Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi after paying her respects during a ceremony to mark the 71th anniversary of Martyrs' Day, Yangon, July 19, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

A third round of the so-called Panglong 21 peace talks ambitiously aimed at ending Myanmar’s decades-old civil war came to an inconclusive close on July 16.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a national independence hero and current de facto national leader, took over government in April 2016 with high hopes of achieving peace to the debilitating civil conflicts.

But the problems and restraints she has inherited from previous military-propped President Thein Sein and the legal limitations on her office that deprives her of command control over the autonomous military have militated against the success of what is widely viewed as her National League for Democracy-led government’s signature policy.

Nearly two years into her personalized peace try, Suu Kyi now appears to have been sidelined by the military, known as the Tatmadaw, which continues to flex its lethal force on the country’s various raging battlefields.

As with the previous Panglong 21 rounds held in August-September 2016 and May 2017, the recently concluded third meeting held in mid-July saw the Tatmadaw loom large over the proceedings.

The military again showed little or no interest in changing the 2008 constitution, which gives the Tatmadaw immense powers it has pledged to defend against amendment, to pave the way for the federal union ethnic armed groups see as essential for lasting and meaningful peace.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region, February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Stringer

The military’s unyielding position was on full display at Panglong 21’s third round. Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said in an opening speech that the military, not any ethnic armed group or even political party, is the true representative of all Myanmar’s people.

The speech, which was reproduced in the July 12 issue of the official daily Global New Light of Myanmar, said that “armed ethnic groups in some regions cannot represent the entire national people of 52 million, and political parties only represent a particular walk of life…our Tatmadaw, being a people’s Tatmadaw born of ethnic people, is an organization representing the state and the people.”

The inclusion of political parties in Min Aung Hlaing’s statement caused a backlash that went far beyond the ranks of the country’s many ethnic armed groups. Human rights activists, politicians and community workers posted messages on Facebook and other social media saying “the Tatmadaw doesn’t represent me.”

That’s also how the country’s various ethnic armies view the situation. General Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group fighting the military in the country’s north, made the point more lyrically by singing the iconic Beatles song “Let It Be” at a Panglong 21 dinner function held in Naypyitaw, the national capital.

The irony of Gun Maw’s song choice may have been lost on most of the audience, but lyrics such as “in my hour of darkness” and reference to “the broken-hearted people” followed by the fatalistic “let it be” showed how little confidence he and other ethnic minority leaders have in the so far ineffectual talks.

KIA leader General Gun Maw (3R) poses with Kachin ethnic women at a previous Panglong 21 convention in Naypyidaw. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad

Since former army general Thein Sein first announced his peace process in 2011, fighting has actually intensified across the country to levels not seen since the restive 1980s. The KIA in particular has born the brunt of fierce new Tatmadaw offensives, including hitherto unseen aerial assaults.

The KIA and its allies among the ethnic Wa, Palaung, Kokang, Shan, Arakanese and minorities in eastern Shan State, which together represent 80% of all non-state armed groups, were allowed entry to the talks only as observers, not participants.

The Tatmadaw and Suu Kyi’s government continue to insist that they sign a so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) before any substantial political talks towards autonomy-devolving federalism can be held.

The government contends that ten ethnic armed organizations have so far signed the NCA. Of those groups, however, only four – the Karen National Union, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Restoration Council of Shan State and the New Mon State Party – actually have armed forces. The other six are small local militias or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of little or no political significance.

The strongest armies, the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Arakan Army, as well as their allies among the ethnic Shans and Kokang, have refused to sign the NCA and are unlikely to do so as it would be tantamount to surrender before the federal union they envisage is forged.

Soldiers from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), a Palaung ethnic armed group, at Homain, Nansan township in Myanmar’s northern Shan state. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Further complicating the picture is a host of well-funded, mostly Western, outfits that have come to form what critics in Yangon have cynically dubbed as a “peace-industrial complex.” Their participation in the process, including lavish spending on various largely ineffectual projects, has so far done little to advance peace, the same critics say.

China, on the other hand, is now widely viewed as the only outside actor that matters. That is hardly surprising given that China is Myanmar’s most powerful neighbor with deep geo-strategic interests across the country, including vital oil and gas pipelines that run from Myanmar’s western coast to China’s land-locked southern Yunnan province and an envisioned deep-water port that opens onto the Indian Ocean.

Peacemaking is only one of several cards that China is playing in Myanmar to achieve its strategic aims. The others are trade, investment, infrastructure development and soft-power diplomacy in the form of all-paid “friendship visits” to China for Myanmar politicians, journalists and academics.

Despite a widely held belief among many Western peacemakers, China is not pressuring ethnic armed groups under its sway in the country’s north to sign the NCA. Chinese mediators who have met armed groups’ leaders on several occasions have only urged them to avoid fighting close to China’s shared border with Myanmar.

Cognizant of the NCA’s many shortcomings, Chinese mediators have instead encouraged certain armed groups to reach other agreements with central authorities, including even possible bilateral peace accords.

United Wa State Army (UWSA) soldiers march during a media display in Wa territory in northeast Myanmar, October 4, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

At the same time, China is playing a double game by allowing the UWSA to acquire sophisticated Chinese-made weaponry that it then often shares with certain of its ethnic armed allies. Observers say the discreet weapon transfers reflect Beijing’s view that only strong and well-armed ethnic groups can make the Tatmadaw reconsider its inflexible, hardline stance.

China’s hidden hand in Myanmar’s wars has not surprisingly made the fiercely nationalistic Tatmadaw suspicious of its motives. Sources with access to the Tatmadaw’s leadership assert this has made top generals more determined than ever to keep Myanmar’s elected government out of the peace picture.

That likely explains Min Aung Hlaing’s reference to political parties as representing only “a particular walk of life”, while emphasizing the military’s leading, supposedly unifying, role.

China’s approach is undoubtedly more sophisticated than that deployed by mostly sidelined Western peacemakers, many of whom lack even a basic understanding of Myanmar’s complex ethnic issues and conflicts.

Suu Kyi also appears to have lost her grip by calling in her closing July 16 speech for patience and a new strategic vision to build a framework for peace – again without providing details of what that vision would and should entail.

An ethnic woman takes a selfie with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, May 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

In conclusion, she said little more than “our conference is not stopping, it is not reversing, it is moving forward with great difficulty.”

Suu Kyi’s Panglong 21 was meant to be a 21st century version of the conferences held in 1946-47 in the Shan state town of Panglong, where her father Aung San and leaders of several ethnic groups laid the groundwork for Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948 and the foundation for a never realized federal union.

Despite that strong nationalistic pedigree, it is unlikely that the Tatmadaw wants to see Suu Kyi, who military regimes held in house arrest for over 15 years while severely persecuting her NLD party members, as the one who finally brings peace to the country after decades of war.

Indeed, Min Aung Hlaing’s speech reflected the fact that not only Western peacemakers, but also Suu Kyi herself, are increasingly irrelevant in a peace process that has quickly morphed into a contest between the Tatmadaw and China where ethnic armed groups that have not signed the NCA are pawns in a bigger geopolitical game.

Caught in the middle of the imbroglio are more than 100,000 people who have been displaced and lost their homes due to intensified fighting mainly in the country’s north. But that is not likely to concern the Tatmadaw or China: for even with Suu Kyi’s best symbolic and perhaps heartfelt efforts, war, not peace, is on the country’s foreseeable horizon.

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