Tensions sizzle at first day of ‘rushed’ Panglong Conference
While negotiations continued up into the day before the opening ceremony was set to start, the conference began as scheduled, albeit with some last-minute tweaks to the agenda and notable absences.
MIRED in discontent, the National League for Democracy’s bid to end decades of armed conflict launched yesterday sizzling with tension.
Negotiations between ethnic armed groups and the government over the staging of the 21st-century Panglong Conference were still ongoing as of the morning the event was scheduled to start.
The disagreements included who would chair the five-day conference. The armed ethnic organisations pushed for a tripartite arrangement, whereas the government insisted five appointees would steer the conference, and refused to capitulate.
But the disagreements started even earlier with a slighting of the ethnic armed groups. At an August 29 meeting of the preparation committee in Nay Pyi Taw, the official ranks of the ethnic armed group representatives were absent from their nameplates, while the Tatmadaw representatives’ ranks were intact.
The offending nameplates for General Gun Maw and General Sai Htoo of the United Nationalities Federal Council went viral on social media where they garnered widespread criticism for partiality.
The disappointment – and lack of finesse – has carried over into the 21stcentury Panglong Conference.
The government must take care to show it prioritises equality, said Dung Kha, a spokesperson of the Kachin Independence Army’s technical advisory team.
“This reflects poorly on the political culture,” he said. “This is not a social event – it is a political event that has political repercussions,” he said.
The leader of the UNFC and vice chair of the Kachin Independence Organisation noted the controversy immediately in his introductory remarks during the conference’s opening ceremony.
“My name is U N’ Ban La. Ethnic armed organisations usually address me as Major General N’ Ban La,” he said.
Political analyst U Min Zin said the small details have potential to simmer over at such a charged event.
“Leaders at the top should not ignore these small disagreements because they can lead to bigger problems,” he said.
The insult was already heaped onto a larger contention – the UNFC was initially denied the opportunity to present remarks at the opening ceremony, told only the signatories of the ceasefire agreement could speak. In an eleventh-hour decision, the government seemingly conceded, and made room for Maj Gen N’ Ban La late on the afternoon of August 30.
President U Htin Kyaw did not deliver remarks as expected.
Since the date of the conference was announced – just three weeks prior – armed ethnic organisations have expressed their uneasiness with the perceived rushing of events.
The groups did not want the Panglong Conference to start before the review of the political dialogue framework was complete, and while negotiations over the inclusion of the Northern Alliance – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), also known as the Kokang army; the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA); and the Arakan Army (AA) – were still under way.
The NLD needs to show that it is committed to a peace plan as a matter of urgent priority, but not a matter to be rushed, said Sai Kyaw Nyunt, an ethnic Shan politician and one of the secretaries of the preparation committee.
“As a government, they have a fiveyear term to work for peace,” he said.
For most of participants at the conference who spoke to The Myanmar Times, the most encouraging sign has been the inclusivity of the ethnic armed organisations. All but the three groups forming the Northern Alliance, who are engaged in ongoing fighting with the Tatmadaw, agreed to send representatives.
“Regardless of the fact that no specific agreements will be emerging from this conference, it is symbolically meaningful that so many groups are coming to the table where they can learn the perspectives of the other,” said analyst U Min Zin.
“For long-term concrete results [at a later date], the groundwork of interactive listening, mutual respect and patience are essential,” he added.
The Northern Alliance groups however, were effectively barred from taking part in the conference following disagreements over preconditions set for their attendance.
The MNDAA, the TNLA and the AA were told they must issue a statement expressing their intent to surrender their stance of “armed struggle”, and plan to store weapons with a third party.
Though the three groups had announced their readiness to attend the conference, the negotiations over the preconditions, and the specific wording of their statement, were never finalised, leading to their absence.
Also missing was prominent ethnic Shan politician U Khun Htun Oo, who previously said he would not participate unless all the armed ethnic organisations were present.
Although invited as a special honorary guest to the event, former president U Thein Sein, who laid the foundation of the peace process during his tenure, was also a no-show. A senior Union Solidarity and Development Party member said the former president was travelling and could not join the event.
Since there is no interchange of perspectives and dialogue during the conference, it is hard to say what the real essence of the event will be. Most regard it as the foundational step upon which to build long-term political dialogue. Attendees at yesterday’s event said despite the rocky start, they were still optimistic that the conference would serve as a good starting point.
Sun Guoxiang, a special envoy from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who attended the conference yesterday, said he hopes the participants focus on the mutual desire for peace. He said he met with the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army, also known as the Mongla – two powerful armed groups with close ties to China – at Pangkham last week.
“I encouraged them to engage in talks with the government for Myanmar’s internal peace. I told them we would support all matters that are beneficial to Myanmar’s peace process,” he told reporters.
Gen Gun Maw said he believed that simply by bringing everyone into the same room to listen to each other, the possibility for resolving the decadesold internal conflicts has become a lot brighter. He added that the bid would be made even stronger by holding a dialogue.
“We have now started the longawaited conference for peace,” he added.
Notable absences and lingering sleights marked the start of the Panglong Conference yesterday.
LUN MIN MANG
EI EI TOE LWIN