Could Informal Talks Revitalize the Peace Process?

By Nyein Nyein 12 May 2018

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – It is quite often said that more informal talks are needed to move the sluggish peace process forward. Informal talks have been few and far between under the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government. Peace negotiators have pointed out that the lack of such talks is one of the reasons the peace process has not made much progress.

Those close to the government’s Peace Commission have been saying this for the past couple years. Now the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are echoing the idea.

“We have to make an effort to bridge the gap between the government, the Tatmadaw [the Myanmar military] and the EAOs through more informal meetings,” said General Saw Mutu Say Poe, chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU). He leads the Peace Process Steering Team and made the remarks at its 19th meeting on May 9. The KNU and nine other ethnic groups have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

During negotiations led by U Aung Min, a former President’s Office minister and chief peace negotiator at the former Myanmar Peace Center, unofficial talks with EAOs were held three times as often as formal negotiations. Under the NLD, informal talks with NCA signatories have become rare, while informal meetings with non-signatories have yet to take place.

Informal talks between the government and the NCA signatories have happened only twice, with the first being held in December 2017.

Tensions have grown and clashes have increased between the Tatmadaw and even those ethnic groups that have signed the NCA. Militarization is rising, especially in Karen and Shan states, further undermining the trust-building efforts of all armed groups.

Many stakeholders have grown disappointed, and blame the situation on the lack of informal talks. It seems there is a lack of understanding about the importance of such talks, further contributing to the confusion.

A leader of the Union-level Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC) once told me they could not openly discuss issues during supposedly “informal” talks, as the process had become too formal. The JMC discussed military affairs; all the discussions at these talks were recorded, leaving the negotiators feeling wary.

This week, the government’s PC and the Karenni National Progressive Party, a non-signatory to the NCA, were supposed to meet informally in Mae Hong Song, Thailand. However, the event was postponed, as the government reportedly did not send an official letter regarding the talks.

Khun Myint Tun, an ethnic leader from the PaO National Liberation Organization said, “When we engage in discussions as part of official negotiations, we are bound by the formality of representing each organization. Therefore, informal talks are needed. We need to recognize each other’s goals, and that can only be done if we discuss things openly. And then we need to find practical solutions. If we don’t, we are out of the loop, and can only have heated debates at the formal talks; the peace process cannot proceed.”

Informal talks can be held at any convenient time or place, such as in a coffee shop or at a working lunch or even during an evening drinks session. But that doesn’t mean such discussions aren’t substantive. They are a way to advance the interests of each nationality, as well as genuine peace and federalism building. At informal talks, the focus is most certainly on these topics.

The setting for peace talks, whether formal or informal, look similar, causing people to become confused as to their significance, said Dr. Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, an ethnic Chin leader who
has participated in the peace process since it began. This is because the peace talks require seating arrangements, official introductions and sometimes the delivery of public speeches.

Dr. Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, who is also vice chair of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), said informal talks serve as stepping stones to formal ones by creating an environment in which participants hear each other’s opinions, and thoroughly discuss them before stepping up to a formal setting.

Raising the example of the process that led to the signing of the NCA, he said, “We were able to sign the NCA because there were so many informal meetings surrounding the drafting of the text. It helps us to understand the perspectives of each side. We were able to discuss openly and debate. Sometimes there were heated debates, sometimes it went smoothly.”

While hailed in many quarters as a significant achievement, the NCA also split the country’s EAOs. Initially, only eight groups signed in October 2015, with the rest rejecting the Tatmadaw’s insistence that signatories accept the 2008 Constitution. The non-signatories say the Constitution lacks federalist principles.

Another major obstacle facing the peace process is the inability of parties to look beyond narrow self-interest. Rarely if ever do any of the armed stakeholders admit that the fighting is about control of natural resources or the economic potential of specific areas. Many leaders believe informal talks would help to overcome such hurdles.

“These days we focus on talking about politics; before, talks were focused on social and economic development and there was not so much concern over self-interest,” Khun Myint Tun said.

“Political changes, economic reform and the peace process are now going in the same direction, and some people have concerns over their own interests. Thus everyone should openly discuss about their self-interest,” the ethnic leader said.

In its current form, the peace process is now almost seven years old. The government, Tatmadaw, and EAO representatives have met thousands of times, both formally and informally. They have been conducting both unofficial talks and formal negotiations, including the ongoing 21st-Century Panglong Union Peace Conference. But they have yet to develop an efficient channel for holding unofficial talks that can build the necessary trust between all parties.