On 31 August 2016, the government of Myanmar inaugurated the much-awaited '21st Century Panglong Peace Conference' (also referred to as the Union Peace Conference) in Naypyidaw. This four-day long mega event saw a wide range of stakeholders gather under a single roof to discuss longstanding issues of ethnic discord and armed conflict. How comprehensive is this institutionalised process of reconciliation in reality, towards the effort to bring peace in strife-torn Myanmar?
Envisaged by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi as a reboot of the original 'Panglong Peace Conference' organised by her father in 1947, the latest edition comes as a crucial waypoint in the internal peace process in Myanmar. Despite major hold-ups and criticisms, this convention successfully established a cohesive platform for dialogue and peaceful reconciliation between the state and the various independent armed groups organised along ethnic lines.
The high-profile conference - attended by around 1,600 representatives from various Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), military generals from the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Defence Services), political parties, Hluttaw (Parliament) members, and even the UN Secretary General - was a follow-up to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that was signed by eight EAOs. The key focus areas of the conference were power sharing through federalism, local autonomy, constitutional revision, and separation of powers between the military and civilian state structures. Expectedly, most of these agenda points brought the ethnic groups and the government at loggerheads with each other.
While the ethnic groups proposed a fully federal union that would provide complete administrative autonomy to each state, the civilian-military clusters argued for a mere decentralised structure of governance through constitutional amendments. Furthermore, the former rallied for a complete separation of powers between the civilian government and the military, while the latter group sidelined it as a minor issue.
Even so, Suu Kyi's primary motivation for organising such a conference was to bring as many political stakeholders as possible to a common deliberative forum, and in the process, create a level playing field for peaceful settlement of ethno-political disputes. It was aimed at expanding the NCA by establishing a platform for sustained and inclusive dialogue between the government, the army, and the various EAOs, including those who did not sign the accord in 2015. However, if one looks closely, the purported inclusiveness of the whole process could be debatable.
First, four of the NCA non-signatory EAOs - the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democracy Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland - Khaplang (NSCN-K) - remained uninvited because they refused to disarm before the conference, as stipulated by the army. Their refusal to disarm was premised on their perception that the Panglong process does not align with their demands for greater autonomy.
Second, representatives from the United Wa State Army (UWSA) – the largest and most powerful EAO in Myanmar – staged a walkout on the second day of the conference after being identified as 'observers' rather than participants. Although this might have been a misunderstanding of protocol, the move led to non-attendee EAOs expressing solidarity with the UWSA by reasserting that the Panglong Conference was a “discriminatory” forum.
Barring the AA and NSCN-K, the non-attendee EAOs are all based out of Shan State in the north – a perennial hotbed of violent clashes. Both TNLA and MNDAA continue to remain engaged in skirmishes with the army. Intriguingly, so does UWSA, which has only recently faced a sudden offensive from the Tatmadaw. It continues to survive in the region as one of the largest narco-insurgent groups in the world, and a prime dealer of drugs and illegal arms from Chinese grey markets. The organisation is known to have
served as the key supplier of weapons to several northeast Indian insurgent outfits based in Myanmar's northwestern Sagaing division.
Third, the NSCN-K - which remains ‘at war’ with India - refused to attend stating that the conference “had nothing to do with the demand for Naga sovereignty.” Notably, it was only last year that India officially banned the outfit after a brutal assault against an army convoy in Manipur, following which Indian Special Forces pursued the rebels across the India-Myanmar border in a covert operation. The NSCN-K is also the ‘leader’ of the motley set of northeast Indian separatist outfits that currently operate out of Sagaing. Hence, it continues to be a serious threat to India.
Fourth, political parties from Kayah State in the southeast of Myanmar refused to attend the conference, complaining about the meagre five seats granted to them in the November 2015 elections. This reflects a core political dynamic in newly-democratic Myanmar: smaller regional parties’ perceptions of political under-representation and marginalisation by the larger, dominant national party (NLD).
Lastly, despite strong statements from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on the deplorable condition of the Rohingya community in Rakhine State, the conference did not invite any representative from the ethno-religious minority, marking a continuity of the union government's non-recognition of the persecuted community. The current crisis in Rakhine State, and the ensuing crackdown, makes this lack of representation relevant.
Despite Aung San Suu Syi’s efforts to meet the non-signatory EAOs before the conference and her assurances of the government’s willingness towards a comprehensive reconciliatory framework, the army has unleashed a tirade
of shockingly violent offensives against armed groups in Kachin, Shan, and Kayin States in the past few days, threatening to derail the entire peace process. For now, it remains to be seen if military action can compel the recalcitrant EAOs to join the Panglong framework.
However, the ambitious peace process in Myanmar will remain hobbled not just without the participation of all ethnic, religious, and political groups, but also without cohesion between the civilian and military clusters of the union government.