Ethnic Alliance Risks Irrelevance If It Skips ‘Panglong’

By Saw Yan Naing 8 June 2016

New faces were seen at a meeting between the Burmese government’s peace delegation and ethnic armed groups in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand last week, raising expectations for the upcoming peace process.

At the meeting, Dr. Tin Myo Win, the trusted personal physician of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s state counselor, led the government delegation and urged ethnic leaders to discuss the issues at hand “frankly and brotherly, like family members.”

The government’s top peace envoy said, “Think of us as if we are brothers. Don’t feel sorry or bad, but talk with us frankly. We will also respond in the same way. Let’s try to build trust through brotherly conversation.”

Tin Myo Win met with ethnic groups who both signed and did not sign the “nationwide ceasefire agreement” (NCA) with Burma’s previous government. The NCA, made official in October of last year, has been criticized for excluding several ethnic armed organizations.

Tin Myo Win said ethnic minorities and the majority ethnic Burmans are “like brothers and sisters living in the same country, and sometimes family members who live in the same house don’t get along and don’t talk to each other.”

“But now we all have to think of peace. We have to live together and build trust and understanding in order to establish a federal union and a peaceful developed country. These are our duties,” said Tin Myo Win.

He invited ethnic representatives from an alliance of ethnic armed groups, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)—made up of NCA non-signatories—to attend an agenda-setting meeting so that they could decide whether to participate in the upcoming “21st Century Panglong Conference.” The original Panglong Conference was convened by Gen Aung San in 1947 and resulted in an inter-ethnic peace pact that collapsed after the 1962 military coup.

A grouping of UNFC leaders, known as the Delegation for Political Negotiation (DPN), said they will respond to Tin Myo Win’s invitation later. No major decision was made at the meeting, but a general statement was released asking how the new government will include all ethnic armed groups in the peace process, particularly those who were excluded by the previous government from signing the NCA.

Observers expect that the UNFC will likely consider participating in the “21st Century Panglong Conference” and may also sign the NCA in due course, lest they risk losing influence by opting out. The ethnic bloc is reportedly happier to deal with a civilian-led delegation rather the previous government’s peace mission led by former President’s Office minister Aung Min.

Some believe the organization’s power is already on the wane. The UNFC used to be comprised of 14 ethnic armed groups, but has since been trimmed down to nine.

Two of the UNFC members, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the ethnic Kokang army known as Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), have tried to pull out of the bloc, which would weaken the organization’s military strength.

The UNFC also expelled two members, the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) and the Chin National Front (CNF), for signing the NCA in Oct. 2015. One of its most powerful members, the Karen National Union (KNU), pulled out in 2014 citing the alliance’s ineffectuality.

Most of the remaining UNFC members are now more active as political organizations than as armed groups, except its chair, the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO), which, claims to retain up to 20,000 fighters.

Gen Gun Maw of the KIO said at the meeting that the UNFC members have not heard from State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on the details of the “21st Century Panglong Conference” and have relied on the media to receive news and information on the event.

“So far, we have formed our own opinions [on the “21st Century Panglong Conference”] based on news and information from the media. We hope to hear a clearer explanation at the meeting [with Tin Myo Win],” said Gun Maw.

According to sources within the ethnic armed groups, Tin Myo Win could not answer all of the questions posed by Gun Maw at the meeting and said he had to report back to Suu Kyi for clarification.

The UNFC leader said he was willing to cooperate with the new delegation, but will be prudent and cautious about potentially signing the NCA. Some observers predict that the UNFC may join the Panglong-style conference” without signing the ceasefire agreement.

The UNFC will miss a significant opportunity if they opt out of the conference, which is expected to start in late July, said the observers.

Tin Myo Win said that he invited the ethnic armed groups who are non-NCA signatories to join the conference to let them to speak for themselves.

“There will be opportunities for them if they come and participate in the conference,” said Tin Myo Win.

“The people elected us [NLD] to achieve development, safety and peace and improve livelihoods. We can’t realize these goals if we don’t first achieve peace. We will only reach a solution after negotiating with our brothers and sisters [the ethnic leaders],” he said.