State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s comment to ethnic armed group leaders in July—that they should consider what they could “give” to, rather than “take” from, the peace process—has caused some unease among the fragmented ethnic bloc.
Ethnic armed group leaders and observers of the peace process have privately criticized Suu Kyi’s approach as a “one-man-show”: stealing the limelight and monopolizing positions of responsibility. Without properly consulting ethnic leaders, Suu Kyi has expedited the Union Peace Conference, now scheduled for August 31.
Some ethnic armed group leaders have confided low expectations—that the “21st Century Panglong Conference,” as it has been branded, will be mostly “for show,” rather for reaching agreements to seriously further the peace process.
Nai Hong Sar, a spokesperson for United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)—an alliance of nine ethnic armed organizations that didn’t sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA) last year—attributes Suu Kyi’s early timing of the peace conference to her desire to present “a first step” at a session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. Real negotiations would take place only afterwards.
Suu Kyi is Burma’s state counselor, its foreign minister, a president’s office minister and the chairperson of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). She also chairs both the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) and the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), which oversee the peace process.
However, some observers point to the military’s continued monopolization of the security sector, and the powerful ministries of defense, home, and border affairs, as an obstacle to smooth progress in the peace process.
Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, vice chief-of-staff of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), said ethnic armed groups don’t have a clear idea of what Suu Kyi’s next move will be after the peace conference. They see difficulties ahead, including in implementing a military code-of-conduct, repositioning troops and monitoring the ceasefire on the ground. Suu Kyi must rely on the cooperation of the Burma Army in all these areas.
A longtime observer on ethnic affairs said, “If she is capable, I wonder why she doesn’t announce a nationwide ceasefire, under her own authority, and take action against those who violate the ceasefire. It would then become obvious who wants peace and who doesn’t.”
The peace process under the NLD government inherits the baggage around the deals made under the former military-backed government—particularly the NCA, which has caused considerable division among ethnic armed groups after only a minority of groups signed.
Even among signatory groups, there are disagreements over the text of the NCA—for instance disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, as proposed by the Burma Army.
However, under Suu Kyi’s leadership, ethnic armed organizations are treated differently than they were under the previous government. Suu Kyi hasn’t offered lucrative business opportunities to ethnic armed organizations, of the type that tend to benefit only top leaders and not civilians in the areas under their control.
Suu Kyi has indicated a belief that development and economic growth will go a long way toward solving many of problems faced by ordinary people. But, unlike previous governments, she may develop economic policies that reach civilians in ethnic areas.
“One reason we haven’t achieved peace is that the physical and mental needs of the people still cannot be fulfilled,” Suu Kyi said during a recent UPDJC meeting.
During the government of former President Thein Sein, business opportunities including car permits and company licenses were granted to ethnic armed groups. Some groups now make good money running businesses, their enterprises extending into neighboring countries such as China and Thailand. Not only do the benefits generally bypass ordinary civilians, armed group leaders also often lack policies to improve their wellbeing.
Due to personal interests, ethnic leaders are frequently divided. In Shan State, over the last year, ethnic armed groups such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Shan State Army-South have fought against each other. This runs on considerable precedent: in the past, ethnic Shan armed groups have fought with the United Wa State Army, and rival ethnic Karen armed groups have a history of internecine conflict.
Differences in views among stakeholders are to be expected, but without a genuine willingness to find common ground, the peace process will never be concluded. Ethnic politics is not black and white: Suu Kyi should be aware of hidden interests among individual ethnic armed groups, as well as in the Burma Army.
It seems that ethnic armed groups and the Burma Army don’t want real peace, but a peace with interests. Few appear willing to give up their arms and existing powers to help turn Burma into a genuinely democratic country. Such willingness is essential, no matter how much support Suu Kyi can command from both inside and outside Burma—or how many decision-making positions she can occupy.