Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Political Landscape on the Ground is Quite Complicated’

By The Irrawaddy 29 April 2017

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss which ethnic armed groups will be invited and which will join the second 21st Century Panglong Conference to be held on May 24. I’m Irrawaddy reporter Kyaw Kha. Ethnic affairs reporters Ko Lawi Weng and Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint join me for the discussion.

The second Union Peace Conference [21st Century Panglong] organized by the government will be held in Naypyidaw on May 24. It will be interesting to see which groups are invited and which groups attend the conference, as the situation is quite complicated now. Ko Lawi, which groups do you think will attend the conference and under which status will the government invite them?

Lawi Weng: The political landscape on the ground is quite complicated. There are various groups—eight ethnic signatory groups of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA], the United Nationalities Federal Council [UNFC], the United Wa State Army [UWSA], and the Northern Alliance. The government said the conference would be held on May 24. But it is still unclear which groups will be invited and under which status. It is quite difficult to say.

The UWSA has so far hosted four ethnic armed organization meetings in Pangkham and has tried to hold talks with the government. The UWSA will take steps according to its own political policies. The UWSA delegation walked out of the first Panglong [because of a disagreement over status]. In the upcoming conference, it will demand the political framework it desires. If it does not get what it wants, I am afraid the conference will barely deliver any results.

KK: Ma Nan Lwin, the decision reached at the fourth meeting of seven ethnic armed groups hosted by the UWSA deviates from the government’s NCA policy. How will this impact the peace conference?

Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint: The UWSA hosted the fourth summit of ethnic armed organizations from April 15 to 19 in Pangkham. Seven groups including Northern Alliance members the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], Mongla Group [MNDAA] and UWSA attended the summit.

The UWSA put forward 15 detailed points regarding ethnic rights, border affairs, the economy and more at the first Panglong Conference. Other groups have also discussed those 15 points, and formed a committee to discuss these points with the government. They also said they would submit an official letter to the government for discussion. But, the government has not replied. The second Panglong is just weeks away and if the government is as unresponsive as it has been in previous meetings, it will be difficult for the Northern Alliance to join the second Panglong.

At the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting held on Monday in Naypyidaw, deputy army chief Vice Snr-Gen Soe Win said both signatories and non-signatories had to follow the NCA provisions; and that the army would not change the NCA as demanded by the UWSA. Though Vice Senior General Soe Win did not mention the UWSA in his speech, it was clear he referred to it considering recent developments. If the government does not intervene, it is unlikely that the Wa will attend the Panglong Conference.

KK: So, the military’s standpoint is quite important here. The government peace commission under the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) has said it would review the UWSA demands and discuss them if necessary. It seems that the government is taking action regarding the Wa’s participation in the conference. But we don’t know what the military thinks. The military talks about adhering to the NCA and it is not clear if it is willing to listen to the UWSA’s demands. If the negotiations between the UWSA and the government fail to work out an agreement before the Panglong Conference, it is unlikely that those seven groups, including the UWSA, will attend the conference. Ko Lawi, what do you think?

LW: Peace negotiator U Aung Min of the former U Thein Sein government was more accessible. He was not reluctant to meet with ethnic armed groups whenever they wanted to meet. This is different from the current National League for Democracy (NLD) government. So far, ethnic groups in northern Burma have met four times and formed a committee. They have talked repeatedly about holding talks with the government. But the government has not yet met with them. The government has nothing to lose from meeting with them. They can simply exchange views but the government still declines a meeting.

KK: Yes, as Ko Lawi has said, although the government said it wanted peace, there still have not been discussions on the ground. As ethnic affairs analysts have pointed out, the government needs to hold talks with diverse groups. Ma Nan Lwin, what do you think?

NLHP: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said the door for dialogue is open and urged ethnic armed groups to enter. She also said they could walk out if they did not like it. On the other hand, three groups [the AA, TNLA and MNDAA] from the Northern Alliance have repeatedly said they would like to join the peace process but the military has opposed it.

The military sticks to the NCA and says those three groups must abandon their armed struggle if they want to join the peace process. So, it has been difficult for the government and ethnic armed groups to hold talks because of the military.

They have tried various means of joining the peace process and lately sought help from the UWSA to meet with the government. But clashes were taking place between the military and Kokang troops very recently.

Ethnic armed groups want to join the peace process and the government has invited them to join, but there are clashes with the Burma Army on the ground and ethnic armed groups are still not sure how they can participate.

KK: All of the stakeholders need to compromise. What about the UNFC? I heard that five of the groups would sign the NCA. Ko Lawi, do you think they will be able to attend the Panglong Conference?

LW: The government and the UNFC will meet at the end of this month. And the New Mon State Party (NMSP) will also hold its central executive committee meeting. The UNFC has made 9 demands and we’ll have to wait and see to what extent the government will agree to those demands at the coming meeting. If they agree on most of the demands, those five groups—the NMSP, Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Arakan National Council (ANC), Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) and Wa National Organization (WNO)—are likely to sign the NCA. Then, they will have the chance to attend the Panglong Conference and this will be a good sign for the peace process. It all depends on the meeting between the UNFC and the government at the end of this month.

KK: Considering the example of NCA signatories, non-signatories may doubt the NCA. There have been fresh clashes between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Burma Army, and the RCSS and ALP still cannot hold national-level political dialogue. The region-based national-level political dialogues were held helter-skelter recently in Shan State. Non-signatories will hear this and consider possible scenarios. Ma Nan Lwin, what do you think?

NLHP: The RCSS proposed holding ethnic-based national-level political dialogue in Taunggyi. But the military did not allow this because it is government-controlled territory and they don’t like people gathering there. As the government has said it would not disagree with the military, the RCSS has had difficulty holding the dialogue.

But on April 23, the government organized region-based national political dialogue in Taunggyi. It invited representatives from across Shan State to join. More than 400 representatives attended the dialogue. But the government only made phone calls on the evening of April 20 to inform them of the dialogue and ask them to submit papers by 11 p.m. on April 21. So, it was quite hard for political parties to prepare papers and go to Taunggyi in such a short time. They had to hurry and some were not able to submit papers. A Palaung party was unable to submit papers and a Wa party had to prepare the papers overnight. They were not happy about it. Those papers are important, because the points they make in them will be submitted to the Union government and discussed at the Panglong Conference. They were not happy that they were forced to hurry, and have criticized this.

KK: As far as I know, the government is likely to invite all ethnic armed groups to the second 21st Century Panglong on May 24. But how many do you think will attend?

LW: As I’ve said, the situation is quite complicated. There are three separate groups—the UNFC, Wa, and Northern Alliance. We will wait and see which status the government will invite them under, and if the invited parties are willing to accept. For example, if the UNFC is invited as an observer, I am sure that it will not attend the conference. If the Wa, UNFC and some members of the Northern Alliance do not join the conference, there will be only NCA signatories, political parties and civil society organizations (CSOs), and the result delivered from such a conference will not be good for the internal peace which we aspire to because it is not inclusive. The situation is quite complicated and we have to wait and see.

KK: Everyone knows about the NCA path, and they say the path adopted at the Pangkham Summit is different from the NCA. Ma Nan Lwin, how is it different?

NLHP: As I have said, the seven ethnic groups will discuss and review the UWSA’s 15-point policy for political dialogue at a later point. What they want to do first is sign a bilateral agreement with the government, either individually or as a group, like they did with the previous military regimes. They want to sign bilateral agreements at the state level first; continue discussions and sign Union-level agreements; and then sign in Parliament and go directly into political dialogue to discuss their demands. They already made it clear in February that they would not accept the NCA.

KK: The government will hold the second 21st Century Panglong Conference on May 24. But we have to wait and see under which status it invites ethnic armed groups, and how it will enable them to attend the conference. It will be especially interesting to see how it will enable the seven ethnic armed groups from the Pangkham Summit to join the conference. Ko Lawi Weng and Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint, thank you for your contributions.