Guest Column

Burma’s National Dialogue: Where Now?

By Sai Latt 21 March 2017

While this is the first time in 70 years that various armed groups have been able to organize formal dialogues as large public events, it is important to acknowledge that Burma’s current political dialogue framework still presents serious challenges.

Non-state armed organizations have, it is noted, been able to consolidate positions on various issues, including those concerning federal principles, by consulting with a wide range of stakeholders. In addition, this has proven to be a rare opportunity for ethnic groups to organize dialogues simultaneously.

But national dialogues should be able to address the issues imminently affecting respective states, or those strategically important regarding democratization, reconciliation, federalism, and civilian safety and wellbeing. The current framework effectively does not allow this—if any meaningful talks on federalism are to take place, they must occur at the state or regional level, given the current state- and region-centric territorial arrangements.

Since February, there have been six national dialogues in Burma: three were based on ethnicity and included the Karen, Chin and Pa-O; two were regionally focused, in Pegu and Tenasserim; and one thematic dialogue, known as the Civil Society Forum, took place.

The proposals that came out of these dialogues will continue onward to the 21st Century Panglong conference—originally scheduled for late February, but now postponed until late April or May—through the 50-member Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC). It is possible, and even likely, that results from national dialogues will constitute parts of decisions made in the Panglong peace conference.

Also in February, a third ethnic conference was held in the Wa-administered area of Shan State, calling for the dismissal of the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), as well as for a new Wa-led political negotiation process. Various observers claimed that this move weakened the NCA process, yet some saw the outcome of the Wa conference as having in fact strengthened the NCA, assuming it could force some non-signatory organizations to join the signatories’ cohort. Similarly, those with a more “optimistic” view point to recent national dialogues as having fortified the process of the NCA, stating that no better option has yet been put forward.

But an accurate analysis of to what extent this national dialogue will sustain peace talks and deliver a federal system—or even another political settlement—must begin with an examination of the composition of the UPDJC secretariat.

The team of secretaries is composed of 15 members—five from the government and Tatmadaw, five from ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), and five from political parties.

The government’s delegation has two former military officers, one serving Maj-Gen, one National League for Democracy parliamentarian, and one civilian. This representation appears stronger in comparison to those of the EAOs and political parties, which face challenges regarding organizational dynamics, raising questions about their level of influence over the government.

The title of “national dialogue” is itself confusing in the first place. Here, “national” does not signify the entire country. Neither does it mean the sub-national level, as in the Karen State dialogue. It partly means ethnicity, or “national race,” as in an ethnically Pa-O-based dialogue. Still, even this interpretation does not fully make sense, because thematic dialogues by civil society organizations (CSOs) are also part of the national dialogue. “Region-based” dialogue does not necessarily, or always, refer to existing states or regional boundaries, either.

In short, what this typology means is unclear. What is apparent, is that national dialogue, in this sense, means the elimination of “state-based” dialogues, in which multiple competing stakeholders—including those with various ethnic, religious and institutional affiliations—debate and find common solutions in, and for, each state or region.

What the national dialogues enable are exclusive, ethnically based dialogues, such as those between the Karen, Shan, Pa-O, and Chin.

Such dialogues might enable each group to identify key issues and solutions. But the absence of a platform that engages multiple stakeholders and is designed specifically to suit the local context of each state or region, ironically reinforces ethnic enclaves, instead of bringing groups together.

Political dialogues will focus on five thematic issues: politics, economics, security, society, and land and the environment. While these are crucial topics, the mainstreaming of these five themes actually escapes interethnic dialogue and a political environment in which a range of religious and ethnic nationalisms are on the rise across the country.

Each participating organization’s positions have already been endorsed by their respective constituencies. Should they negotiate their positions with other groups later, they won’t be able to make necessary compromises or negotiate for anything less then what has already, perhaps prematurely, been endorsed by the masses.

Outcomes from national dialogues are set to go to the UPDJC through five thematic working committees, which have 15 members each.

The composition of the committees also raises questions regarding the practicality of the process. Expertise on thematic issues aside, what qualifies committee members to make decisions about people who they may not represent politically, geographically, or ethnically?

For instance, how will a political thematic committee that does not have any Pa-O delegates make decisions about a Pa-O proposal for a Pa-O State? Similarly, how will the committees populated by people of Burma’s plains and hills make decisions for people on the coasts? Should there be a situation where the committee members are required to confront the mighty military, will they do so on behalf of people they neither represent nor are held accountable to?

In short, current national dialogues are unlikely to deliver appropriate outcomes without actual “state-based” dialogue.

Advisors supporting EAOs, political parties, the government and CSOs since 2012 have suggested three-phase federal negotiations. The first phrase—vertical negotiation—is aimed at forming an agreement on broad principles and rights for the entire country.

The second phase, horizontal negotiation, is state-based dialogue in which stakeholders—including the government, EAOs, Parliament, CSOs, and so on—within each state/region negotiate among themselves for specific federal arrangements for their respective state/region. Each state’s own arrangements would be unique, due to differing contexts, interests, and needs.

Once they find common positions and form a proposal, their representatives at the state and regional levels would negotiate their proposals with the Union government. The third phase is then the Union event where negotiated settlements for each state or region are formalized.

Such an approach is neither new nor impossible. Civil society groups in Mon, Karenni and southern Shan states have already developed vibrant “state-based” dialogue frameworks since 2014-2015. Moreover, there are existing initiatives such as the Committee for Shan State Unity (CSSU), Karen Unity and Peace Committee (KUPC), Karenni National Conference and alike in other states/regions that have already brought together conflicting groups and have done crucial groundworks for dialogue. Those leading the peace process should utilize, strengthen and support them in an effort to make political dialogue more practical instead of ignoring them to invent a whole new wheel. The current framework, by design, is centralized and impractical in delivering political outcomes.

There remains a fundamental question to ask: Whether the current national dialogues—at least the structure, dialogue agenda, sequencing and timing, if not the national dialogues as a whole—are the right mechanism at all at this point in time, or are mere distraction. The immediate life-threatening conflicts are in Kachin, northern Shan and northern Arakan states involving deadly military clashes and human rights abuses. But hundreds of people are busy with meetings, workshops, trainings, seminars and conferences on less immediate topics in Rangoon, Naypyidaw, and various other places.

Burma’s own peace process presents complex issues and challenges, not unlike other such processes elsewhere. Positive energy is both sacred and scarce in overcoming looming fears and conflicts, but optimism should not lead people both inside and outside the peace process to assume that inherently systemic errors will automatically disappear. This mechanism, with some errors, may be the best option put forward so far, but it is still a matter of life or death for many.

Dr. Sai Latt received PhD from Simon Fraser University in Canada. He researches violence, securitization, displacement, development and regionalization.