Notable Absences as Political Dialogue Begins in Capital

By Nyein Nyein 12 January 2016

A five-day Union Peace Conference kicked off in Naypyidaw on Tuesday, marking the beginning of a long-sought political dialogue between the Burmese government and a fraction of the country’s ethnic armed groups.

The government reached what it has termed a nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight of more than 20 non-state armed groups on Oct. 15, stipulating that political talks commence within 90 days.

The majority of the country’s armed groups abstained from the deal, and while they were invited to attend the talks as observers, all of the non-signatories declined.

Tuesday’s event was nonetheless portrayed by the administration of President Thein Sein as a milestone in the peace process. The president remarked during the opening ceremony that the day “marks one of the most significant days for us. Today we will write history together.”

Thein Sein notably added that one purpose of this week’s conference was to ease the handover of the peace process, one of Burma’s most critical challenges, to the incoming government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in a Nov. 8 general election, granting it the power to form the new government that will assume power in February. The chairwoman has stated that the new administration will make the peace process its top priority.

Among the speakers at Tuesday’s opening ceremony were Suu Kyi, Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and Chairman of the Karen National Union Mutu Say Poe.

In her remarks, Suu Kyi stressed the importance of national unity despite shortcomings of the current peace agreement, emphasizing that it is important “not to have division between those signed and those who not” and suggesting that the framework for political dialogue be “flexible.”

Shwe Mann, a former general and deposed chairman of the outgoing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), also stressed the need for collaboration and reconciliation.

“Peace is for all of us, for the entire Union,” he said, “we must build peace rather than blame each other.”

Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said the military maintained a “6-point” policy on the peace process with three political objectives. The commander stood firm on the military’s demand to establish a single federal army, while urging some ceasefire non-signatories to join the peace process.

“The Tatmadaw [Burma Armed Forces] will keep the door open for those who have not signed out of good will,” Min Aung Hlaing said. “This conference represents the whole country, having representatives of the government, ethnic armed groups, the Parliament and the Tatmadaw.”

“The Tatmadaw shall be the only armed group in the country, and the Tatmadaw welcomes those who wish to join from ethnic armed groups,” he added.