A Fragmented Ethnic Bloc Impedes Suu Kyi’s ‘Panglong’ Vision

By Saw Yan Naing & Kyaw Kha 20 May 2016

RANGOON — While State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi beats the drum for a “21st Century Panglong Conference” to resolve decades-long ethnic conflict in Burma’s border regions, the division between the minority of ethnic armed groups who signed last year’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and the majority who did not appears to grow sharper by the day.

The two blocs are already developing contrasting approaches to the peace process, and articulating different ideas, including over the centrality of the Burma Army versus the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in negotiating peace.

The division has been exacerbated in recent months by hostilities in northern Shan State: between the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), the armed wing of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) which signed the NCA, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the armed wing of the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) which was excluded from participating in the NCA by the previous government. The TNLA has repeatedly accused the SSA-S of receiving assistance from the Burma Army in its campaign.

Recent comments from armed group leaders, who asked to remain anonymous, suggest that a group from among the non-NCA signatory ethnic armed groups could break away to form a powerful “third” bloc, based in northern Burma along the Chinese border and led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA)—the largest of Burma’s ethnic armed groups and reportedly close to elements of the Chinese government.

Soon after Suu Kyi proposed the “21st Century Panglong Conference” (a reference to the Panglong Agreement of 1947 reached between Suu Kyi’s father Aung San and ethnic minority leaders to form a federal union guaranteeing ethnic communities equal rights), two NCA signatories, the RCSS and the Karen National Union (KNU), held a private meeting in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, to discuss proposals for federalism that they would present at such a conference.

Ethnic armed group sources have said that the two ethnic blocs on either side of the NCA are likely to deliver differing messages to the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC). The NRPC is the secretariat recently formed by Suu Kyi to facilitate negotiations with ethnic armed groups—a replacement for the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) under the previous government.

Both ethnic blocs have formed their own delegations for peace negotiations and political dialogue with the government: the Ethnic Armed Organizations Peace Process Steering Team (EAO-PPST) in the case of NCA signatory groups, and the Delegation for Political Negotiation (DPN) in the case of non signatory groups.

Sources familiar with the issue told The Irrawaddy that NCA signatories prefer dealing with the Burma Army to Suu Kyi’s NRPC, while the NCA non-signatories have expressed greater willingness to deal with Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

KNU leaders met privately with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Burma Army, and former President Thein Sein on May 14 in Naypyidaw to discuss the peace process.

Mahn Nyein Maung, a senior figure in the KNU, told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that although Suu Kyi has proposed holding a 21st Century Panglong Conference within two months, political dialogue should only begin once NCA non-signatories sign the NCA.

“It will not be a meaningful conference if there are still ethnic armed groups who haven’t signed the NCA,” Mahn Nyein Maung said.

“They [NCA non-signatories] should sign the NCA before proceeding to political dialogue. The process should be based on the NCA established by the previous government,” Mahn Nyein Maung said.

Mahn Nyein Maung added that the purpose of the KNU’s visit to Naypyidaw was to strengthen their relationship with the Burma Army chief.

While the Burma Army has exercised a “carrot” policy with the KNU and the RCSS, offering benefits and cooperation, it has stepped up hostilities against NCA non-signatories in Kachin and Shan states in the north and east of Burma.

NCA non-signatories including the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA) have seen active conflict with the Burma Army since the NCA signing ceremony in October last year.

These hostilities have served to undermine the unity of even the NCA non-signatories. The TNLA and the MNDAA have recently moved to resign their membership of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of nine non-NCA signatory armed groups.

The TNLA and the MNDAA reportedly wish to ally with the powerful UWSA, in order to focus on “military defense”—reflecting their more embattled position vis-à-vis the Burma Army, compared to some other UNFC groups.

According to a senior member of an NCA signatory group, speaking on condition of anonymity, ethnic armed groups along the Burma-China border in northern Shan State may merge to form a new alliance. He hinted it would comprise of NCA non-signatories.

The TNLA, the MNDAA and the UWSA are the most likely candidates for this “northern” third bloc of ethnic armed groups, with the latter assuming a leadership position on account of its superior size and strength.

The Arakan Army—an ethnic Arakanese armed group founded in Kachin State but which has recently been fighting the Burma Army in Arakan State—has reportedly fostered ties with the UWSA over the past two years, and is another likely member of this new alliance, along with the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) based in eastern Shan State and popularly known as the “Mong La Group,” which has historically been close to the UWSA.

Additionally, the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), whose armed wing is the Shan State Army-North, has enjoyed political, military and business partnerships with the UWSA. Their participation cannot be ruled out in this new, potentially destabilizing “northern” alliance, which would significantly weaken the UNFC.

TNLA spokesperson Tar Bong Kyaw was quoted by RFA as saying that they had submitted their resignation to the UNFC alongside the MNDAA because of their “political standpoint” and the current “military situation.”

“It is mainly because military tensions are so high in our region. Clashes have been going on for some time. But we received only weak assistance from the UNFC,” Tar Bong Kyaw was quoted as saying.

In March, the UWSA hosted a conference of ethnic armed groups at its headquarters of Panghsang at the Chinese border, during which it proposed that it take a leadership role on behalf of NCA non-signatories in peace talks with the new government. However, the KIO—the second largest ethnic armed group in Burma, which currently leads the UNFC—rejected the proposal at the conference.

The Burma Army meanwhile has shown no signs of softening its stance on the TNLA and the Arakan Army, both of which backed the MNDAA in fierce clashes with the Burma Army in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone in Shan State early last year. The Burma Army still will not countenance the formal involvement of these three armed groups in the peace process, which may have alienated them from other UNFC members eager to reach a peace deal with the new NLD government.

Although Suu Kyi will likely remain determined in her project to emulate the achievements of her father with Burma’s ethnic minority groups, there are very substantial obstacles to achieving a “21st Century Panglong Conference” in the current environment of distrust, disunity and polarization.

With the existing bonds of unity among ethnic armed groups growing increasingly fragile, highly differing—and possibly irreconcilable—demands are likely to be addressed to Suu Kyi. For instance, multiple ethnic minorities in diverse Shan State, such as the Pa-O or the Palaung (Ta’ang), may demand their own federal states—or at least substantial autonomy—for fear that the ethnic Shan majority may dominate a federal Shan State. The ethnic Shan may view this as a splintering of their territory.

Furthermore, the looming possibility of a new “northern” alliance led by the UWSA, as a substantial third bloc of ethnic armed groups in Burma, could de-stabilize the situation further.