Myanmar Peace Conference Grapples with Mistrust and COVID-19

By Nyein Nyein 18 August 2020

The latest round of the 21st-century Panglong peace conference under the National League for Democracy is going to kick off tomorrow (Wednesday), with fewer participants than previous events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 230 participants will be attending the state-sponsored event to avoid crowding and to follow social distancing.

The conference is also reduced from the normal five days to three with participants joining the opening and closing ceremonies. Prior to the event, all the delegates, journalists, security personnel and those providing logistical support were tested for COVID-19.

The key negotiators are participating in the process, but many of the delegates and observers are unable to be present, including seven ethnic armed groups, which are non-signatories to the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) but invited by the government.

The pre-negotiated principles are ready to be validated as the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) led by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on Monday, met and agreed the final draft of those principles.

The UPDJC is a mechanism established under the NCA to oversee the political dialogue. It has representatives from political parties, the government, the Tatmadaw (military) and Parliament and ethnic armed groups who signed the NCA. The 21 political parties with parliamentary seats are eligible for the UPDJC to help create a federal union.

The UPDJC members have to agree everything before it can be approved by the union peace conference (UPC). In this final round, steps in the UPDJC’s process were skipped, partly due to COVID-19 preventative measures.

The current peace negotiations were almost stopped by a stalemate in late 2018 when the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State, both NCA signatories, decided to postpone participation in the formal peace process.

Informal talks were held throughout 2019 and the formal process got back on track in January with altered rules.

Peace negotiations during COVID-19 

The peace and political dialogue in Myanmar has been both positively and negatively affected by COVID-19.

Travel restrictions meant negotiators spoke via videoconferencing until normal talks resumed this month. The government in January said it would hold the UPC in April but the planned UPDJC discussions were canceled. COVID-19 pushed aside the political parties’ role as public consultations and discussions with the UPDJC (the process conducted in previous conferences) were canceled.

In addition to COVID-19, parties’ focus on campaigning for the November general election led to calls for the Panglong conference to be delayed.

Some politicians have suggested that it would be better to resume the conference under the new government.

However, after meetings between the armed groups and political parties in late July, the politicians consented for the sake of the peace process.

“Even in my party, some of our UPC delegates have to be replaced as they became 2020 election candidates,” said Tar Hla Pe, a member of the UPDJC representing the Ta’ang National Party.

U Thu Wai, who represents the UPDJC’s political parties, said on Monday that during the UPDJC meeting the parties shared their understanding because “it is important to attain good results for peacebuilding”.

Despite facing exclusion from the process, some UPDJC members recently told The Irrawaddy they supported convening the conference.

“The political parties’ input is not much reflected in the current discussion as it is like they informed us after they agreed. Some political parties feel they are excluded. We also feel that way,” said U Myint Soe, a UPDJC member and a senior member of the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

He said the peace process currently focuses on the perspectives of the government, Tatmadaw and the ethnic groups but “they are working hard to bring the peace negotiations back to the table”, referring to last year’s impasse in formal negotiations.

U Myint Soe, a retired lieutenant general who has been involved since the peace process started nine years ago, and also a UPDJC secretariat member, said the political parties can give suggestions on the issues that are shared to them but they “are mostly already agreed points”.

 This UPC will be a bridge 

The Ta’ang National Party’s Tar Hla Pe said they expect the conference to pave the way to move forward the “sluggish” NCA process and a guarantee to reach the goal of building a union based on federal principles and self-determination.

“We are neither treated as negotiation partners nor advisors in the process,” said Tar Hla Pe. “But we don’t reject them because we are not spoilers and we understand their negotiations move forward to achieve peace and a federal union.”

Although the process of community consultations and political dialogue on key political and federal principles was skipped, “we want political dialogue through the UPC to continue”, said Padoh Saw Tun Myint Aung, a UPDJC member and the chairman of the Kayin People’s Party.

Politicians told The Irrawaddy that although their ideas are not reflected in the current negotiations, they understand well that the conference is “a bridge” to keep up the peace process under the next government.

But participants will not have the chance to debate or share their views.

Sai Nyunt Lwin, the vice-chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, one of the biggest ethnic parties, said the parties’ voices are neglected and representatives will have to agree to whatever the government, ethnic groups and the Tatmadaw have negotiated.

“The role of the political parties is missing and we also don’t expect anything [from the conference],” he said, adding that the planned conference is just carrying on existing work.

The 19th Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) meeting in Naypyitaw on Monday. / NRPC

What is likely to be agreed at this Panglong conference? 

The government, Tatmadaw and ethnic groups agreed to the draft text of part three of the Union Accord, during the ninth Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting on the ceasefire last Thursday. They included at least 20 principles under different topics such as setting a framework for NCA implementation, plans for the peace process beyond 2020 and a five-point road map toward creating a democratic, federal union.

The first two parts of the Union Accord, with 51 basic principles for a federal union, were agreed at the 2017 and 2018 conferences, respectively.

However, the observers say if the key federal principles are not included, the essence of the peace conference will be missing.

In 2017, there was stalemate in federal principles negotiations due to issues known as a “package deal”, the inclusion of drafting the state constitution and other key basic federal principles were dismissed due to the Tatmadaw’s push for the non-separation issue.

In 2020, the negotiators managed to avoid the term “non-secession” in the discussion and focused on other principles, such as drafting state/regional constitutions and security reintegration.

Observers are concerned these issues may cause another deadlock like the non-secession term in the past.

But so far it is not a major obstacle as the issues are in the list for further negotiations. Many rounds of discussions on terminology are expected to debate the Burmese term for state constitution under the new government. Similarly, it will go to the security sector because the military’s focus on security reintegration is based on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, rather than social security reintegration.

Disputes over wording were the causes of deadlock during the NCA draft-text negotiations in 2014-15, under the previous government and they continue. Daw Aung San Suu stressed in her speech on Monday to the UPDJC that the root causes of the dispute over the wording lie with trust-building. She urged negotiators to build mutual understanding and trust to overcome the mistrust and doubt accumulated over 70 years of civil war.

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