decades of civil war.
But a host of contentious issues have surfaced during and after the initiative’s previous two meetings, held in 2016 and 2017, that some fear has fatally deadlocked the process before it even held substantive talks.
Suu Kyi’s government wants ethnic armies to sign a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which so far has lured only a handful of groups.
EAO representatives that have declined to sign told Asia Times in recent interviews at different locations along Myanmar’s borders that they require a settlement on the creation of a federal union before signing any agreement on relinquishing their arms.
Myanmar’s powerful and autonomous military, the Tatmadaw, sees things differently. On March 27, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made clear in an Armed Forces Day speech that the military still gives priority to protecting the national constitution, which was adopted after a fraudulent referendum in 2008 and sanctifies a unitary state – not a federal state.
The military leader has indicated in previous speeches that he sees disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, or DDR, as core to the peace process.
The picture is further complicated by apparent disagreements between the government and military. New president Win Myint said in his inaugural speech on March 30 that one of his priorities would be to amend the constitution to lay “the foundation for building a democratic federal republic.”
Despite the government’s stated commitment to federalism and a political solution to civil war, Suu Kyi has inexplicably not deviated from the military’s demand that groups sign the NCA before any dialogue is held.
Suu Kyi inherited that rigid policy from former military-backed president Thein Sein, an ex-soldier who claimed in October 2015 that “eight ethnic armed groups” had signed the NCA. Of those, only three — the Karen National Union, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State — actually have armed forces. The other groups are more like non-government organizations (NGOs) than armies.
To maintain the illusion of forward momentum, two more groups, the New Mon State Party and the Lahu Democratic Union, signed the NCA in February. While the former has armed forces, the latter is mainly a Thailand-based ethnic-oriented NGO.
“It smacks of desperation,” said one long-time observer of the country’s ethnic conflicts who requested anonymity. “The government wants it to look like there’s progress when there is none.”
Indeed, while the government brings small and largely insignificant groups into the NCA’s fold, new formidable fighting forces are emerging.
In northern Shan State, Palaung tribesmen have recently raised what they call the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) with an estimated 5,000 men under arms. In western Rakhine State, the relatively new Arakan Army (AA) has grown to a strength estimated at between 2,000-3,000 fighters.
The TNLA was initially mobilized with help from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another ethnic armed group now locked in fierce fighting with the Tatmadaw in the country’s north. In February 2011, after three months of training, 40 men with 27 guns crossed Shan state’s Shweli River into what they now see as their home turf.
Within a couple of years, the TNLA has grown into a formidable fighting force with what it sees as a moral mission.
“It was like Granma”, a TNLA officer jokingly told Asia Times, referring to the name of the yacht Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and a handful of other Cuban revolutionaries sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to start their revolution. The TNLA’s leadership consists mostly of young and well-educated ethnic Palaungs, including former local government officials.
A TNLA spokesperson attributed the armed organization’s rapid growth to its firm anti-drug policies. Ethnic Palaung communities in the remote hills of northern Shan state have been devastated by illicit drugs such as methamphetamine and opium produced and marketed mainly by local government-recognized militias, known as pyi thu sit.
The TNLA has destroyed poppy fields, chased away drug traffickers and forcefully attacked the militias, many of which have declared loyalty to the Tatmadaw in exchange for business concessions. On May 12, a TNLA assault on a casino in northern Shan state allegedly run by a local drug-trafficking militia was in line with that policy.
The AA, comprised of ethnic Rakhines fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state, was established in 2009. It first saw armed action in 2015 when it fought against the Tatmadaw alongside the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, a district in northeastern Shan State inhabited by ethnic Chinese.
The AA later moved its area of armed operation to Rakhine state, where it has gained considerable support from the Buddhist majority population. The AA’s leader, Tun Myat Naing, has appeared on several internet videos speaking excellent English and comes across as a professional soldier.
The AA’s emergence has leveraged rising ethnic Rakhine nationalism, long a powerful force in a state now widely associated with the Rohingya refugee crisis.
The AA has issued statements calling Rohingya rebels active in the area “savage Bengali terrorists”, echoing the language of the Myanmar government and military. Like other ethnic armed groups, it mostly wants autonomy for Rakhine state, a poor and largely neglected part of the country.
The fast rise of these two new rebel forces would not have been possible without support from their chief ally: the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the country’s strongest and best-equipped ethnic armed group with an estimated 25,000 soldiers under arms.
The KIA, TNLA, AA and UWSA are also members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), a seven-party alliance of ethnic armies active mainly in Myanmar’s north that represents around 80% of all rebels countrywide. The FPNCC also includes the MNDAA, Shan State Army-North and a mixed Shan-Akha force in easternmost Shan state.
The UWSA actually entered into a ceasefire agreement with a previous military government back in 1989 but has refused to sign the new NCA. Most of the UWSA’s weaponry is supplied by China, arms it has allowed to filter down to other allied armed groups like the MNDAA, AA and TNLA.
While the arms flows are mostly opaque, China’s influence over the FPNCC’s members is overt. On May 18, FPNCC delegates were summoned to the southern Chinese city of Kunming, where they met Sun Guoxiang, a leading Chinese foreign ministry official and special envoy.
According to an FPNCC press release published in Chinese, Myanmar and English after the meeting, the delegates “discussed suggestions and recommendations” to cooperate for “stability” along the China-Myanmar border where fighting and refugees sometimes spill over.
Sun also “urged and advised members of the FPNCC to attend the upcoming third meeting of the 21st Century Panglong Conference if they are invited,” according to the statement.
Whether China wants peace now or after it has consolidated more strategic concessions from Myanmar’s government is an open question. But while Suu Kyi ineffectively sues for peace to consolidate her legacy as a national unifier, the future of Myanmar’s wars is being decided by actors who do not have ethnic aspirations for autonomy and federalism in mind.