Myanmar Peace Process Inches Forward: Key Issues Remain
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

The third session of 21st Century Panglong Conference to fast track the peace process was held in Nay Pyi Taw from 11 to 16 July 2018. When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led democratic government had taken over the reins of power in March 2016 she had decided to push the peace and reconciliation process with the ethnic armed organizations. She had planned to hold Peace Conferences twice a year. However, given the tremendous difficulties and obstacles on the path of arriving at some degree of modus vivendi between the demands of various groups it has been possible to hold only three such conferences so far. This is also indicative of the fact that struggle for peace is going to be long and difficult.

When compared to the second session of the conference, held last year, it can be said that one of the achievements was that seven Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) which are members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) led by the United Wa State Army (and comprising of the Kachin Independence Army, Mongla-based National Democratic Alliance Army, Shan State Army-North, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army and the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) attended the conference as observers. Not only this, out of the seven leaders of the FPNCC four leaders of EAOs also had talks with the Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing while three others had a meeting with the Deputy Chief on the sidelines of the conference. The precondition of signing the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) by the EAOs before they could participate in the peace talks was overlooked by the Union government.

It is also well known that China is an important factor in bringing to the negotiating table the groups like USWA and other members of the FPCC. However, China’s Special Envoy of Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang while visiting Nay Pyi Taw to facilitate the peace process has claimed that it had no special interests in Myanmar’s peace process. China has considerable leverages with both the groups based along the Sino-Myanmar border as well as with the Myanmar government. China has also provided arms and defence equipment to some EAOs like the United Wa State Army (UWSA). While Beijing does have interests in ensuring the security of its Kunming-Kyaukpyu economic corridor and associated developmental projects it engages both sides to realize its strategic objectives. The EAOs are also used very subtly by China, when so required, to pressure the Myanmar government in many ways.

Thus, a few days before the start of the conference Sun Guoxiang had a meeting with Gen Min Aung Hlaing and discussed the peace process, border security and the Rakhine crisis. He observed that if peace is not achieved it will be harmful to stability and would have negative impact Sino-Myanmar border areas. According to some reports, China had provided security guarantees and even transport to the Northern Alliance members (FNPCC). It also needs to be noted that China has been involved in the peace process for last several years through its Special Envoys and has been regularly inviting the EAOs leaders to China. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that China has pressurized the warring ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA.

From Indian perspective, it also needs to be remembered that National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) that has been carrying out ambushes in border areas of Manipur and Nagaland, also attended the conference as an observer as it is a non-signatory to the NCA. However, NSCN (K) has a bilateral State level cease fire accord of April 2012 with Myanmar government. Recently, NSCN (K) had had killed two Assam Rifles troops in an ambush in Nagaland’s Mon district, besides attacking another Assam Rifles patrol party near the state’s Kiphire town with an improvised explosive device blast, injuring one soldier. Thus NSCN (K) takes advantage of its cease fire with Myanmar government for regrouping, training and carrying out raids and ambushes across India’s borders.

Such EAOs that have not signed the NCA of October 2015 have been expressing their desire to participate in the political dialogue while Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing had been insisting that it is necessary to sign the NCA even, if some of the groups had signed bilateral ceasefire with the government earlier. Min Aung Hlaing’s opening statement during the conference has also created apprehensions among the EAOs that military’s stance on peace talks might be hardening. His remarks that Tatmadaw represented the ‘state and the people’ has not gone down well with the ethnic groups as also with many other sections of the democratic and plural polity.

Another achievement of the conference that is being advanced is that the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPJDC) agreed to inclusion of 14 more principles in a Union Peace Accord. Among these additional 14 principles, seven pertain to social matters, four dwell on political arrangements, two are regarding land and the environment and one is about the economy. Last year in May at the second Panglong Conference, 37 principles were agreed to and with the third session the total becomes 51 principles on which accord has been arrived at. However, the fundamental issues pertaining to political and security aspects remained absent from the third session of the conference, as was the case in earlier sessions.

The fact that only one principle relating to economic sector out of 16 proposed by various ethnic groups and political parties was agreed to during the conference, points towards continuing differences on sharing of resources and revenues besides the distribution of economic & financial powers between the Union government and Regions/States. Though, the one agreed principle pertains to Region/State governments having the right to plan and implement economic projects that benefit people but such projects have to be aligned with the Union government’s development policies. Apparently, most of the points put forward were not agreed to because of Tatmadaw’s opposition to the proposals. Thus the Tatmadaw continues to be a significant factor in deciding on issues that rightly should be in the province of the Union government.

Whether there should be a federal, semi-federal or unitary structure in the country remains the bone of contention. The military is inclined towards more of a unitary structure while ethnic groups and nationalities favour somewhat of a federation and some others even a loose federation. During the discussions there were contrasting viewpoints even on the name of country. While the ethnic armed groups wanted to describe the country as “union based on federalism and democracy” the military insisted on including the words “Republic of the Union of Myanmar”. However, the UPJDC was able find a modus vivendi that added Myanmar to the description but not “Republic of the Union Myanmar” as espoused by the military.

In the last year’s conference the most vexatious issue of ‘secession’ had come up as such a right for the EAOs had been apparently alluded to in the Panglong Conference of 1947. However, the signatories to NCA cannot seek independence from the Union; meanwhile the non-signatories to the NCA like members of the FPNCC are still toying with this idea. Like Pakistan military Tatamadaw views itself as guardian of Maynamar's Nationalist Ideology which is based on non-disintegration of the Union; National Solidarity and National Sovereignty.

Further, some of the EAOs continue to entertain the idea that they could have their own Army under a federal system. Evidently such proposals may not be realistic because a nation state can have only one Army. The EAOs and many political parties believe that under the current military dominated Constitution it may not be possible to move towards a win-win outcome for most of the stakeholders involved in the peace process. The EAOs are in favour of either reducing or completely eliminating the role of Myanmar military in the political dialogue. This can happen only once the provision of mandated 25 percent seats reserved for military Members of Parliament under the present Constitution is deleted. This would require an amendment to the Constitution by ¾th majority in the Parliament but that might as well be impossible to achieve.

The process of amending the Constitution could be a long drawn out process depending upon how Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy fares in the next elections. Some estimates predict that enabling political environment for concluding the peace process might be possible in 10 years or thereabouts. What is of interest is that due to confluence of some favorable factors for the Army Chief his tenure has been extended by two years to 2020. This would allow him to oversee the next elections; some indications suggest that he might be having political ambitions. This may not augur well for the ongoing peace process in particular and for Myanmar’s democracy in general.

While the Myanmar military has to be more flexible, varied interests of other multiple stakeholders would also need to be accommodated to the extent possible. Evidently, this is not going to be easy task as there are many challenges in reconciling political, security and economic demands of ethnic groups and armed organizations. Experiences from peace and reconciliation processes elsewhere in the world have shown that such processes take long to fructify and it is not necessary that all stakeholders are equally satisfied with the outcomes. However, it appears that Myanmar’s peace process is moving forward even though it might be progressing at a very gradual pace. Three more sessions of the peace conference have been planned for till end 2019 and perhaps a few more before it is time for the next elections in 2020. As long as multiple players in the peace negotiations continue their talks without resorting to violence there is hope for peace and harmony.

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