Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! The second session of the 21st Century Panglong/Union Peace Conference begins in Naypyidaw on May 24. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government held the first peace conference some nine months ago. Where has the peace process – which is the most pressing issue in the country – ended up over the past nine months? Has it moved forward? What hurdles remain? Political analyst U Maung Maung Soe and The Irrawaddy senior reporter Ma Nyein Nyein join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
Ko Maung Maung Soe, what do you think about the peace process? The first peace conference was held at the end of last August. How has it progressed?
Maung Maung Soe: There has been no progress between the first and second conferences. Most of ethnic armed groups – except the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army], Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army [MNDAA], and AA [Arakan Army] were invited to the [first] peace conference and allowed to present their stances. The policy of the government and the military is to go by the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement], so that only NCA-signatory groups are allowed to participate in the peace process. But, no groups have signed the NCA between the two conferences. So, these groups are not on the path to political dialogue.
To work out political agreements at the upcoming conference, all ethnic armed groups must be present. But, most of the ethnic armed groups have not yet signed the NCA and, therefore, still cannot participate.
Also, two NCA signatories – the RCSS [Restoration Council of Shan State] and the ALP [Arakan Liberation Party] still have not been permitted to hold national-level ethnic-based political dialogue in Shan and Arakan states. So, they are unable to convey the opinions of their people at the conference. This conference will make little progress.
The Peace Commission has recently said the UPDJC [Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee] meeting could forge a common consensus on 42 points. And perhaps the Karen, Pa-O and Chin groups, which were able to participate in official discussions, agreed on these points. But what about other NCA signatories like the Shan [RCSS] and Arakan [ALP] groups? The RCSS has said it would not sign the common agreement because it did not participate in discussions. And NCA non-signatories did not participate in the UPDJC meeting at all. So, that agreement is questionable.
KZM: Ma Nyein Nyein, you have constantly reported about peace and ethnic issues. U Maung Maung Soe said the peace process has not progressed. What is your view? Do you see progress or setbacks?
Nyein Nyein: I agree with U Maung Maung Soe. The peace process is ongoing. But under the previous government, the Myanmar Peace Center led by former minister U Aung Min held many informal meetings [with ethnic armed groups]. Under the new government, such meetings are quite rare. It is not clear how the government communicates with ethnic armed organizations [EAOs], especially NCA non-signatories. Yes, there are informal meetings, but quite rarely—one about every two months and usually through lengthy arrangements.
The government planned to meet with the Delegation for Political Negotiation [DPN] of the United Nationalities Federal Council [UNFC], which is a group of NCA non-signatories, before the second 21st Century Panglong, but it could not. The clock is ticking. The government is engaging in the peace process, but I wonder if it has the right approach. It is still not clear what its approach to inclusion is.
KZM: U Maung Maung Soe, speaking of the peace process, there are many stakeholders. But, the government and the military have their own standpoints. And there are many ethnic armed organizations. Some share the same standpoints, but some are different. Do their policies pose a major barrier to the peace process? For example, there have been some problems with the military’s six-point peace policy. To what extent have ethnic armed groups made compromises?
MMS: When the government and military enforced the NCA policy, this led to confrontations with ethnic armed groups that wanted to change, or didn’t agree with, the NCA. The government is still trying to ensure that all stakeholders are present at the peace conference. Maybe they will, and maybe not. But what is important is that they remain engaged between sessions. Just gathering at the conference cannot solve the problems.
KZM: It is the government and the military that invite ethnic armed groups to the peace conference. Do you think there are weaknesses in this system? Do you think the government can do as it wishes in regards to invitations?
MMS: There should be negotiations between the government and the military regarding invites. The military is sensitive when it comes to ethnic armed groups. The government has to seek its approval.
Five UNFC members and four members [of the Northern Alliance] are invited to the conference. Three groups – the TNLA, MNDAA and AA are not invited. The military has said they would be allowed to join the peace process only when they disarm. [The Northern Alliance] insists that they will only attend the conference when these three groups are allowed to attend. China is currently mediating. If those seven groups go to Naypyidaw, UNFC members may also come.
[As of publication, the government has invited all ethnic armed groups – including the TNLA, MNDAA, and AA to attend the conference].
But gathering all the ethnic armed groups at the conference is not enough. Only when those groups are allowed to participate in state- and national-level political dialogues toward peace will the peace conference reach a common consensus.
KZM: There must be inclusiveness!
MMS: It is important that all of the armed groups engaged in armed conflict participate in peace negotiations. Also, non-armed ethnic parties, either of large or small ethnic populations, must be able to participate in political dialogues at different levels. Unless these two points are fulfilled, we will not be able to move forward.
KZM: Ma Nyein Nyein, why can’t ethnic groups participate? I know there are many reasons but given the situation today, what are their major requests?
NN: We cannot just point the finger at EAOs. The military plays a key role in the country’s peace process. The military maintains its stance that those three groups [the TNLA, MNDAA and AA] must disarm first to join the peace process. This is further confirmed by the fact that the government has invited [NCA non-signatories] as “special guests” [as opposed to participant status].
This is not different from the first Union Conference held in Jan. 2016 [under U Thein Sein’s government]. UNFC members and the Wa group [United Wa State Army] and Mongla group [National Democratic Alliance Army] were invited as observers. The three groups [TNLA, MNDAA and AA] were not invited then as well.
The upcoming conference is in fact the third session of the Union Peace Conference, but under the name of 21st Century Panglong, it is the second session. This time, non-signatories are invited under the same status, but with a different name. If the military is willing to relax its rigid stance, perhaps more ethnic armed groups could participate.
As U Maung Maung Soe has said, no one knows exactly which groups will attend Panglong. We don’t know if their discussions will be nominal if they come, or if there will be meaningful discussions and who will make decisions. U Maung Maung Soe said the government would try to reach a common consensus at the conference oriented toward all-inclusion. However, even if a consensus is reached, it can no way represent all views, voices and needs of all national people across the country. Even the RCSS, the Shan NCA-signatory group, still cannot present its people’s views.
KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has given top priority to peace since it assumed office. But there are many – ethnic armed groups and political analysts – that criticize the government. U Maung Maung Soe, you said there must be negotiations between the government and the military. The problem is that we cannot view the two as a single entity, given the political complexities of the country. What are the weak points of the government? What are your recommendations?
MMS: To make the peace process successful, besides leading the peace process and negotiating with the military, the government needs to act as an active coordinator between the military and ethnic armed groups. For this, it needs to hold frequent informal meetings apart from official ones.
The government’s peace commission must also conduct reviews. The NCA was signed on Oct. 15, 2015, and it has been more than a year and a half. During this time, the number of NCA signatories remains eight. No more groups have signed it, for various reasons. Shouldn’t the peace commission review why other groups have not signed? It should review the NCA provisions, the function of the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC), and so on.
KZM: It should review its meetings, because there were more meetings and more frequent contact under the previous government as Ma Nyein Nyein has pointed out. Right?
MMS: Yes, all of these factors. It should review the NCA provisions and the procedures used to identify the requirements.
KZM: Every stakeholder in the peace process has its own policies and standpoints. Most of them might have good intentions. But do you think there are obstructionists?
SSM: Yes, there may be people who obstruct the peace process out of personal interest. But it is difficult to sort out obstructionists.
KZM: Ma Nyein Nyein, you will cover the peace conference. Do you expect to see interesting results or developments at the conference?
NN: I’m not sure.
KZM: What do you expect, U Maung Maung Soe. The NLD government now has less than four years left in its term. Do you think the peace process will be successful?
MMS: It can be successful only if the government reviews and fixes the process, including the NCA. It will also depend to what extent the military is willing to compromise. Its compromise will determine the success or failure of the peace process.
KZM: Thank you for your contributions!