Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi kicked off the country’s five-day peace conference among armed ethnic groups, political parties, military officials, and government representatives in the capital Naypyidaw on Wednesday in hopes of achieving the long-elusive goal of national reconciliation.
More than 1,400 people attended the first day of the 21-Century Panglong Conference, also known as the Union Peace Conference, which is being held in an effort to bring lasting peace to Myanmar after decades of ethnic separatist civil wars following its independence from British colonial rule in 1948.
Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy (NLD) party patron Tin Oo, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, parliament speakers Win Myint and Mann Win Khaing Than, military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Karen National Union (KNU) chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe, and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) vice chairman Gen N’Ban La addressed the attendees with opening-day speeches.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto national leader, said the nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), which eight armed ethnic groups signed with the previous military-backed government last October, is the first step not only for peace, but also for building a federal union.
Other ethnic militias had refused to go along with the pact or had been excluded from it because they were engaged in ongoing hostilities with the Myanmar army.
“The new government is working hard for non-NCA armed groups to sign [the peace pact] because we need to go forward to future peace talks based on the NCA,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) government came into power at the beginning of April.
The military also has been working on ways to achieve peace in the country, said Min Aung Hlaing.
“We and our brothers—the armed ethnic organizations—are the ones suffering the most from the internal conflicts,” he said. “The Tatmadaw [government military] will continue to support the peace process based on the three national causes of recognition of peace and stability, national reconciliation, and development.”
‘Here to show our support’
Though fresh fighting between armed ethnic groups and the Myanmar army in Kachin and Shan states have cast a pall over the conference, representatives from 17 other ethnic militias are attending the summit.
Three other groups—the Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—were not invited to participate because they have refused to lay down their arms in advance of the talks.
The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of nine ethnic armed groups that did not sign the NCA, are attending the conference to show their respect to and support of Aung San Suu Kyi and to advocate for a federal union in Myanmar.
“Despite the many difficulties of attending this conference, we are here to show our support and respect to Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government, and because we really want a federal union,”
said General N’Ban La, UNFC chairman and vice chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
General Gwan Maw of the KIO told reporters: “We are attending the conference to honor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What we understand is that today’s conference is the first one, and many peace processes will be born from this conference.”
According to the NCA, the groups that have not signed the agreement could not attend the conference, though the government and military wanted them to attend, said Zaw Htay, spokesman of the President’s Office.
“That’s why we discussed including them in the conference,” he said. “The state counselor and military chief decided together to let Gen. N’Ban La, who is a leader of the non-NCA groups, give a speech.”
“It is out of goodwill that they have been included the peace process,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero General Aung San, arranged the original Panglong Conference in 1947 to grant autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minorities before Myanmar gained its independence from colonial rule by Britain.
But his assassination in July 1947 prevented the agreements made during the conference from reaching fruition, and many ethnic groups then took up arms against the central government in wars that continued for decades.
More talks in six months
The members of the Panglong Conference’s central committee told reporters during a news conference on Wednesday that peace talks will be held after the conference, and that another peace conference will be held in six months.
“Other peace talks will be held after the conference, and we will discuss results from these talks during another peace conference that will be held in six months,” said former Lieutenant General Khin Zaw Oo.
Though the parties involved will agree and disagree with each other during the talks, if they are unable to reach decisions, then they will take the issues to national-level peace talks, he said.
“If we still don’t have a decision during the national-level talks, we will discuss the issues at another conference,” he said. “It is as though there will be no end to the talks until we reach a union accord perhaps in 2019 or 2020.”
Beyond political discussions, the parties to the talks will eventually discuss how to share natural resources like gas, minerals, and timber between the state and the ethnic regions where they are abundant. Another contentious issue is how and when the numerous ethnic armies will fully lay down their arms, and whether some would then be merged into a national military force.
Meeting with religious leaders
Ban Ki-moon, who has called the peace conference a “promising first step” to put an end to the armed conflicts, also took advantage of being in Naypyidaw to meet religious leaders whose roles are important to Myanmar’s development process.
Ban met with Buddhist, Christian, Islam, Hindu and Baha'i leaders from the Religions for Peace Myanmar interfaith organization along with Aung Ko, Myanmar’s minister of religion and culture, and Nyanissara Sitagu Sayadaw, a respected Buddhist scholar and preacher in Myanmar.
The U.N. secretary-general urged them to curb hate speech and discrimination in the predominantly Buddhist country.
“Ban Ki-moon said the international community is watching Myanmar, so it is important to work together to curb hate speech and discrimination,” said organization member Kyaw Nyein.
On Tuesday, Ban indicated his support for the Myanmar government’s creation of an advisory commission, headed by his predecessor at the U.N. Kofi Annan, to address human rights issues in the country’s western Rakhine state where about 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims face persecution.
Because the government and Buddhist nationalists regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, they have denied them citizenship and basic rights, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. The Rohingya are not a party to the Panglong Conference, although NGO activists from that Muslim community met with Ban before the talks.
Earlier in the day before the conference began, Ban met with representatives of civil society organizations over breakfast to get their views on the conference.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt, Thiri Min Zin and Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.