Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Conference is the Initial Step Toward Peace but There are Still Many Challenges’

By The Irrawaddy 10 September 2016

The Union Peace Conference or 21st Century Panglong Conference took place in Naypyidaw from August 31 to September 3. On the second day of the conference, Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe discussed the peace conference’s potential with Ko Ye, who studies civilian-military relations and political transitions at the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, Tar Hla Pe, central executive committee member of the Ta’ang (Palaung) National Party and Nang Phyu Phyu Lin, chairwoman of the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP).

KZM: Seven dignitaries—including ethnic leaders, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military chief—delivered speeches at the opening of the conference. Ko Ye, do you think the conference can fulfill the people’s expectations for peace?

Ko Ye: As KIA [Kachin Independence Army] vice chairman General N’Ban La has said, the conference is the initial step toward peace. But there are still many challenges.

KZM: What do you think is the most pressing challenge?

KY: The fact that the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups have not yet reached an agreement.

KZM: Seventeen ethnic armed groups attended the peace conference, but three groups—the MNDAA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army], Ta’ang National Liberation Army [TNLA] and Arakan Army [AA] could not. What barred them from attending the conference—the government or their relations with the military?

Tar Hla Pe: The government and the military were not satisfied with the wording of the statements of those [three] groups about their commitment to lay down arms. A great deal of understanding has yet to be built between the two sides.

KZM: Until the eve of the conference, it was unclear if KIA vice-chairman N’Ban La would be allowed to give an address during the opening of the conference. Some said that the government barred him while others said it was the military. What do you think?

THP: Much remains to be done by the government and the military for the sake of national reconciliation, which they have been talking about.

KZM: Women participants also participated in the peace conference. In his address to the conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that women’s participation [in the peace conference] should be increased to 30 percent. What do you think about the low level of women’s participation in the conference? What are the disadvantages?

NPPL: According to research and survey results, the involvement of civil society and women in the peace process could contribute to building more sustainable peace. Women only accounted for about 12 percent of peace conference attendees. Of that 12 percent, many were attending the conference as facilitators, technical team members and observers, and the number of real participants who were invited or elected [by concerned stakeholders] to attend the conference was low. While everyone else is pushing for all-inclusion, I would like to stress that gender equality and women’s participation is extremely important.

KZM: The military occupy a very powerful role in the country. The civil war has been going on for nearly 70 years now. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has said the military will uphold its six peace principles and our three main national causes [non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty]. Will his statement be a big hurdle for other ethnic groups to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement [NCA] or could it be negotiated?

Ko Ye: He did not mention the words “civil war” in his address. He just said “internal instability and lack of peace and development [that has existed] along with 68 years of independence.” We need to accept the fact that the military is involved in the civil war as a stakeholder. He also did not mention the words “federal democratic Union.” Both the government and all ethnicities have been demanding this and the military needs to accept it. The military chief called for working within the framework of the NCA, six peace principles of the military and multi-party democracy system that emerged according to the [military-drafted] 2008 Constitution. But ethnicities might have quite different views on the peace process.

KZM: General N’Ban La also talked about the three demands made by ethnic groups. He said ethnic groups took up arms because they did not have equality or self-determination. Do you think they can’t achieve these because the military refuses or is there a way to negotiate?

THP: I discussed this at a meeting of the UPDJC [Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee]. Political parties as well as EAOs [ethnic armed organizations] have continuously called for all-inclusion in working toward our ultimate goal—democracy, a federal Union and peace. I asked if all-inclusion should be rejected due to the refusal of a particular individual or group. I said that we could not be on the wrong side of history just because of one group’s opposition.

It is one of the duties of the UPDJC to invite [ethnic armed groups to the conference]. I said that if we did not invite all groups, not only the two major actors—EAOs and the military—but also the supporting players [political parties], we would be the guilty party. I called for all-inclusion at the peace conference.

My argument was based on the state counselor’s statement, which spoke of all-inclusion. When I asked about all-inclusion [at the UPDJC meeting] on August 15, [government peace negotiator] U Khin Zaw Oo promised all-inclusion. So, it was upsetting that three groups were excluded days before the conference. This was a sad case for ethnic groups and the entire country. Continued efforts must be made to ensure the NCA is real and that the next steps of the peace process are all-inclusive.

KZM: Ma Nang Phyu Phyu Linn, to what extent do you think the government and the military are willing to cooperate and listen to advice regarding gender and ethnic issues?

NPPL: Before the conference, representatives from the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process called on [government chief peace negotiator] Dr. Tin Myo Win at the National Reconciliation and Peace Center [NRPC]. He received us and allowed us to attend the peace conference as observers. The government listened to our recommendations somewhat, but not fully. It allowed us only to submit our paper—which was about the role of women in five major sectors, including political dialogue—but not to read and discuss it at the conference. I hope that we will be granted greater participation in the future.

KZM: The second round of the Panglong Conference will be held in the next five or six months. Do you think the percentage of women’s representation that you expect will be realized at that time?

NPPL: It is unlikely without a policy in place—like a policy that reserves a 30 percent quota for women—and without budget allocation, political will and mutual respect. But we don’t feel downhearted. We will continue trying.

KZM: Ko Ye, we have discussed the disagreements between the military and ethnic armed groups. The military and the current government are cooperating to some extent. But there was even some friction between the military and the previous government led by former General U Thein Sein. How is the current collaboration between the government and the military?

KY: I see it in three parts: first, civil-military relations—between the military and the government elected by the people; second, military-ethnic relations—between the ethnic groups and the military; and third, relations between ethnic groups and the government. Trust has yet to be built in all of these relationships. This is normal in any country that undergoes transition. So we need to rebuild the country with trust and dialogue.

It has been suggested that the country solve political problems through political means. But to do that, the politics should be politics that everyone trusts. To create such politics, a political framework that everyone trusts is necessary. The key to solving the problem is [to change] the 2008 Constitution. Because the framework of the 2008 Constitution is not a politically acceptable framework, the problem lies therein. These problems are to be solved through collaboration and cooperation. In so doing, politicians need to display greater capability and shrewdness. Only when politicians exhibit these characteristics, will we be able to overcome those problems politically.

KZM: Ma Nang Phyu, Karen National Union chairman General Mutu Sae Poe criticized the process of selecting conference attendees—saying it was top-down and not bottom-up. To what extent do you think it was top-down?

NPPL: It is obvious how much the organizing process lacks a bottom-up approach. But I am sure a bottom-up approach will be taken when holding the civil society organization (CSO) forum [which was supposed to be held in parallel with the peace conference].

There are deep-seated practices in our country—it has been a practice in our society for more than 60 years to follow the orders of superiors [without complaint], even in CSOs. It would be very difficult to mend this practice. If it is difficult to change that practice in CSOs, it will be more difficult for formal institutions such as the government, the military and ethnic armed groups, which are used to following hierarchical orders, to suddenly change this practice.  The question is whether freedom of speech will be allowed and if it will be recognized. If and when people’s concerns about possible punishment for what they say are eased, a bottom-up approach will finally happen.

KZM: As a Myanmar citizen, who would you like to give your advice to—the State Counselor, the military or ethnic armed organizations? And what is your advice?

NPPL: We would like to initiate a system. We want the government to form a commission that will take care of the peace process from a gendered perspective or form a gender advisory group with advice from local CSOs. What’s more, we want the government to allot a certain percentage of the Union budget to gender equality.

KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders talked about the importance of the ceasefire. If NCA non-signatories still can’t sign the ceasefire and if those groups [MNDAA, AA and TNLA] that were left out still can’t join the conference in next five or six months, the peace process will be in big trouble. Regarding this, whom would you like to give advice to and what is it?

THP: I think the government and the military have to build trust and reconciliation first. A landscape that allows for the participation of ethnic armed groups must be created. There must be genuine goodwill, equality and justice for our country to see development.

KZM: Goodwill and trust are the most crucial things?

THP: Yes, they are.

KZM: Ko Ye, what is your advice for improvement of tripartite relations between the military, government and ethnic armed groups. Who would you like to give advice to directly?

KY: At the present time, we would like to give advice to the political community. Politicians need to be stronger than they are now. From the papers read by ethnic armed groups at the conference, it can be concluded that ethnic groups were prepared. Politicians need to drive our country more strongly—only then will we be able to push ahead with the democratic political process that everyone aspires to.

KZM: Thank you for the discussion. We hope to see the fruitful results of the Union Peace Conference in the coming months and years.