Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi called for a ‘durable peace’ at the 21st Century Panglong Conference, or Union Peace Conference, on 31 August, 2016. The Panglong Conference, also known as the Union Peace Conference, was held in a bid to bring peace to Myanmar after seven decades of ethnic separatist insurgency following its independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Around 40% of Myanmar consists of minority ethnic groups. Some of the regions occupied by ethnic groups including the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, Mon, Wa and Kayah have been in a state of strife and unrest since 1947.
The recent Panglong Conference aimed at ending Myanmar’s seven decades of armed conflict is integral to the country’s transition to democracy. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who spoke at the opening of the conference called it a historic occasion for the further democratization of the country. The conference was chaired by Lt-Gen Yar Pyae who represented the army, Dr. Tin Myo Win who represented the government, Daw Shila Nan Taung who represented the parliament, Khun Myint Tun who represented the ethnic armed organisations and U Myint Soe representing the political parties.
The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) of October 2015 was undoubtedly a historic achievement but failed to achieve resolution of some of the most contentious issues plaguing the country which the Panglong Conference aimed to solve. The recent Panglong conference was held in order to end some of the longest running ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, rein in the powerful army, promote cooperation and peace with ethnic civilians in Myanmar, and encourage development of the frontiers of the country. However, the conference remained bereft of significant decisions and it even concluded a day earlier than scheduled as a framework for political dialogue could not be finalized.
The conference was however of some importance as it was a platform for nearly 1,800 participants from the Myanmar government, the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar armed forces), 17 of 21 ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), and other political parties. More than 70 papers were presented in the conference by the participation with regard to the country’s political future. Significantly, the United Nationalities Federal Council, which is an alliance of nine ethnic armed organizations’ that was not a party to the NCA of October 2015, presented a paper which sought radical changes in the governance of Myanmar and its military. Such space for airing of opinions by groups which have waged battle against the government in the past would not have been fathomable a mere 5 years ago in the country.
From some of main points highlighted by the various representative one could gauge the pulse of the peace initiative as a process which was bringing together various groups with differing interests laced with hope that such a platform could help them find a workable consensus. Government representative U Aung Kyi described the improvement of social welfare as an essential prerequisite to enduring peace.
Ngai Sark of the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) expressed the need for a better federal system to protect minority rights as the 2008 Constitution did not reflect the federalism just because it provides power sharing in the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Co.l Kyaw Soe Oo proposed the adoption of a tax system that will favour justice, equitability and sustainable development.
Member of Parliament, Thein Swe called for unity among the parliamentarians to facilitate the emergence of a democratic federal union. Since most of the ethnic rebel groups are located in mineral rich regions, many of the speakers stressed on reforming the taxation system, appealed for a transparent system of extraction of natural resources and urged for immediate steps towards decentralization. Other speakers emphasized the need for certain administered zones to be upgraded to a state.
The Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief, Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing used the conference to express the support of the Tatmadaw to the ongoing peace process but warned against ‘localism’ which he stated went against the spirit of democracy. Hlaing also stressed that the NCA remained the key framework for further negotiations and talks with regard to the peace process which meant that those parties which remained outside the NCA would not be involved in the finalized framework of the peace process. It is expected that at least some of these groups which had earlier withheld from the NCA, including the Kachin Independence Organisation and Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army–North, will begin negotiations to sign the NCA before the next round of talks. Regarding the Tatmadaw, Col Nay Lin Tun stressed that all armed organisations should be placed under the command of the Tatmadaw and that five years would be needed for the reform of the security sector. Ethnic representatives stressed that top priority should be given to the ceasefire for quick resolution of the peace process.
The Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) were absent from the Panglong Conference which was one of the major setbacks for the peace process which was aimed at inclusiveness. The Tatmadaw had insisted that these three groups sign a declaration to abandon armed struggle as a pass for their entry into the Panglong Conference. The three groups had refused to sign such a declaration thereby had to remain outside the peace initiative. Nonetheless, this stance of the Tatmadaw was very different from its earlier insistence on militarily demolishing these groups.
The Tatmadaw which had a powerful say during the junta rule, continues to be an important player in the peace process especially since it retains a veto on constitutional amendments which in most probability will be needed for the enactment of a peace agreement. Another hiccup in the peace initiative was with regard to the walkout staged by the representatives of the country’s largest ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army over a misinterpretation of its status by the group and the organizers. The absence of the largest and one of the most significant groups in the peace initiative was yet another setback for the stated goal of the process of being all-inclusive. It was decided at the conference that it would be held every six months which would enable the participants to discuss developments with their constituencies and to allow more input from civil society.
Seven decades ago a similar peace conference was convened in Myanmar by General Aung San when the ethnic groups were promised federal autonomy as well as a way of seceding from the Union. Such promises were not kept and were especially problematic when Aung San was assassinated months after the conference.
The junta never attempted a national peace conference during its rule. Though the recent Panglong Conference did not end with such lofty promises, it served as a forum for diverse participants to air their views which can be seen as a step in the right direction towards finding an amicable solution to the ethnic strife which has been plaguing the for seven decades.