The Third 21st Century Panglong Conference: A Review

02 Aug, 2018    ·   5499

Angshuman Choudhury assesses the proceedings of the third 21st Century Panglong Conference, that took place in Naypyitaw from 11-16 July 2018 

Angshuman Choudhury
Angshuman Choudhury
Senior Researcher, and Coordinator, Southeast Asia Research Programme (SEARP)

The third iteration of Myanmar’s union-level peace forum—the 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC)—concluded on 16 July 2018. The 21CPC, supposed to be held biannually, was hosted in 2018 after a year-long delay, and witnessed five days of deliberations compared to three days in the 2017 iteration.

It took place amidst continuing skirmishes between the Tatmadaw (military) and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) and between various ethnic armies in Kachin, Shan, Karen, and Mon states. The 2018 21CPC—unusually tense in its unfolding—ended on a note of frustration and skepticism. Several ethnic leaders were critical of the sluggishness of the dialogue process under the framework of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), particularly the core negotiating parties' inability to deliberate upon what they deem as the most critical points of dialogue. Nonetheless, agreements signed with NCA signatory EAOs and lateral meetings between Naypyitaw and non-NCA northern groups indicate forward movement in the peace process.

Points of Deliberation
In the 2018 21CPC, 14 principles relating to political (4), economic (1), social (7), and land sectors (2) were adopted under Part II of the Union Accord. This is a modest number compared to the 37 agreements reached last year under Part I. Contentious political issues like the right to secession, self-determination, and full autonomy for states/regions were deliberately left out of discussions so as to proceed with the dialogue process. Though this allowed for the conference to proceed, the obfuscation of tricky agendas severely limits the overall scope of the peace process.

More importantly, a stalemate remains on security sector matters—a key domain of post-conflict transition that directly relates to variables of war and peace like capacities of violence, strength of ethnic armies, and arms flows within the country. Like 2017, no agreement was reached on security sector issues due to critical differences between the Tatmadaw and the various EAOs, including over a potential federal army. On this, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's frustration was palpable as she emphasised in her concluding remarks the importance of security sector agreements for creating a 'perfect union peace agreement'.

Debates on the economic sector reflected deep-seated tensions between Naypyitaw’s centralising vision and the regional ethnic quarters' decentralising vision. Only one agreement—relating to the autonomy of regional/state governments to formulate their own economic projects—was passed albeit with a rider that mandates coherence between regional projects and the union’s policy agendas. Debates on the political sector indicated the Tatmadaw's apparent attempt to perpetuate its unionist political vision in which ethnic populations remain firmly under Naypyitaw's administrative paramountcy. For example, the military objected to a proposal by ethnic political parties for a 30 per cent reserved quota for women in the peace process.

The Tatmadaw also continued to push its hegemonic agenda during the federalism debates, thus allowing discontentment among pro-decentralisation constituencies to fester. During the negotiations, it expressed opposition to the use of the phrase “union that is based on federalism and democracy” by ethnic groups in a particular agreement, ultimately retaining the current title, “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”

Heightened Militarism
In his opening remarks, the Tatmadaw’s Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, launched a sharp attack against EAOs, accusing them of 'giving groundless reasons' for waging war, demanding that they 'work in accordance with international peace principles' rather than 'wasting time on discussions that are not related to peace'.

He also issued a slant threat to the ethnic groups, urging them to not deem the military as ‘weak’ merely because it is leading the peace process. He added that EAOs and political parties do not represent the 'all 52 million people of Myanmar' but those from a 'particular walk of life' and claimed that the Tatmadaw represented the state and all its people. These statements triggered alarm bells in ethnic, political, and civil society quarters, many of whom have interpreted these statements as the military’s assertion of its supreme role in Myanmar’s social and political milieu despite the existence of a popularly elected government.

Such an openly threatening narrative from the Tatmadaw will only serve to aggravate existing tensions and acute trust deficit between Naypyitaw and ethnic populations. They also make Myanmar’s democracy appear hostage to the military’s overwhelming agenda.

‘Guests’ from the North
Like in 2017, Naypyitaw invited members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC)—the seven-member non-NCA grouping from the north—to attend the conference as observers. Although they were not allowed to occupy the centre table during talks, Naypyitaw, in a positive move, gave them exclusive audience in a manner that differentiated between wholly and partially recalcitrant groups. Although Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief held talks with four FPNCC members who had previously signed bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government, the deputy commander-in-chief met the other three who have not yet signed any ceasefire agreement. Suu Kyi too met both groups separately.

These high-level meetings were encouraging but the de-escalation of the northern conflict was not discussed in these interactions. Moreover, the key point of negotiation with the FPNCC—an alternative proposal for NCA the FPNCC submitted in 2017—is yet to be discussed. Without deliberating on the contents of this document, little progress can be made on the northern front where a slow war continues to rage on.

Meanwhile, the deputy commander-in-chief offered the non-ceasefire FPNCC members an option of signing bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government with a precondition that they publicly declare the move and agree to disarm. This is impractical because recalcitrant EAOs with significant firepower and constituent leverage are highly mindful of their ethnic support bases, and would not like to appear weak by disarming without a permanent settlement.

Additionally, like in 2017, the FPNCC groups arrived in Naypyitaw via China on a Beijing-supplied chartered plane—demonstrating China's continuing role in Myanmar’s peace process, because the FPNCC's engagements in Naypyitaw would not have materialised without Beijing’s prodding.

Naypyitaw has announced that it will host two more conferences in 2018. This seems encouraging, but it remains to be seen if Naypyitaw chooses quality over quantity.