Peace process at risk of disintegrating
Myanmar’s civilian government has made peace and national reconciliation a central platform of its administration since taking office in early 2016. But after almost five years very little has been achieved and the peace process is yet again precariously poised. The next stage — the fourth round of the Panglong talks as Aung San Suu Kyi dubbed it after her historic electoral victory five years ago — is scheduled to start today in the capital Nay Pyi Taw but is in danger of disintegrating into disarray.
While the government has been gung ho about holding this meeting — which would be the last before the forthcoming elections in November — many ethnic leaders remained sceptical and hesitant about participating, fearing that it would only be symbolic and nothing of substance would be agreed. They also fear that there would be no room for discussion — let alone dissension — and would be incongruous with the reality on the ground, where sporadic and often intense fighting with Myanmar’s army continues almost unabated.
The peace process or Panglong has now largely become a short-hand for talks between the government and the 10 ethnic armed groups which have signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Eight originally signed during Thein Sein’s presidency in October 2015 — including the Chin National Front, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karen National Union (KNU), and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) — and two others signed during Ms Suu Kyi’s tenure at an earlier Panglong meeting — the New Mon State Party, and Lahu Democratic Union.
But Panglong does not include several key rebel armies — the Wa and the Kachin — which so far have resisted signing the NCA. There are at least six other groups not participating, including the Arakan Army which the government, especially the military, refuses to recognise and declared a terrorist group earlier this year. All these groups declined to participate — even as observers — in this week’s meeting, despite most having been invited by the government.
Over the past year even the formal peace process has stalled and on the verge of complete collapse. Substantive talks with the ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) which have signed the NCA were in limbo — as the two main groups, the KNU and the Shan RCSS — suspended participation in the government-sponsored formal talks. But after numerous rounds of informal negotiations, the peace process got back on track earlier this year — only to be thrown off track again by the unfolding Covid crisis.
Despite these obstacles, necessitating dozens and dozens of “virtual meetings” over the past few months — to the military’s chagrin — preparations for the conference have gone ahead — but for a very slimmed-down attendance of around 300 people, compared to over a thousand participants at the previous three Panglong meetings.
Behind the scenes though most of NCA signatures remained sceptical and lukewarm about another Panglong conference. As someone close to them observed: “With each Panglong meeting, less and less gets done at each; it’s just becoming an orchestrated performance ending in annunciating some principles”.
The leader of the Shan RCSS group has continued to complain that the Tatmadaw — the Myanmar army — is not even implementing the individual ceasefire agreements signed in 2012, let alone the more recent NCA, according to sources close to the group’s chairman. The KNU fifth brigade put out a statement a few months ago, at the beginning of Covid, saying agreed arrangements were not being implemented.
Meantime, there is continued intermittent fighting between the army and the RCSS, the KNU and other NCA signatories. There is even more intense fighting between the army and other ethnic groups like the Kachin and the Shan SSPP — and continuous fierce battles with the Arakan Army. Little wonder the ethnic leaders — both signatories and non-signatories — are suspicious of the army’s motives, and fear the civilian government is complicit in this approach aimed at isolating them and allowing the military to pick off the ethnic groups one by one.
But in recent weeks there have been signs that the dialogue has begun to bear fruit and agreement in principle has been reached. The final touches to these deals were still being ironed out on the eve of today’s meeting.
The conference is expected to adopt three agreements in principle that have been thrashed out. The first two agreements are largely to enable the peace process to continue after the 2020 elections, according to ethnic sources. These are an agreement aimed at making the framework for the NCA’s implementation more effective. The second centres around the sequencing of the NCA’s implementation, including a step-by-step process for its functioning post-2020. The first two won’t be part of the Union Accord, which the government hopes will be the crowning conclusion at this Panglong meeting — and which will lay the foundation for a new constitution in the future.
The third agreement is centred on adopting a series of Democratic and Federal principles which were laid out by the State Counsellor in her speech to the third Panglong meeting last October. This has now been distilled into a five-point road map toward establishing a democratic federal union. This will then be incorporated into the Union Accord, which will then be put to parliament to ratify and form the push to change the constitution in the next five years.
But the adoption of these principles at the current Panglong will only be laying the foundations for political dialogue. “We need to continue discussing the details of when and how states will draft constitutions, what the limits of power are between the union and the states, and the whole future security apparatus,” Ms Suu Kyi told a preparatory meeting earlier this month.
For the ethnic participants this meeting will set the agenda for essential charter change. “We must get what we can [now] … for after the 2020 elections we cannot guarantee that whoever is in government then will honour Aung San Suu Kyi’s proposals … even the National League for Democracy may backtrack,” said a senior EAO leader on condition of anonymity. “This is a great window of opportunity to lay the foundations to change the 2008 [military-backed] constitution. They [the army] have effectively blocked every other door except this one.”