Waiting for reconciliation in Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi makes some progress in addressing long-standing federal issues

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:45 pm IST

Published - June 14, 2017 12:02 am IST

The second 21st century Panglong peace conference, which ended after six days of deliberations (May 24-29), was marked by some drama in and outside the conference hall. The degree of progress achieved towards national reconciliation should be measured by scratching below the surface.

The 20th century Panglong peace agreement was masterminded by Aung San — the architect of modern Burma. By ensuring the cooperation of key ethnic minorities, he won Myanmar’s independence. But at the age of 32 he was assassinated, leaving the challenge of nation-building to his successors. They all failed. Now, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi — de facto leader of Myanmar — pilots the project to weld together 135 ethnic races into a democratic and federal state. Will the daughter complete the task left unfinished 70 years back?

Ms. Suu Kyi called the conference outcome “a significant step”. Our assessment indicates that some progress has indeed been made. What follows the conference may be as important as what happened last week.

Players and issues

Two basic issues need to be appreciated here: role players and substance of dialogue. The peace process has been managed by a national tripartite committee comprising the government (including the military), political parties and eight Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) which had signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015. Ms. Suu Kyi’s government has been anxious to make the process inclusive by bringing other ethnic groups within its fold.

From this perspective, limited success was achieved. The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of seven EAOs, insisting on amending the NCA before their participation, boycotted the conference. However, the Panghsang Alliance composed of another seven EAOs, including the principal armed rebels such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), took part in the inaugural ceremony and then held discussions on the sidelines with the government, especially Ms. Suu Kyi. This group remains opposed to the NCA, but it has real clout as it controls nearly 80% of armed rebels in the country. They joined the process indirectly, thanks to the proactive diplomacy of China.

The main achievement of the first Panglong conference, held in August-September 2016, was that it took place. But the second conference went into substantive issues. Participants, including the military, agreed to secure a federal state. This was a significant gain because in the past the military regarded federalism as taboo. Probably sensing its flexibility, a few ethnic representatives pushed for the inclusion of the right to secession, a demand that was turned down by the government. It is viewed as “a red line” by the military.

Agreement emerged that states and regions could have their own constitutions provided they were in conformity with the federal constitution. Forty-one principles relating to five sectors — politics, security, society, economy, and management of natural resources — were discussed; broad agreement was reached on 37 principles. Two noteworthy features of the conference may be highlighted here. First, while EAOs suffer from internal divisions and the bulk of them are still outside the process, the government and the military are working in coordination. Yet, the two have different long-term objectives: Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Demo c racy (NLD) wants genuine democracy and considerable autonomy for states and regions, whereas the military is conservative on both facets. She demonstrated her political skills by seeking to bridge the divide between the military and the extremist elements in EAOs.

The China factor

Second, China’s decisive role came out in the open. Days before the conference, Ms. Suu Kyi visited Beijing to participate in the Belt and Road Forum. At a bilateral meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping assured her that China would continue to provide Myanmar with assistance in its internal peace process. Meeting her separately, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang discussed infrastructure projects, according to Xinhua, suggesting their “proper handling” in order “to guide cooperation expectation and boost confidence”.

In the build-up to the peace conference, Sun Guoxiang, China’s special envoy on Asian affairs, camped in Naypyitaw, meeting key figures and paving the way for arrival of representatives of seven EAOs from Kunming on a Chinese plane. Ms. Suu Kyi’s top aide U Zaw Htay told an interviewer that the success of the peace process did not “necessarily” depend on China, but China “does play an important role”.

The coming weeks will be revealing. If fighting does not break out between the military and insurgents again; if a formula is crafted enabling all EAOs to join the peace process; and if the dialogue resumes soon, hopes will be strengthened. Probably the deadline is 2020. Aung San’s spirit and the people of Myanmar are waiting.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, and a former Ambassador to Myanmar

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