State-Level Political Dialogue Planned for November

By Htet Naing Zaw 31 October 2016

NAYPYIDAW — At a two-day meeting in Naypyidaw, concluding on Saturday, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UDPJC) agreed to begin preparations for a series of political dialogues in the states where ethnic armed groups participating in the peace process are based.

The UPDJC is a body comprised of government, political party and ethnic armed group representatives that, under the terms of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed last year, is charged with holding political dialogue over a federal restructuring of the state.

Guidelines will now be drawn up and supervisory committees formed to oversee regional-level dialogues, where input from the grassroots will be sought and then channeled into deliberations at the national level.

This would mark a dramatic widening of the peace process, which has so far been dominated by a small number of older male actors from ethnic armed groups, the military and government, to the general exclusion of women, youth and civil society.

“The meeting agreed to start political dialogue in places where ethnic signatories to the NCA are based,” Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, vice-president of the Chin National Front, told the media.

In each state where NCA signatory armed groups are based—including Shan, Karen, Chin states—nine-member committees will be formed to supervise the dialogues, with representatives from the government, military, political parities and ethnic armed groups.

Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win, general-secretary of Karen National Union, told the media they were ready to begin political dialogue in Karen State in November.

U Zaw Htay, deputy director-general of the President’s Office, said that the results of the political dialogue would be reported, via the UPDJC, to the next “21st Century Panglong” conference scheduled for February—six months after the first “Panglong” conference was held in Naypyidaw.

However, dialogues will not be held in areas where armed groups who have not signed the NCA are present, UPDJC members agreed at the Naypyidaw meeting, vowing to do what they could to convince these groups to sign the accord: “non-inclusive dialogue is meaningless,” said Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong.

At the insistence of Burma’s military, signing the NCA is a prerequisite for ethnic armed groups taking part at any stage of the political dialogue.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who chairs the UPDJC, said in her opening speech on Friday that she would like for political dialogue to begin in November “on a trial basis.”

This would leave only three months for progress to be made before the next Panglong conference: a tight schedule given the wide divergence of views over federalism—not only between ethnic armed groups and the government but between individual ethnic armed groups.

“We need to have closer relations between us. And we need to hold continuous discussion,” said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledging heavy distrust between many peace process stakeholders—including between NCA signatory and non-signatory ethnic armed groups.

She suggested that different ethnic armed groups gather to hold discussions over a one or two week period, so as to overcome differences and reach consensus over core issues.

“Doing so can help create personal ties. When we can’t reach agreement over certain things at the [negotiation] table, we can gain understanding of each other at the dining table, or while walking together in the garden,” she said.

At the Naypyidaw meeting, members also agreed to establish a UPDJC joint secretariat to handle logistics and administrative issues, comprised of people from the government, ethnic armed groups and political parties.

“The UPDJC office will be based in Naypyidaw at the sports village,” said U Zaw Htay, referring to the athletic complex used to host events of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games. “But we have yet to discuss the organizational structure.”

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko