YANGON — Last year saw intensified fighting and friction between the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw), the government and ethnic armed groups, continuing through to the end of the year. In December, the Tatmadaw’s obstruction of public consultations for the Shan national-level dialogue deepened this friction.
The Tatmadaw deterred the Committee for Shan State Unity (CSSU)-led public consultations in Panglong, Kyauk Mae, Keng Tung and Lashio in Shan State and in Mandalay, and the CSSU could not complete its plan to hold talks in these areas.
A different understanding between the government and the Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed groups (EAOs) regarding the public consultations caused the block and stakeholders said they would have to negotiate to reach a common understanding.
The government and the Tatmadaw do not want public consultations under the title of national-level dialogue, while the EAOs see it is a necessary step to go through prior to gathering for the national dialogues (NDs), according to observers and stakeholders.
“EAOs understand that the public consultations are related to the NDs and thus necessary. But the government and Tatmadaw say the NDs should only be conducted once,” said Khun Myint Tun, the chairman of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization, which is a signatory to the NCA.
The government-led NDs on theme and region were done as one dialogue each without pre-consultations. Observers noted that these were rushed and lacked time to prepare and understand the political, social, economic, security, land and environmental aspects.
On Dec. 30, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC)’s secretariats met to talk about preparations for the third session of the 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference (UPC), planned to convene later this month. They will further negotiate the ND and the consultations at the upcoming UPDJC meeting in the next two weeks, he said.
Prior to the second session of the UPC in May 2017, ethnic Karen, Chin and Pa-O were allowed to hold public consultation and ethnic-based NDs; while the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) were not permitted due to security issues in Rakhine State and a non-negotiable venue in Shan State, respectively. In November, the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting for the NCA was able to negotiate that the RCSS led NDs could be held in Langkho (Lin Khay) Township in Shan State.
The government wants NCA non-signatories to sign the pact soon, but the non-signatories – the United Nationalities Federal Council and the Northern Alliance – are closely observing how freely the NCA implementation can be carried out. The Shan experience has given them something to think about.
“The Shan ND experience will give them additional insight before making their decision to sign the NCA pact,” said Ja Nan Lahtaw, a facilitator in the government’s peace negotiation.
New Year, Old Challenges
As 2017 ends, the New Year will begin with old challenges.
“We don’t see any promising indicators,” Ja Nan Lahtaw said, adding that the peace process will not see any drastic changes if the current pace and approach continue.
As a peace advocate, she is far more optimistic than many who have been disheartened by the way the government peace negotiators have performed regarding the peace talks. Despite the government’s efforts, more fighting continues to break out in Kachin and northern Shan states. Observers have blamed this on fewer informal talks held under the National League for Democracy (NLD) administration than in the past under former President U Thein Sein.
Lamai Gum Ja, a Kachin peace negotiator, recently told The Irrawaddy “the way to bring both sides to the negotiation table has been lost,” referring to his unsuccessful efforts to find a way to negotiate between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) led by the state counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Only changes in the peace process implementation will accelerate peace building in the new year, observers said unanimously, and all in agreement that the expectation for peace is very low given the current approach.
Mi Kun Chan Non, an ethnic Mon peace advocate, said the stakeholders’ strong commitment kept her belief in the process strong, but that there seemed to be a lack of expectations regarding peace given that 2017 ending with continued fighting and friction in the northern and northeast of the country.
“Nothing is expected regarding peace because fighting has been ongoing in my constituency,” said Nang Kham Aye, a Lower House lawmaker representing Namtu Township in Shan State.
She said her constituents have long suffered abuses of the Tatmadaw, as well as other ethnic armed groups in the area including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N) and the RCSS.
During the current parliamentary recess, she traveled around her constituency and said she heard gunfire day and night.
On Dec. 26, a village in Namtu faced artillery shelling and three houses were destroyed.
“My people were afraid and fled their homes, when they heard that Tatmadaw troops were coming toward their village, which the TNLA was already occupying,” she recently told The Irrawaddy.
The TNLA, which has been active in the area including Namtu, is not allowed to participate in the peace process like its two other allies – the Arakan Army (AA) and the Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – due to the Tatmadaw’s reluctance to accept them as peace partners.
The government wanted the UPC to be held twice a year, despite challenges to this. But this also limits the opportunity for national-level political dialogue.
“In 2018, national-level political dialogue should be held more widely instead of holding the UPC twice a year,” said political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein. He explained that the more talks are held between key stakeholders, including civil society, the better the political transition.
Despite 2017 not being the year of peace, he said that there were some positive developments. The groups based in the northeast, including the KIA and the United Wa State Army, traveled to Naypyitaw in May and met with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Also, the first part of the Union Accord was signed.
The NLD government plans to change the military-drafted Constitution through the Union Accord drawn up through the UPC, and will seek approval from Parliament to do so. The Tatmadaw has so far agreed to the plan.
But observers doubt its effectiveness, in part because the first part of the Union Accord lacks key federal principles and is similar to the current 2008 Constitution.
“Concerns remain as to whether the UPC is an effective venue to change the Constitution,” said Dr. Yan Myo Thein, “The government must plan how to move forward.”