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The 21st Century Panglong Conference kicked off today— a forum that aims to help bring peace and reconciliation to Burma, and end decades of armed conflict between ethnic armed groups and the Burmese military.
Before the opening ceremony this morning, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with representatives of civil society organisations over breakfast to hear their views.
“This morning was very exciting to meet with Mr Ban Ki-moon and to have a chance to raise our concerns and recommendations,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, secretary of the National Youth Congress. “The first issue I raised was the need for young people’s voice at the conference in designing our future.”
She said she hoped that young people would gain a formal seat at the table inside the conference.
“At the moment we are not identified as an important peace-making partner, so I encouraged the Secretary-General to make sure that we are placed as an important peace-making partner,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, speaking to DVB after the breakfast. “Youths [are involved in] every issue. We suffer from environmental projects and are accused as the ones who [threaten] the country’s solidarity because we go out to protest on the street – such as against the controversial education bill.
“We are also mobilised in armed groups. They are the ones who die first — so in history, we are always on the front line striving for democracy.”
There is a long wish list of issues to be discussed at the conference. Although it’s not likely that any formal agreements will be signed, UN chief Ban says it’s a “promising first step”.
Some 20 ethnic armed groups will attend the peace conference. But three militias — the Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – have refused to put down their arms, and will not take part in the discussions.
Soe Lunn, the director of People for People, an organisation that advocates on behalf of issues in Arakan State, said that the conference falls short of its stated aim of being fully inclusive of all groups: “Rakhine [Arakan] State was not included when the first Panglong Agreement was signed, and now this Panglong Conference is not inclusive as it does not include the AA, the MNDAA, and the TNLA, nor the ALP [Arakan Liberation Party] and Arakan National Council.”
Soe Lunn also met with Ban at the breakfast, and said he hopes that recognition of the problems in Arakan State will receive some of the spotlight. “There are land issues, poor education and health, women’s and children’s rights, and the conflict issue — everything is in crisis,” he told DVB.
Wai Wai Nu, the director of Women Peace Network-Arakan, echoed those calls. “Ban Ki-moon said how much he cares about the role of civil society groups, and I talked about the need for women’s peace and security,” she said.
“After the transition in 2010, there was conflict between Muslims and Buddhists and about 130,000 people were displaced. Since then, conditions have been deteriorating day by day. We haven’t seen any changes since the democratic transition — we are seeing just more deterioration in Rakhine, and no feasible steps to address the root causes.”
A commission to focus on Arakan issues was established last week, and will be headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Soe Lunn said he hopes there will be some momentum from this conference to focus on building peace in Arakan State as well. “I don’t know if it [Kofi Annan leading the committee] is good or not good – but people hope that it will be good. International aid brings attention to development in Arakan State but every person living in Arakan State needs to work together.”
Wai Wai Nu says the key to success for the 21st Century Panglong Conference will be respect for the different groups in society.
“In my understanding, it is not just about peace between armed groups and the Tatmadaw [armed forces], but national reconciliation and state-building again — so I think it should be more inclusive, including the Rohingya and the armed groups who are not able to attend, and also more women in the peace conference.”
Ko Shine, the founder of Interfaith Youth Coalition on AIDS in Myanmar, a coalition of young people from different religious backgrounds, is attending the conference and says he is focused on drawing attention to the need for reconciliation among religions: “This conference is not just about co-operation among ethnic armed groups, but there also needs to be co-operation among faith groups.”
Ko Shine welcomed Ban’s opening address but said he hopes there will be more support from Aung San Suu Kyi “Mr Ban Ki-moon used the terms ‘multi-faith’ and ‘multicultural’, but nobody else did. I think it would be more powerful if Aung San Suu Kyi and the Senior General [Min Aung Hlaing] also used these terms.”