Embattled Ethnic Armed Groups Cast Doubt on Suu Kyi’s Peace Drive

By Lawi Weng 25 May 2016

The varying approaches of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing towards the peace process do not inspire confidence in its speedy resolution. But equally worrisome is the growing doubt over Suu Kyi’s mooted “21st Century Panglong Conference” displayed by key ethnic armed groups that have come under considerable attack from the Burma Army in the last six months.

Suu Kyi has signaled her desire to include all of Burma’s ethnic armed groups in the looming peace talks, but troops serving under Min Aung Hlaing have conducted intensifying campaigns against ethnic armed groups that refused to sign—or were excluded from signing—the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October last year.

Lawi Weng is a Senior Reporter for The Irrawaddy English edition.
Lawi Weng is a Senior Reporter for The Irrawaddy English edition.

The NCA was signed by eight ethnic armed organizations, who represent only a minority of such groups in Burma, and do not include many of the most well-armed and influential.

One such non-signatory is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the second largest ethnic armed group in Burma, operating from Kachin State near the Chinese border. The KIA has publicly expressed doubt over Suu Kyi’s planned “21st Century Panglong Conference.”

The political wing of the KIA is the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which engaged in sporadic bilateral talks with the government after a 17-year ceasefire broke down in 2011. These talks eventually floundered, providing no relief to the 100,000-plus people displaced by the conflict between the KIA and the Burma Army in Kachin and northern Shan states.

The “21st Century Panglong Conference” seeks to draw all of Burma’s ethnic armed groups—both those inside and outside of the NCA—into a political deal to resolve half a century of armed insurgency fueled by ethnic minority grievances. It is so named in reference to the 1947 Panglong Agreement signed between Suu Kyi’s father Aung San and leaders representing some of Burma’s ethnic minorities, prior to Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948.

Daung Khar, who heads the KIO’s Technical Advisory Team based in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina, told The Irrawaddy: “We have lost trust with the government and the army and we doubt their motives.” He noted that the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government had kept quiet after the Burma Army’s recent assaults on the KIA in northern Burma.

“We did not gain our ethnic rights from the first Panglong agreement. We have doubts whether we would gain them from this ‘second Panglong,’” Daung Khar said.

Daung Khar contended that Burma is effectively still ruled by the military, which he said had successfully retained its influence and power despite the transition of executive power. As long as this lasts, “the prospects of obtaining our political goals [of federalism and self-determination for the Kachin people within the Union of Burma] remain dim.”

Recent clashes between the Burma Army and the KIA have made for a very difficult working environment, in terms of building the trust necessary to resolving the conflict, Daung Khar continued.

“Whoever formally leads this country—Daw Suu [Aung San Suu Kyi] or any other person—we are no longer interested. Politics in Burma cannot move forward.”.

The Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), whose political wing is the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), has also publicly expressed doubts over Suu Kyi’s “21st Century Panglong Conference.” The Burma Army has waged a prolonged offensive campaign against the SSA-N’s core positions since the NCA signing last year, which the SSA-N refused to take part in.

Last week, the SSA-N lost a temporary base in Noung Ma village, in northern Shan State’s Hsipaw Township, after clashes with the Burma Army.

“We have suspicions that the Burma Army is trying to destroy the second Panglong conference,” the SSPP/SSA-N said in a statement issued last week.

This is the time for trust-building between ethnic armed groups and the Burma Army, but the recent activity of the Burma Army—launching strong military offensives against Kachin, Palaung (Ta’ang) and Shan armed groups, after the NLD assumed formal control of the government—suggest that Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is intent on destroying the necessary conditions for trust.

On a May 19 meeting in Naypyidaw, Min Aung Hlaing told a Chinese special envoy that all ethnic armed groups must “abide” by the “peace principles of the Tatmadaw” (as the Burma Army is known), and stick to their “designated areas” to avoid clashes, so that peace can be achieved through “the current political system,” according to a post on the army commander-in-chief’s Facebook page from the same day.

Min Aung Hlaing’s words suggest no softening on his core position: that peace should be achieved on the Burma Army’s terms.

He has also reiterated that three ethnic armed groups engaged in current or recent conflict with the Burma Army, and who were excluded from signing the NCA—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army—should disarm before joining formal peace talks with the government.

This is a condition that these three armed groups—who are closely allied, and whose participation in the peace process is crucial to quelling ongoing fighting in the west and north-east of the country—are unlikely to ever accept.

“[Min Aung Hlaing’s] words just fuel civil war in the country and we condemn him for it,” said a statement released jointly by the three groups.