State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s announcement that the Union Peace Conference would take place on August 31 has given rise to lingering questions, concerns and hesitation among ethnic armed organizations.
Ethnic leaders have said there should be proper preparation before the conference and that Suu Kyi should clarify the agenda and which representatives would be in attendance. Some have stated that it is too early to hold a national level conference, and that Suu Kyi needs to hold further negotiations with ethnic leaders.
Nai Hong Sar, a spokesperson for United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)—an alliance of nine ethnic armed organizations—told The Irrawaddy that there are numerous questions the group wants to raise prior to the conference. The UNFC has not yet decided whether it will join the conference.
“We want to know whether all of the ethnic groups will be included and whether she [Suu Kyi] has thought about the groups that didn’t sign the NCA—not only us [the UNFC], but also the Wa and Mongla groups. We will attend if we are clear on these points,” said Nai Hong Sar.
It is unclear at this point whether non-signatories to the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) will be able to join the conference and in what capacity. Ethnic sources have said that non-signatories would be able to observe the conference but not participate in discussions.
Nai Hong Sar said the decision to join would be reached after a two-day meeting between UNFC representatives and a government peace negotiation team, beginning in Rangoon on Friday.
“We asked for all-inclusion and a tripartite meeting. We will discuss the framework review. If they can clarify and settle these points, we will participate. If not, we will need to think about it,” said Nai Hong Sar.
Khu Marko Ban, an author and longtime observer of ethnic politics and the democratization process, said there are many preparations to undertake before a major conference can take place.
“I don’t know for sure how [Suu Kyi] will hold the ‘21st Century Panglong Conference,’ but it should reflect the spirit of the 1947 Panglong Agreement because that is the lifeblood of the country,” said Khu Marko Ban.
The Panglong Agreement was signed by the soon-to-be indepedent government—led by Suu Kyi’s late father Gen Aung San—and ethnic Shan, Kachin, and Chin leaders in 1947 and it granted autonomy to some of the country’s main ethnic minority groups. Less than a year after its signing, Gen Aung San was assassinated and the agreement was never realized, plunging the country into decades of civil war.
Khu Marko Ban stated that the conference would be misleading if it followed the peace process laid out by the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee, which was founded under the former quasi-civilian government.
“Stakeholders should talk and make plans before the conference. It should not just be based on the UPDJC arrangement, which some worry just drags ethnic leaders along without properly including them,” he added.
Some ethnic leaders said they were concerned that acceleration without first laying sufficient ground work would threaten the safety of civilians in warn-torn areas of the various ethnic states.
They also claimed that Suu Kyi was following a peace process based on the NCA, an agreement designed by the former government.
“She hasn’t even modified the peace process,” said an ethnic leader who asked to remain anonymous.
Suu Kyi’s peace process is viewed by ethnic armed group leaders as a top-down approach, as she didn’t seek consultation or approval from them before scheduling the Union Peace Conference.
Her announcement leaves many ethnic armed group leaders—especially NCA non-signatories—hesitant to join the conference, while others worry that they will be left behind if they do not join.