The Myanmar government opened the third round of the government's key peace talks on Wednesday in the capital Naypyidaw to try to make progress in its efforts to forge lasting peace in the country after seven decades of armed conflict and tense relations with ethnic minority groups.
Representatives of the 10 armed ethnic groups that have signed the government's nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), non-NCA signatories, government and military officials, and delegates from political parties are attending the six-day meeting of Myanmar's 21st Century Panglong Conference, which aims to forge peace among ethnic militias and create a democratic federal union through talks.
Though the current civilian government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has made attaining peace a key priority, the process has been stymied by ongoing armed conflict primarily in Shan and Kachin states, which has delayed what the administration calls the 21st-Century Panglong Conference.
The previous two rounds, held in late August 2015 and in May 2016, failed to make much headway in resolving differences between the parties.
While Aung San Suu Kyi expressed concern over the delays in holding successive conferences, she reassured ethnic militias that have not signed the NCA that "the door for peace always remains open."
"I am worried that any delay in the peace conference could affect our people's chance to achieve peace," she said. "That is the reason we are trying today to solve the problems politically by this peace conference."
Military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who also made a speech at the session's opening, said that "delaying the peace process is further drowning our country, which has already lagged behind in development."
"Bold steps must be taken without delay in implementing the peace process," he said. "If the peace process takes longer than necessary, there will be instigation, interference, and manipulation, all of which will undermine hard-built trust and hard-earned agreement."
"Therefore, I would like to urge the stakeholders to negotiate thoroughly with genuine good will during the conference in the interests of the state and national ethnic people," he said. "They must continue the talks until a sustainable peace result can be produced."
Though only NCA signatories are allowed to attend the event per the conference framework, the government invited the members of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of four non-signatory militias from the North, to attend discussions but not speak.
"If the government and military want the Northern Alliance to sign the NCA, I think they should talk to each group separately and listen to their opinions," said political analyst and writer Than Soe Naing.
Ethnic leaders speak out
Some delegates from various ethnic armies agreed that the conference is an important vehicle for the ethnic militias engaged in hostilities with the Myanmar army to have direct communication with government and high-ranking military officials.
"I'm attending this conference because the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] has an expectation of reestablishing the contact we have lost with government," said General Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been engaged in skirmishes with Myanmar forces in northern Myanmar's Kachin state. The KIO is the ethnic army's political wing.
"Reducing the fighting is the most important thing that we need to talk about when we meet with the commander-in-chief tomorrow," he said.
Sai Kyaw Nyunt, deputy secretary of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) and a member of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), struck a cautious tone about the goals of the peace process.
"It is easy to talk about having a federal union in practice because we have many books referring to it, but the most important thing is that all groups - the government, parliament, military, ethnic armed groups, and political parties - must have a willingness to go forward with having a federal union."
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi chairs the UPDJC tripartite panel, comprising representatives from the government, the armed forces, members of political parties, and NCA signatories.
Naing Han Thar, vice chairman of the New Mon State Party (NMSP), expressed doubt about laying the foundation for a federal union in Myanmar by the end of next year.
"It is not still possible to have the federal foundation by the end of 2019 as they [officials] said," he said. "We have been holding discussions with government authorities, the military, and ethnic groups since 2013, but we are still stuck on gender equality and are far from [agreeing on] federal and ethnic rights issues."
Naing Soe Myint, a member of the central executive committee of the Mon National Party, took Min Aung Hlaing to task for comments blaming the ethnic armed groups and their respective parties for delaying the peace process.
"He shouldn't have said it," he said. "According to the words he used in his speech, we can see that the military's attitude toward these groups is still a hard-edged one."
Tin Maung Thein, a resident of Kyuakme, a small town in eastern Myanmar's war-torn Shan state, also took issue with the senior general's comment that the military has not caused civil conflicts.
"If this is so, then how can the army work towards having peace?" he asked. "People want to support our army with our hearts, but we hesitate to do that. All top military leaders including the commander-in-chief should think about this point."
Myanmar's military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing speaks during the opening ceremony of the third session of the 21st-Century Panglong Conference in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw, July 11, 2018. Credit: Associated Press Fighting flares
Zaw Jet, a resident of Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state, pointed out that whenever the government holds a peace conference, fighting flares in the state.
"There was fighting in Tanaing township yesterday," he said. "Top-level military leaders must order their troops to stop fighting during the peace conference if they really want a positive result."
More than 100,000 people have been displaced by hostilities in Kachin state since 2011 when a 17-year bilateral cease-fire between the KIA and the Myanmar army broke down.
The conflict between Myanmar forces and the KIA have escalated in several areas of the state since the beginning of this year, including Sumprabum, Tanaing, Waingmaw, Hpakant, and Injangyang townships.
Roughly 10,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting in in volatile areas of Shan state where Myanmar government forces have been involved in various clashes with the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA), and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
Fighting between Myanmar forces and the RCSS/SSA that began on Monday in Hanngin and Hikhe villages of the state's Mongkai township has forced about 500 residents to flee to safety, said Sai San Main, a lawmaker from nearby Kyaethi township.
Roughly 450 of them are now staying at monasteries and require food, clothing, and blankets, he said.
Though the RCSS/SSA has signed the NCA, Myanmar forces have recently been entering areas controlled by the ethnic militia, causing tensions to escalate, according to ethnic army spokesmen who said that the RCSS/SSA would continue to try to resolve the armed conflict through political talks as part of the country's ongoing peace process.
Colonel Sai Oo from the RCSS/SSA blamed the hostilities on government forces and a lack of confirmation of restricted areas between the two armies.
Brigadier General Than Tun Oo of the Myanmar military said last week at a meeting of the Joint Cease-fire Monitoring Committee that the RCSS must inform the government if it wants to enter restricted areas, and that Myanmar forces will fight any armed group that enters the areas.
This week's peace conference is not addressing the crisis in western Myanmar's Rakhine state, where government security forces led two brutal crackdowns on Rohingya Muslims in 2016 and 2017 in response to deadly attacks on border stations and police outposts by a militant Muslim group.
Youth activists weigh in
Youth activists attending the conference observed that the peace process fails to include young people, women, and others at the grassroots level.
Ei Thinzar Maung, a young leader of the Democratic Party for a New Society, said she was dismayed that young people who demonstrated against the war in Kachin state in May had been arrested.
"People who asked the government to end the war in Kachin state and who read peace poems have been arrested, charged, and sentenced," she said.
"Powerful top leaders from various groups are holding peace conferences, but for people at the grassroots level - women and young people - their right to participate in the peace process is restricted."
Khun Barrnet from the Union of Karenni State Youth stressed the need for negotiators to strike a balance between their goals and equality for ethnic minorities.
"Because many ethnic groups live in our country, we have to create a balance by thinking about ethnic equality, federal issues, and history when we talk about peace," he said. "Every ethnic group needs to recognize and respect each other."
"We are happy to see almost all ethnic groups participate in the third Panglong Conference, and we want all leaders to talk about peace after they stop fighting in all areas."
Lin Let Kyae Sin, a member of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front, said he wanted the current conference to be like the original Panglong Conference held in 1947 by General Aung San, Myanmar's national independence hero and Aung San Suu Kyi's father.
General Aung San is considered a hero for his role in freeing Myanmar from British colonial rule 70 years ago and for signing a pact known as the Panglong Agreement with Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minority leaders in February 1947 to grant the groups ethnic autonomy within an independent Myanmar and the right to secede if they joined a post-independence federal union.
"This original [Panglong Conference in 1947] was of an international standard because it was based on the Atlantic Charter," Lin Let Kyae Sin said, referring to a policy statement issued in August 1941 that defined Allied goals for the post-World War II world.
He went on to say that the current Panglong Conference shouldn't be held while the 2008 constitution, drafted by a former military government, is still in place.
The constitution solidifies the Myanmar army's role in politics by automatically allocating a quarter of the seats in the national parliament to military officers and gives the bloc veto power over proposed changes to the charter.
"The government authorities' speeches are emotional, but the military chief's speech was like a threat [to the ethnic armed groups]," Lin Let Kyae Sin said. "We don't want this. We want them to willingly speak the truth so we can have a better future by learning lessons from the past."
Reported by Wai Mar Htun, Nay Rein Kyaw, and Kan Thar for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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