YANGON – Controversial comments by Arakan National Party (ANP) vice chairwoman Daw Aye Nu Sein during her speech on the first day of the third session of the 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference in Naypyitaw on Wednesday have stirred debate among political analysts and netizens, and prompted the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) bloc of political parties, of which the ANP is a member, to declare that the speech did not reflect its views.
The controversy found its first expression in a gesture of displeasure by State Counselor Daw Aug San Suu Kyi, who was in the audience for the speech. The three speakers who preceded the ANP vice chairwoman on the stage were all applauded by the country’s de facto leader. However, the State Counselor did not applaud the ANP official’s 10-minute keynote speech — a fact that was noted by political analysts and activists. The incident immediately went viral on Facebook, as broadcasters live-streamed the daylong event.
Some criticized Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for refusing to acknowledge a political speech that was critical of her, and questioned how national reunification and reconciliation are possible in such circumstances.
The National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government has convened two previous sessions of the 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference in recent years. Wednesday’s event marked the beginning of the third installment. As representatives of elected political blocs, both the ruling NLD and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party have made speeches announcing party policies and preferences without consulting other representatives or agreeing on a common statement.
At the third session, the Arakan National Party (ANP) representative similarly presented its policies, highlighting the violence in northern Rakhine State last year in which tens of thousands of non-Muslim people were displaced in Maungdaw District while 700,000 Rohingya were driven out to neighboring Bangladesh by army clearance operations. Daw Aye Nu Sein also discussed the ruling party’s failure, while attempting to address the crisis, to consult the local Arakanese party, which holds seats in the Rakhine State Parliament. She accused Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government of turning Rakhine affairs into international issues.
The UN has described the widespread killings of and rights abuses against the Rohingya community by the military as “ethnic cleansing,” and some international rights groups have called for Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to be referred to the International Criminal Court to face allegations of crimes against humanity.
On Wednesday evening, the UPDJC released a brief statement in which it said the ANP’s speech did not reflect the perspectives of the political bloc and that the address had been delivered without proper consultation with other parties. It also cited its own perspectives on the issues raised and said the content of the speech was irrelevant in regards to the current peace effort.
Daw Aye Nu Sein explained that she had participated in the Union peace conference regularly, but the UPDJC had never before asked the ANP to censor a keynote speech or instructed it to gather other political parties’ opinions. On previous occasions, she said, the NLD and USDP had themselves ignored the perspectives of other parties, without the UPDJC raising any objection.
“It is in the nature of political culture that there will be different perspectives, and we accept this. Though we have learned of the one-sided announcements in the state-owned newspapers today and feel very upset; without doubt, there is bias,” she said.
Arakanese lawmaker U Pe Than, who is also attending the Naypyitaw peace conference, complained that his party was not informed in advance about the conference agenda. Moreover, he said, it was not realistic to expect a speech to be agreed upon in a short time by 23 ethnic political parties, all of whom have different opinions. He said if the government preferred collective papers, it should have organized a roundtable discussion for political parties before the peace conference.
“They accuse us of stating policies, but we have to question why the UPDJC failed to do so. Why else would they allow a political party to take its turn on the agenda? This is contradictory, and everything has been misinterpreted. Basically, this is a result of the UPDJC’s weakness.”
Since peace negotiations started in 2011, fighting between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organizations in Kachin and Shan states has resulted in more than 150,000 people becoming internally displaced. Eight armed groups signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the previous Thein Sein administration, while the New Mon State Party (MNSP) and Lahu Democratic Union inked the NCA as part of the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led peace process earlier this year.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), National Democratic Alliance Army-Mongla and NSCN-K all signed ceasefire agreements with the former ruling military junta. They have all expressed their willingness to engage in political dialogue but have declined to sign the NCA.