Making history on the long road to peace
An historic tripartite meeting among representatives of the Government of Myanmar, political parties and ethnic armed groups took place at the Myanmar Peace Center on August 18. It was an historic event in the sense that they met for the first time in Myanmar’s history. It was also significant that the meeting took place on the third anniversary of the beginning of the peace process.
The seating was in a triangle format but the discussions were three-way. The tone of the conversations was frank and collegial.
As it was an historic event, the media was allowed to cover the meeting unhindered. The United Nations special envoy on Myanmar, Mr Vijay Nambiar, also attended the meeting to observe the historic exchanges among the three groups.
The overall agenda was peace. But the specific agenda was to introduce officially the next step of the peace process after a nationwide ceasefire agreement is signed: the development of a framework for political dialogue, which will form the basis for political dialogue.
There are only five points remaining to be negotiated before agreement can
be reached on a nationwide ceasefire. It is highly likely that the negotiations will be concluded at the next round of talks due to take place later this month. When that happens, negotiations will need to begin immediately on the framework for political dialogue.
The terms of the draft ceasefire agreement require the framework for political dialogue to be developed and negotiated within 60 days. They also stipulate that the political dialogue must begin within 90 days from the signing and validation of the ceasefire agreement.
It is an ambitious provision but the terms of the ceasefire agreement must be met. The process to develop the framework for political dialogue must begin in parallel with the implementation of the ceasefire. There will not be a moment to lose
Political parties have had to watch from the sidelines as the ceasefire negotiations continued between the government and ethnic armed groups. The tripartite talks can be regarded as an announcement that the peace process is being expanded from two-way negotiations to three-way talks.
Participation in the political dialogue will not be limited to the three main dialogue partners. The process will also have to allow for the participation of experts, women and civil society, with the tripartite group forming the core of the political negotiations.
The August 18 meeting is an indication of the dramatic changes that have taken place in Myanmar in recent years. It bodes well for Myanmar’s future. From the perspective of conflict resolution, the meeting provided a huge boost for confidence-building among disparate political groups.
Looking back at the political landscape of a decade or so ago, the idea of tripartite talks is not new.
As early as 2000, political and ethnic opposition groups called for a tripartite dialogue. They wanted it to involve the then military government, ethnic groups including those that were armed and pro-democracy groups led by the National League for Democracy. The UN supported the idea of tripartite talks.
After opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met military leaders in 2000, expectations rose for tripartite talks but they never materialised.
This was because, said opponents of the military government, there was no political will on its part to embark on the road to dialogue. It must be acknowledged that the junta was not ready then for such a dialogue. This is because, essentially, the authoritarian polity did not provide any space for political dialogue.
At that time, ethnic groups not only talked about the need for three-way negotiations but also outlined what needed to be discussed. They said tripartite dialogue should focus on three primary issues: the constitution of the future Union of Myanmar, democracy and the future of the armed forces.
Given the likely composition of the forthcoming political dialogue, there is little change in who may be involved. The only exception is the expansion of participation to groups beyond the tripartite.
In terms of agenda, it will revolve around the same issues raised a decade ago but its focus will no longer be on politics. It will be based on peace, which was not mentioned when the idea of a tripartite talks was mooted in the past.
The historic August talks went extremely well. In the face-to-face talks, the government, politicians and ethnic armed groups raised concerns about ceasefire talks and prospects for peace and provided suggestions to maintain momentum towards progress.
They expressed multifarious political stances but they were centred on a willingness to cooperate for peace and the future of the Union and to resolve age-old grievances. Most importantly, many participants expressed their vision for reconciliation.
Moreover, while the government focused on the importance of inclusiveness and commitment for the political dialogue, ethnic armed groups talked about the reasons why they took up arms. On the other side of the triangular table, political parties called the meeting “a new chapter in Myanmar history.”
The likely agreement this month on a national ceasefire signals the imminent beginning of the political dialogue. All stakeholders are energised by the positive outcome of the tripartite talks last month. But they are just the beginning. There are many more ahead.
It has taken more than a decade for the tripartite talks to materialise. Sacrifices have been made. I hope the talks yield the results for which we have all been waiting.
(Aung Naing Oo is associate director of the Peace Dialogue Program, Myanmar Peace Center. The opinions expressed are his own).