Panglong billed as mere ‘opening ceremony’ for peace process restart
EXPECTATIONS for a major breakthrough at the upcoming 21st-century Panglong Conference are being scaled back, with one individual involved in the peace talks describing the event as merely “the grand opening ceremony” for the government’s efforts to end decades of civil war.
An increasingly small window until the conference is convened – the government has set an August 31 start date – appears to be one of the main factors for the expectations management taking place, with some parties to the peace meet-up saying there is not enough time to prepare for it, including undertaking a review of the framework for political dialogue.
On August 13, representatives from the government, ethnic armed groups and political parties held a meeting to review the framework for political dialogue at Yangon’s National Reconciliation and Peace Centre, but participants pushed several agenda items to future talks.
Nonetheless, Sai Kyaw Nyunt, an ethnic Shan politician from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), said the Panglong Conference would not be postponed.
“It will be just a grand opening ceremony for the government’s peace process and we won’t be discussing any main agenda [items] at the conference because we could not even finish the review of the political dialogue framework within just one or two days,” he said.
U Hla Maung Shwe, a senior peace envoy for the government, said hopes are still alive that three ethnic armed organisations known collectively as the “Kokang groups” will receive invitations and attend the conference.
If things go “successfully”, the groups – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army – will be invited to the Panglong Conference, he said.
Talks between the three groups and government representatives in Shan State’s Mong La earlier this month left officials from the groups disappointed, as the government issued a demand that they disarm as a precondition for their participation.
The groups have said they are hopeful that another discussion would be offered by the government before the conference.
The August 13 meeting was also attended by the Delegation for Political Negotiation (DPN), a negotiating body for the nine ethnic armed groups that form the United Nationalities Federal Council and did not sign last year’s socalled nationwide ceasefire agreement. The DPN last week called for its full participation in the preparatory committee for the Panglong Conference.
The Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee, a tripartite committee of representatives from the government, signatory groups and electionwinning political parties, will meet today in Nay Pyi Taw, where the DPN’s request will be discussed.
Political commentators have said inclusivity is key at the upcoming conference in order to bolster confidence that the participating parties are capable of successfully tackling difficult negotiations and resolving disagreements in the years to come.
Viewed as part of the larger peace process, the Panglong Conference should be considered a good starting point, said U Yan Myo Thein, a political commentator, who also warned that a lack of substantive outcomes risked undermining the new government’s push to rebrand and reboot peace talks.
“If all concerned ethnic armed organisations are not allowed to attend the conference and if there will not be any decisions made from it, the 21stcentury Panglong Conference would be just like the first Union Peace Conference held by former president U Thein Sein,” he said, referring to a high-level summit convened by the outgoing government in January.
Echoing accounts of the August 13 review meeting from government officials, Sai Kyaw Nyunt of the SNLD said most ethnic armed organisations, including the three Kokang groups, would likely be invited to the Panglong Conference.
“I think it is just a way to overcome the deadlock on the all-inclusion issue,” said Sai Kyaw Nyunt.
Concerning the framework review, the composition, subjects and decisionmaking mechanisms of the dialogue remain on the negotiating table and were carried over to future meetings.
Parties to the peace talks have agreed that review of the framework will continue beyond the Panglong Conference, said U Hla Maung Shwe.
At January’s Union Peace Conference, representation was broken down into seven stakeholder groups – the government, the parliament, the Tatmadaw, ethnic armed organisations, political parties, ethnic representatives and “other relevant individuals”.
The minister for the State Counsellor’s Office last week told lawmakers that around 700 representatives would be invited to the Panglong Conference, with the government sticking with the representative format used early this year.
But ethnic armed groups expressed a preference at a meeting in Mai Ja Yang, Kachin State, to see the groups winnowed to just three categories: ethnic armed organisations, political parties, and “government” – representing the executive and legislative branches as well as the Tatmadaw.
For its part, the government has sought to reduce political parties’ representation at the conference, ruling that only five seats will be granted to some 70 political parties that failed to claim any seats in last year’s election. The rest of the seats afforded to political parties will be shared by the 22 political parties that won at least one race in the November election.
On the subjects of the political dialogue, despite State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s initial indication that only politics and security matters be discussed initially, five primary agenda items – politics, social, issues the economy, security, and land and natural resources management – will be on the agenda.
“Under the five main agenda items, there are about 20 subtitles, but we could reduce them to 10 after combining similar issues into one. The five main agenda items remain unchanged,” Sai Kyaw Nyunt said of one outcome of the August 13 review meeting.
Regarding decision-making mechanisms, the framework currently states that “important matters including federalism, security of the state and security reintegration should be supported with the vote of at least 75 percent of each group and the vote of at least above 75pc of all those who attend the conference”.
With the exception of those three issues, all other matters “will require support by the vote of at least above 50pc of each group and the vote of at least above 65pc of all those who attend the conference”.
Sai Kyaw Nyunt said those thresholds must be changed because of the risk that bottlenecks would be created as political negotiations unfold among participating parties.
“It is like every party in the talks holds its respective veto. Without a change to this type of decision-making mechanism, I think it would be hard to reach agreements on more difficult matters like security and politics,” he said.
‘I think it is just a way to overcome the deadlock on the all-inclusion issue.’ Sai Kyaw Nyunt Shan Nationalities League for Democracy
Representatives from the government, ethnic armed groups and political parties meet at Yangon’s National Reconciliation and Peace Centre on August 13.