NAYPYIDAW — State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi opened a second round of peace talks under her government here in the capital on Wednesday, predicting that the coming days would bring “intense discussions, exchanges of views, debates and difficult decisions.”
Speaking to some 700 assembled delegates including representatives of the Union government, Tatmadaw and Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) ethnic armed group signatories, Suu Kyi outlined the overarching goals of the 21st Century Panglong Conference — namely the emergence of a federal Union, a broadening of the NCA and improved political dialogue. The current iteration of the conference is the manifestation of an election pledge by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to prioritise peacemaking in Burma’s restive regions.
Acknowledging the constraints of the NCA, Suu Kyi said the government will not be content with just a ceasefire, and will instead push ahead to cement “lasting peace through political dialogue.”
Achieving peace through federalism was the focus of the opening ceremony, with Suu Kyi stating, “Almost everyone accepts that the resolution to the country’s long-running armed conflicts is a federal system that is acceptable to all.”
Subsequent speakers, who urged all Panglong participants to keep the vision of a united nation central to their negotiations, echoed her call.
Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing took the opportunity to gently chastise intransigent members of the country’s ethnic armed groups in his remarks. The Tatmadaw leader said the primary goal of the conference is to restore peace by “removing the years-long misjudgments among our ethnic peoples who have been living in the Union in harmony since yore.”
Min Aung Hlaing’s closing comments served as a tacit reminder to any ethnic armed groups mulling a breakaway from the NCA framework, telling the audience any divergence will be seen as “tantamount to grabbing power and splitting from the Union through armed struggle line,” presumably referring to a United Wa State Army-led attempt by some ethnic armed groups in recent months to create a dual-track peace process.
But Wednesday’s remarks by both the state counsellor and military chief came as fighting continues between the Burma Army and the Northern Alliance — a bloc of NCA non-signatories comprised of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army.
On the country’s western border, meanwhile, a military crackdown on Arakan State’s Rohingya population has sent more than 75,000 fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. The Muslim Rohingya are largely stateless and the violence that first flared in October with an attack on police by Rohingya militants in northern Arakan is considered a separate issue from the country’s other conflict hot-spots: Speakers notably made no reference to the crisis at Panglong’s opening remarks.
It appears the initial speeches did not reassure some ethnic representatives that the coming days would be mutually productive. K Roi Ja, of the Unity and Development Party of Kachin State, said many ethnic leaders undertook long journeys to attend the talks, and that she did not appreciate the tone adopted by some speakers, declining to name a specific individual.
“I think some speeches are rather impudent,” she said. “The speakers’ choices of words can be more refined and polite in a way that it could mobilise the individuals attending the conference. The ethnic armed groups may also be unhappy about the choice of words.”
Speculation over who would and would not attend the conference had continued until Wednesday’s opening ceremony. The Arakan Army announced only on Tuesday that it would attend the peace talks — albeit begrudgingly, and at the behest of China.
The United Nationalities Federation Council is skipping the five-day conference, with the coalition of NCA non-signatories citing its collective objection to being labeled “special invitees,” according to the UNFC’s vice chairman, Nai Hong Sar.
“We were invited as special guests with the status of ‘special invitees.’ It is just a nice word. Actually, it is the same thing as ‘observers.’ Because we do not have rights to discuss and participate in decision-making, we are not attending the conference. We initially have decided not to attend the conference,” he said.