Panglong wraps up early
Despite glitches and an inauspicious second-day walkout, the peace conference was heralded as a landmark first step, with plenty more work to come before the second session kicks off in six months.
CRITICISM, disputes or bumps along the road are no cause for concern; the only thing to fear is not acknowledging the problem at all, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said at the close of a landmark peace summit this weekend.
Her administration’s inaugural bid for peace concluded one day early, saw a major group walkout and involved no breakthroughs. Regardless of the mishaps, the state counsellor nevertheless heralded the event as a successful step toward resolving the country’s entrenched armed conflicts.
Government officials, leaders of ethnic armed groups, representatives of the Tatmadaw and third-party observers were all brought to the table at the three-and-a-half-day peace summit in Nay Pyi Taw.
Although participants voiced anger over the lack of substantive debate at the conference, with one delegate going so far as to compare it to an unseasoned curry, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi praised what she said was the very first step in a challenging peace process.
“The most important thing is that we can agree to tackle the issues courageously,” she said.
In her closing remarks, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urged all participants to avoid dwelling on past grievances or slights.
“After listening to the presentations of all groups over the past four days, I know now who is concentrated on past wrongs and who is focused on how to build our future state,” the state counsellor said. “But there is time yet for those stuck in the past to look forward.”
Regarding criticism that the peace summit, dubbed the 21st-century Panglong Conference, was rushed, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the new government was already late on embarking on the journey toward peace. She added that all participants have a unique opportunity to join the process and help accomplish a great task.
In a move Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said was meant to make the process as all-inclusive as possible, the Panglong Conference was broadcast on state television, giving the public a window into the summit.
“The public must understand that they must take part in this peace process too,” said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Demands of the ethnic groups The broadcasting allowed a rare public stage for the ethnic groups as they aired their grievances and took shots at the Tatmadaw and each other over the course of the conference.
During the four-day event, 73 papers were presented by representatives from the government, the Tatmadaw, political parties and ethnic armed groups. Each were given a 10-minute slot.
Most of the speakers focused on their vision for a federal democratic Union, as well as perceived security and defence priorities and the need for greater ethnic equality, sovereignty and right to self-determination. Some called for a decentralisation of the government; many pressed for revising the constitution.
After a last-minute change of plans allowed the United Nationalities Federal Council to speak, the alliance of seven ethnic armed groups which did not sign last year’s nationwide ceasefire agreement proposed reorganising the Union’s armed forces. The 10-point agenda focused on bringing the armed forces under civilian administration, and included the stipulation that ethnic minorities must be appointed to helm the revised Union military.
The UNFC also proposed reorganising the country into 14 states, with the seven current states preserved, and the seven regions turned into “states of nationalities”.
“We suggested simple ways of building the federal democratic Union that might better guarantee a level of equality we don’t currently have,” said U Naing Han Thar, a member of the UNFC.
Meanwhile the Wa and the Red Shan argued that their autonomous areas – quasi-fiefdoms in Shan State – continue to be recognised as selfgoverning areas.
Representatives of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) urged the government to ensure the future inclusion of the “Northern Alliance” – the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army and the MNDAA, also known as the Kokang group – after the three allies were effectively barred from attending the Panglong Conference by the Tatmadaw’s demands that they surrender their armed stance.
The Tatmataw and the 2008 constitution Representatives from the Tatmadaw and the Union Solidarity and Development Party used their slots to reaffirm that the foundation of the Union must continue to be the militarydrafted 2008 constitution, as well as the basic principles of the nationwide ceasefire agreement signed last year.
“When I look at the presentations, some suggestions are simply impossible demands [as they violate the constitution],” Lieutenant General Yar Pyae said in his closing remarks.
“But it does not matter. The most important thing is to find common ground for a future federal Union though a negotiation process,” he added.
The steadfast insistence on preserving the 2008 constitution was mirrored by an equally staunch faction of ethnic groups pushing for a redrafting of the charter.
U Naing Han Thar of the UNFC said no concrete peace agreement or common outlook on the federal Union would ever be achieved if the Tatmadaw continues to necessitate upholding the 2008 constitution, and the key political role it enshrines for the military. Tensions primed below the surface But inequality was both a central problem the conference sought to address and an underlying weakness it fell prey to. Just one day into the summit Myanmar’s most powerful armed ethnic group, the United Wa State Army, stormed out of the convention centre, citing “inequality” and “discrimination” after an organisational error relegated them to “observers”.
The Wa delegates were inadvertently barred from presenting at the conference, a mistake government negotiator U Khin Zaw Oo referred to as a “misunderstanding” that was going to be corrected. The UWSA delegates were not aware they were supposed to liaise with a lead ethnic armed organisation delegate for their full membership cards, he said.
The government sent an official apology to the UWSA headquarters, with Wa leadership set to reconsider attendance at future peace meetings.
But organisational mix-ups reflecting potential, if inadvertent, discrimination pervaded the conference.
At the government’s gala dinner on the evening of the first day, Karen and Kachin ethnic leaders were placed at a second-tier table. When complaints were lodged with the managing staff, the delegates were moved to the firsttier table, causing other participants to be displaced. Some significant delegates retired to their hotel without having a seat, or dinner.
A contrast in status was also apparent in how participants were dressed. Representatives criticised the Tatmadaw for attending the conference in military uniforms that included their rank, while officials from the ethnic armed groups wore ethnic dress instead of fatigues.
The ethnic delegates’ nametags were also stripped of their rank, while the Tatmadaw representatives’ were included.
A female facilitator was given a whispered but still audible reprimand by a government official after she announced the name of an ethnic speaker including his military rank.
Leader of the Kachin Independence Organisation General N’Ban La addressed the tension in his opening speech. “I’m U N’Ban La,” he said. “But ethnic armed groups call me General N’Ban La.”
Participants were also made furious over viral social media posts of attendees falling asleep at the conference.
At a press conference on the third day, Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, vice chair of the Chin National Front, chastised the media, and requested reporters and photographers refrain from damaging the image of the delegates for the sake of supporting a positive peace process.
“Yesterday, you [the media] downgraded our dignity,” he said, referring to the photos of sleeping delegates.
Many blamed former military general and government peace negotiator U Khin Zaw Oo for the hitches in the conference. While the government had convened a preparation committee for staging the Panglong Conference, it was apparent that U Khin Zaw Oo was calling the organisational shots, and even controlling the seating arrangements during photos.
However, on his Facebook page, U Khin Zaw Oo denied being a key player. “I just did my best to try to make it easier out of goodwill,” he said.
He also encouraged patience for minor mistakes at such a big event. “We had to make arrangements for over 1600 people,” he said.
Next steps The landmark gathering will now be followed by a six-month recess before a follow-up Panglong Conference is called.
In the interim, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) plans to hold a national-level political dialogue at the state and region levels in order to finalise the dialogue framework.
While non-NCA signatory groups were permitted to attend the 21stcentury Panglong Conference, they will not be allowed to take part in the national-level peace talks, said UPDJC member Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong.
Non-signatory groups must first sign the NCA if they wish to take part in the dialogue phase of the process, with the expectation that more armed groups will join the initial eight signatories in the coming months.
Effectively, this means that members of the United Nationalities Federal Council, as well as the MNDAA, the AA and the TNLA, are not included in the coming steps of the peace process.
Government officials encouraged ethnic armed groups to find ways to sign the NCA in the interim period. If they cannot sign within this period, it is not yet clear if they will be invited to attend the upcoming second session of the 21st-century Panglong Conference.
General Gun Maw from the Kachin Independence Organisation said no one wants to see any groups left behind, and so negotiations over signing the NCA must begin as a matter of urgency.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that while the government prioritises making the process as inclusive as possible, it cannot wait indefinitely to start the political dialogue.
“They [the non-signatories) have to think about it in this coming period. But it is impossible to wait and hold up the process … without knowing when they will sign,” U Khin Zaw Oo said.
‘The most important thing is that we can agree to tackle the issues courageously.’
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi State counsellor
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for the fourth and final day of the 21st-century Panglong Peace Conference in Nay Pyi Taw on September 3.