On 31 August 2016, the government of Myanmar inaugurated the much-awaited '21st Century Panglong Peace Conference' (also referred to as the Union Peace Conference) in the capital Naypyidaw. This four-day long mega event saw a wide range of stakeholders gather under a single roof to discuss issues of ethnic discord and armed conflict that have ravaged Myanmar for the last 60 years or so. But how comprehensive is this institutionalised process of reconciliation in reality, and where do Indian interests align with this plan?
With the decolonisation of Myanmar by the British in early 1948 and the subsequent takeover by the military in 1962, the 135 ethnic groups in the country have continuously fought for greater recognition of their respective cultural and political rights. In addition to demanding a larger say in the country’s heavily centralised decision-making process, they have also protested against the perceived economic and social impoverishment of their respective regions. After the coming of the military government, particularly, they began to oppose the curtailment of their cultural and religious rights under the government’s policy of ‘Burmanisation’.
Under severe state repression, the grievances gradually transformed into an armed struggle for greater political autonomy, giving birth to some fifty Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs). The political conflict, in due course, spiralled into a protracted civil war, marked by a profitable war economy and inter-group clashes. From purely ethnopolitical groups, some of the EAOs metamorphosed into narco-insurgent groups involved in illegal contraband trafficking across Myanmar's porous borders with China, Thailand, and Northeast India.
However, with the coming of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in 2015, a legitimate opening for democratic reconciliation became visible and viable. Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi envisaged to reboot the original 'Panglong Peace Conference' organised by her father in 1947, and the latest edition comes as a crucial waypoint in the internal peace process of the country. Despite major hold-ups and criticisms, this convention successfully established a cohesive platform for dialogue and peaceful reconciliation between the state and the various independent ethnic organisations.
The high-profile conference, attended by around 1,600 representatives from various EAOs, political parties, parliamentary and military clusters as well as the United Nations secretary-general, was a follow-up to last year's Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that was signed by eight EAOs. The key focus areas of the conference were: power sharing through federalism, local autonomy, constitutional revision, and separation of powers between the military and civilian state structures.
While the ethnic groups proposed a fully federal union that would proffer complete administrative autonomy to each state, the civilian-military clusters argue for a more decentralised structure of governance through constitutional amendments. Furthermore, the former wish for a complete separation of powers between the civilian government and the military, while the latter group does not deem it as a core issue. As of now, the peace process remains largely staggered owing to differences over these critical agenda points.
Nevertheless, Suu Kyi's primary motivation in organising such a conference was to bring as many political stakeholders as possible to a common deliberative forum, and in the process create a level-playing field for peaceful settlement of ethnopolitical disputes. It was aimed at expanding the NCA by establishing a platform for sustained and inclusive dialogue between the government, the army, and the various EAOs, including those who did not sign the accord in 2015. However, if one looks closely, the purported inclusiveness of the whole process comes under serious doubt.
First, although some of the NCA non-signatory EAOs did attend the conference, four of them remained uninvited because of their refusal to disarm before the conference, as stipulated by the army. These non-participant groups are the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democracy Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland - Khaplang (NSCN-K). Their refusal to disarm is premised on their perception that the Panglong process does not align with their demands for greater autonomy, or in the case of NSCN-K, with the ‘demand for Naga sovereignty’.
Second, representatives from the United Wa State Army (UWSA) – the largest and most powerful EAO in Myanmar – staged a walkout on the second day of the conference after being identified as 'observers' rather than participants. Although this might have been a misunderstanding of protocol, it was enough to incite the aforementioned non-attendees to express solidarity with UWSA and reassert their stance that the Panglong Conference was a 'discriminatory' forum.
The crucial point about the above non-attendees, barring the AA and NSCN-K, is that they are based out of Shan State in the north – a perennial hotbed of violent clashes. On one hand, while TNLA and MNDAA are still engaged in skirmishes with the army, on the other, UWSA continues to survive in the region as one of the largest narco-insurgent groups in the world, and a prime dealer of drugs and illegal arms from Chinese grey markets. The organisation is known to have been the key supplier of weapons to several of the Indian insurgent outfits based in Sagaing division in Myanmar’s northwest. Furthermore, a recent analysis points towards the movement of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-Paresh Baruah faction) rebels from Sagaing to Shan for safe haven.
Third, the non-participation of NSCN-K, which is currently ‘at war’ with India, remains a destabilising phenomenon. According to the group’s leadership, they chose to not attend because the conference 'had nothing to do with the Nagas’ demand for sovereignty.' Notably, it was only last year that India officially banned the outfit after a brutal assault against an army convoy in Manipur, following which Indian Special Forces pursued the rebels across the India-Myanmar border in a covert operation. NSCN-K is also the ‘leader’ of the motley set of northeast Indian separatist outfits that currently operate out of Sagaing. Hence, it continues to be a serious threat to India.
Fourth, the political parties from Kayah State who failed to secure seats in November 2015 elections refused to attend the conference, complaining about the meagre five seats granted to them at the table. This reflects a core political dynamic in newly democratic Myanmar where smaller regional parties harbour the perception of political underrepresentation and marginalisation. Fifth, despite the strong statements made by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the deplorable condition of the Rohingya community in Rakhine State, no representative from the religious minority was invited, marking a continuity of the alleged institutionalised marginalisation of the Rohingyas.
In light of the above, Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks and attitudes have been fairly encouraging. In addition to meeting the non-signatory EAOs a month before the conference, she has also succinctly expressed the government’s willingness to reach a common ground with the unwilling groups so as to achieve a comprehensive reconciliatory framework. However, the past few days have witnessed the army launch shockingly violent offensives against armed groups in Kachin and Shan states - something that threatens to derail the entire peace process.
It is undeniable that the ambitious peace process in Myanmar will remain hobbled without the participation of all ethnic, religious, and political groups. Although the government has charted a specific follow-up action plan - including scheduling similar forums after every six months and widening the scope of the NCA – it remains to be seen if the recalcitrant EAOs are absorbed in the Panglong framework in the future. As rightly stated by Suu Kyi in her closing remarks, 'To achieve peace is very difficult.'