Political Dialogue to Begin Jan. 12, as Inclusivity Concerns Linger

By Nyein Nyein 21 December 2015

A date has been set for the convening of a political dialogue involving more than 700 stakeholders, with negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the world’s longest-running civil war.

The long-awaited talks are due to convene on Jan. 12, with President Thein Sein announcing the date on Friday, as concerns linger about the framework’s inclusivity and the continuity of negotiations that will see new parliamentary and government representatives swapped in early next year.

The Union Peace Conference, as the political dialogue is being called, will come less than a month after a framework for the discussions was finalized last week. A tangled array of issues will be up for discussion, and central to the talks will be ethnic minorities’ demands for constitutional reform, federalism and greater autonomy from the central government.

Hla Maung Shwe, an adviser for the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), said in addition to 700 full-fledged participants in the dialogue, non-signatories to the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement will be allocated nearly 50 seats at the table as observers.

“We will also send out invitations to a total of 11 non-NCA-signatory groups as observers in early January,” he told The Irrawaddy.

The observer delegation will include five representatives each from the eight non-signatory ethnic armed groups recognized by the government, and three representatives from three non-armed ethnic groups—the Arakan National Council, Wa National Organization and Lahu Democratic Union.

Non-signatories to the ceasefire include some of the country’s largest ethnic armed groups, including the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army will not be invited to attend in any capacity. These two armies have engaged in hostilities with the Burma Army in recent months and have been shut out of the ceasefire negotiations, with the MNDAA and government troops involved in a particularly intense and protracted conflict in northeastern Burma.

The capital Naypyidaw will host the political dialogue, with the opening session to run from Jan. 12-22.

But even as the government has trumpeted the coming dialogue—state media on Saturday heralded the occasion with a banner headline reading “Let’s Party for Peace”—ceasefire non-signatories and civil society groups have aired concerns about pushing ahead with the dialogue under an outgoing government that has excluded some ethnic armed groups from participating.

Nai Hong Sar, vice chairman of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), said: “The current government is pushing to move forward to the political dialogue with not enough time. The political dialogue must take a reasonable amount of time.”

The nationwide ceasefire, signed by eight non-state armed groups on Oct. 15, requires that the political dialogue begin no more than 90 days from the date of the signing.

Among the 700 participants, representatives will be divided equally between the Burma Army, ethnic armed signatories and political parties, with 150 delegates each. The outgoing government of President Thein Sein and Parliament will each be allotted 75 seats, and 50 will go both to other ethnic leaders and experts from a variety of fields.

Nai Hong Sar criticized those proportions as imbalanced.

“The government, Parliament and Tatmadaw [Burma Army] will have the upper hand in the discussion [with representation accounting for 300 of 700 participants], when something is up for a vote,” he said. “They have more numbers and the ethnic bloc will not be able to beat them, which will not bring good results.”

Maran Jaw Gun, spokesman for the 11th Civil Society Forum for Peace (CSFoP) held in Rangoon on Dec. 16-17, said better would be to wait until the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD) government is sworn in next year.

“We want what will be a solid foundation for the best interests of the political dialogue, with the next government, rather than starting the dialogue now,” he said.

A January political dialogue risked creating misunderstanding and doubt among the ethnic armed groups, he said, referring to ongoing conflicts in northern Shan and Kachin states.

But Hla Maung Shwe said he saw the proportional arrangement as offering equal representation to the military, ethnic armed groups, political parties and a government-parliamentary bloc. He pointed out that the dialogue’s parliamentary representatives would change when a new Parliament takes its seats in February, with the government delegation following suit in April.

“I am responsible for my role until March 2016, after that I will be leaving my role,” said Hla Maung Shwe, who is also a secretary of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee, which drafted the framework for the political dialogue this month.

Nang Lwin Hnin Pwint contributed to this report.