NAYPYITAW — The Myanmar government and the military (or Tatmadaw) are actively participating in the peace process — but this should not be misread as a sign of weakness on the part of the armed forces, said commander-in-chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing in his speech on the first day of the third session of the 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference on Wednesday.
The senior general said that “stakeholders should be particularly aware that the government and the Tatmadaw are actively leading the peace process today not because we are weak, but because we are committed to the interests of the state and the national ethnic people, and we want to end the armed conflicts.” He added, “The sound of guns will become silent if all the groups with the true wish for peace observe the agreement. All must control their own men, instead of giving groundless reasons.”
The Army chief criticized ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), saying they should, “work in accordance with international peace principles,” instead of wasting time on discussions that are not related to peace. Once peace is attained, he said, the focus can switch to “implementation of future activities in accordance with democratic principles.”
His comments are believed to be in response to a proposal from EAOs at informal talks that the Tatmadaw’s role in political dialogue be ended over the next 10 years or so.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former general told The Irrawaddy: “EAOs want political dialogue to start in 2030; they also want the military appointees in Parliament to be phased out starting from 2020.”
The pursuit of peace through the implementation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) continues to face challenges because fighting between the Tatmadaw and NCA signatories has not fully ceased. Clashes between the Restoration Council of Shan State and the Tatmadaw erupted anew on Monday, just two days before the latest session of the peace conference began.
Regarding the integration of armed forces and establishing a democracy- and federalism-based Union, the Army chief said, “Currently, the ending of armed struggle must be the top priority for establishment of a Union system based on democracy and federalism.”
The senior-general added that, “In any country, regardless of whether it practices democracy or any other system, they have only one Armed Forces. Hence, the ethnic groups should work in accordance with international peace principles.” The idea of having a single, Federal Army is one proposal, but the EAOs and the Tatmadaw have yet to agree on the idea.
Peace resources ‘lacking’
Defending the military’s role in the country’s politics and in peace building, Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said a better foundation for peace was still needed, but reiterated that the EAOs who have yet to do so need to sign the NCA.
The commander-in-chief highlighted that, “Although our country is rich in natural resources, we are still in need of the resources for peace. It is the objective condition none of us can ignore.”
He insisted that “the Tatmadaw made constructive efforts for safeguarding national independence and sovereignty and ensuring national unity and non-disintegration of the Union by actively participating in the successive governments’ endeavors to achieve internal peace.”
Some delegates attending the conference were concerned that the Army chief’s highlighting of the strength of the Tatmadaw’s forces, and the speech in general, would affect the negotiation process with the EAOs — both those that are NCA signatories and those that are not.
Addressing the conference on behalf of the NCA signatories, General Saw Mutu Say Poe of the Karen National Union said peace cannot be built through force, but only through trust, understanding and goodwill.
FPNCC attending ‘with hope’
Although the government has not yet persuaded all of the active EAOs to sign the peace pact, 19 of the groups are participating in the third session of the 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference. Seven members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), a northeastern-based alliance led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), are attending the event with the help of China. Some FPNCC members also attended the last session in May 2017.
However, the government did not invite the alliance itself; the Army chief met with four FPNCC members — the UWSA, KIO, NDAA and Shan State Progressive Party — on Wednesday afternoon and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will meet each of its member organizations separately tomorrow.
Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA) vice chairman General Gun Maw told reporters in Naypyitaw on Tuesday afternoon that the group had come to the Naypyitaw conference “with hope.”
Representatives of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Kapland (NSCN-K) are also attending the conference.
This year, non-signatories of the NCA, including the FPNCC members, have been invited to share their thoughts at cluster-based discussions during the conference, but they will not participate in decision-making sessions.
All EAOs urged to sign NCA
Both the National League for Democracy-led government and the Tatmadaw urged all EAOs to sign the NCA, though they used different tones in their arguments.
The Army chief rejected the claims of some ethnic armed groups — apparently referring to the Wa, Mongla and Naga — that there is no need to sign the NCA because they have not recently been actively engaged in conflict.
Since the NCA was first signed in October 2015 and approved by the Union Parliament in December of that year, the UWSA, National Democratic Alliance Army-Mongla and NSCN-K, all of which signed ceasefire agreements with the former ruling military junta, have argued that they do not need to sign the NCA, and expressed their will to participate in political dialogue only.
“To those who are saying they have already made agreements in the past and that there is no need to do so again, this may go against the current democratic ethics,” Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said.
The senior general added, “The NCA is just a name used for a ceasefire agreement. But its essence is broader and more comprehensive. Even the first point of the fundamental principle of the NCA is to build a democratic federal union aspired to not only by ethnic armed groups but also by other ethnic organizations.”
In her address to the peace conference on Wednesday, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said people do not want to wait for peace, as peace and national reconciliation are the most essential and significant factors for Myanmar. She stressed that “peace cannot be achieved by force,” but must be built through trust and mutual understanding.
“The NCA is a doorway for today’s political dialogue, and those civilians in the ceasefire areas are enjoying safety and stability, which are the direct results of the NCA,” she said.
She repeated that the “peace door” is always open to the EAOs and welcomed them to join the political negotiations, as a ceasefire alone is not enough. She said it is necessary to move forward and find the means to solve political problems through political negotiation.
The “NCA is a juncture for all of us to come together and a beginning to continue striving for our goal,” she said.
“We do not stop with the NCA; we move on,” she added, saying that the second part of the Union Accord is due to be signed next week after a six-day conference. The first part of the Union Accord signed last year includes 37 basic principles for a future federal constitution, but almost all of them are already part of the 2008 military-drafted Constitution.
Observers and the public are eager to see how much progress the delegates, politicians, EAO leaders, Tatmadaw and government officials will be able to make in discussions on additional federal principles in each sector.