Myanmar Peace Talks Begin, High in Symbolism and in Skepticism
NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — In the grandest gesture yet of her young administration, Myanmar’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, opened a peace conference on Wednesday to bring together hundreds of the country’s ethnic armed groups in hopes of ending decades of conflict.
More than 750 delegates, many wearing checkered longyi or saffron-colored attire, attended the opening ceremony. The conference was the first time in seven decades that so many factions — the government, Parliament, the military and political parties, and ethnic armed groups — had gathered to address the country’s armed struggles.
The conference picked up on the previous government’s partial success in securing a national cease-fire last year. But despite the gathering’s symbolism, expectations for progress were low. No formal negotiations were scheduled to take place during the five-day meeting.
Khin Zaw Oo, a former general who is the secretary to the government’s negotiation team, said that “this meeting is only about trust-building” and that it was just the first in a series of regular talks.
By calling the process the “21st Century Panglong,” Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is invoking the legacy of her father, the independence figure Aung San. In 1947, he hosted a conference of ethnic leaders in the town of Panglong that helped create modern Myanmar by rallying them around the promise of equality and self-determination.
Yet the optimism of that moment was dashed with Aung San’s assassination a few months later and the outbreak of insurgencies soon after independence in 1948.
On the eve of her own Panglong conference, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said, “We are trying for all-inclusiveness — as much as we can.”
But some participants complained of rushed planning, with the lists of speakers finalized late, and said too much attention was focused on Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. And her decision to appoint her longtime doctor, Tin Myo Win, as the government’s main peace negotiator revived concerns that she prizes loyalty over competence in her advisers.
Some said the gathering was not inclusive enough, noting that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had set the date for the conference without consulting important participants. And there were worries she was stretched too thin, with preparations for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting in Laos next week and an expected trip to the United States in September.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi “told us that Myanmar’s peace process is coming too late, and it is better to jump into it as fast as possible,” said Salai Yaw Aung, a leading member of the All Burma Student Democratic Front, an armed group that has signed the cease-fire deal. “That could be a reason the conference was rushed, even though armed groups wanted to delay it until October.”
“We don’t have any expectations for 21st Century Panglong,” said Maj. Gen. Say Htin, the leader of Shan State Army-North, a group fighting the Myanmar Army in the northeast. “We had to negotiate hard just about who would give speeches. We want peace. But whether that will be successful or not depends on the government’s process.”
The government of former President Thein Sein, which ushered in democratic changes in 2011, pushed to secure a peace deal before the November elections, which Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won in a landslide.
In the end, only eight ethnic armed groups signed the deal. Others were turned off by the army’s insistence that they commit to the cease-fire as a condition for participating later in a broader political dialogue about equal rights and power-sharing.
The armed groups that did not sign the deal represented more than four-fifths of all ethnic combatants in the country, according to Bertil Lintner, the author of several books about Myanmar.
But the peace conference includes groups that were excluded from the cease-fire agreement, representing, in effect, the symbolic beginning of a long-awaited political dialogue about federalism and constitutional changes.
Serious obstacles remain, though, particularly the complexity of the conflicts. Some ethnic armed groups are fighting one another. Others are breaking apart. There are hundreds of militia groups, many once proxies for the military. Armed groups and political groups claiming to represent the same ethnic interests sometimes diverge.
Source: New York Times