Countless Conflict Drivers and Myanmar’s 21st century Panglong Peace Process

Aung Tun considers the multiple moving parts associated with resolving conflict in Myanmar.

The National League for Democracy took power in April 2016, following a landslide victory in the general elections held in November last year. The transfer of power was surprisingly smooth, creating a historic moment in Myanmar’s contemporary political history.  Recently, a number of ministries did a series of press conferences to report to the public what they had achieved during the first 100 days of their goodwill offices under the leadership of President U Htin Kyaw’s and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. Yet, perhaps the NLD’s greatest achievement has so far been a “smooth power transfer.” This is the first time that Myanmar is being ruled by a purely civilian leadership after several decades of military rule at the expense of the will of the people. Thus, Myanmar’s transition has been moving forward.

However, many challenges remain to be addressed. It is important to point out that the NLD-led government’s biggest challenge is to ‘prioritise: there are innumerable challenges to tackle: lasting peace, land grabbing, human rights (ethnic rights), economic development (poverty issues), sectarian violence, legal reforms, decentralisation/federalism, constitutional amendments, and so forth. Meanwhile, the action initiated by the NLD-led government towards creating lasting peace is a great step forward.

The U Htin Kyaw government successfully held the first Union Peace Conference under their leadership in Nay Pyi Taw from August 31 to September 3, 2016. While the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Arakan Army (AA) were not able to join this ‘21st century Panglong conference’ for various reasons, the signatories and non-signatories as well as various political forces and civil society organizations (CSOs) joined the event, presenting a total of 72 papers which reflected their views on lasting peace. The event was broadcast live via the state media (unprecedented in Myanmar) allowing the public to listen to various voices (ethnic and political). This constituted a genuinely encouraging sign as Myanmar’s peace process would remain elusive without meaningful public participation. The people of Myanmar have already suffered from entrenched conflicts and weak mechanisms of public outreach. Tens of thousands of IDPs (internally displaced persons) and refugees have been adversely affected, living far away from their native places. Only a lasting peace can promote their livelihoods and provide them with social protection.

Myanmar’s journey towards peace is a long one. This is because peace in Myanmar is closely related to countless conflict drivers, many of which have substantially grown as a result of the negative consequences of what is known as the world’s longest running civil war. There are multiple drivers of the conflict, particularly the role of the army (Tatmadaw) including its staunch ‘six point policy’ on peace (to maintain a keen desire to reach eternal peace, to keep promises agreed to in peace deals, to avoid capitalizing on the peace agreement, to avoid placing a heavy burden on the local people, to strictly abide by the existing laws, and to march towards a democratic nation in accordance with the 2008 constitution). In addition to the six point policy, there is the relationship between the NLD and the army (civil-military relationship); the role of the ethnic armed groups; the role of the non-state armed groups (e.g., the  various militias), territory and related security issues (e.g., the current fighting between the TNLA and RCSS); vested interests of the status quo (e.g., the ongoing benefits of illicit drug trafficking or illicit trade in natural resources); debates over federalism and democracy, autonomy / self-determination, amendments to the controversial 2008 constitution, ethnic rights, human rights, interethnic conflict and identity issues (national and ethnic);, land-grabbing and increasing landlessness; conflicts over economic development projects (e.g. the Myitsone Dam project); and finally  international actors especially the relationship between the ethnic armed groups and neighbouring countries including China. These countless conflict drivers are obviously much more daunting than the situation which existed during the original Panglong conference held in 1947 led by the late General Aung San, the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

At that time, the real issues were how to achieve national unity and equal rights (not necessarily land grabs or illicit trade). Myanmar’s peace process today is much more complicated than we think. For instance, at the 21st Century Panglong Conference, the 72 papers that were presented reasonably highlighted the complexity of these conflict drivers on the ground.. Some papers even argued to change the country’s name from the excluding “Myanmar or Burma” name to better reflect the country’s diverse population. Others were more concerned with inter-ethnic conflicts within a state like that of the Tai Leng (also known as the Red Shans), demanding self-autonomy or self- rule within the Kachin state. The main argument being that “the Shan people have been oppressed, particularly in Kachin state.” Meanwhile the 2008 constitution doesn’t say anything meaningful about self-rule or self-autonomy but rather vaguely mentions ‘self-administrative zones’. Different dimensions (political, economic and social) of these much politicised terms remain very complex.

In practice, it is very important to mitigate some conflict drivers immediately along with having proper mitigation measures in place; for instance, territory and related security issues as well as illicit drug trafficking or illicit trade must be addressed as soon as possible. Issues concerning IDPs need to be addressed immediately by all stakeholders in the peace process, for example, creating humanitarian corridors to ensure humanitarian aid access to the victims. Some issues like that of identity (national and ethnic) would take more time and good efforts. Some would require risk-taking, without knowing the possible returns. For instance, security sector reforms, along with redefining the roles of the Myanmar army, and of all ethnic armed groups including the militias could involve enormous risks. Proper sequencing of mitigation measures, along with effective implementation must be secured for lasting peace, all of which requires very strategic planning.

In short, after several decades of entrenched conflicts, the nation looks like a patient with a chronic disease (various side effects being inflicted already). The patient has now been allowed to undergo a medical operation, something which was not previously allowed on account of weak political will at various levels. The transfer of power to the democratically elected civilian government has obviously granted the country a chance to undertake such a critical medical operation. To what extent the medical operation would be successful remains to be seen.The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), principle guidance for lasting peace itself, exists to approve that reality seemingly. So far, the NCA, composed of key 33 points, is certainly the most important document recognised by all important peace stakeholders even though some are not able sign it yet. This recognition makes it a remarkable, legitimate way to implement a lasting peace. There are several important points in the NCA, especially protection of civilians and provision of humanitarian assistance as urgent actions. For instance, the provision 9(n) notes “avoid killing or maiming, forced conscription, rape or other forms of sexual assault or violence or abduction of children” is the very first step to test ‘real trust’ not only between any of two or more armed forces but also how the public can trust peace deal on the grounds. The new government’s effort as a priority is to ensure all those important stakeholders to sign the NCA. This stage is now having huge challenges, especially at this time of conflicts in the northern Shan State.

In fact, Myanmar’s journey towards peace depends on several considerable factors. Furthering the recent Panglong Conference in Nay Pyi Taw which is aimed to be held again in six months, it is very important to identify who will take the role of surgeon; who will take that of the anaesthetist for that operation; who will act the role of a certified nurse; what medicine is to be used as an effective painkiller; who will provide other necessary medicine required for the operation; who will help cure decades-long trauma; who will help with remedies; who will pray for the patient and so forth. It is thus clear that the peace process must be addressed the political will, which is built on the new government, ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), and the army as well as all other important stakeholders such as political parties. This successful identification task plays a vital role in taking the peace process forward. The capability, sincerity and commitment of the identified actors would also be critical.

Of course, there are potential spoilers in the process too. This was evident in the recently concluded Panglong Conference, with intense fighting witnessed not only between the Myanmar army and ethnic armed groups in Kachin state but also between the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the TNLA .

Though such potential setbacks for the peace process could be foreseen, the NLD-led government has secured the best chance to make sure that the peace process moves forward. It has already secured strong public support, and its political commitment and mandate is unprecedented. However, as mentioned above, the process depends upon several multidimensional factors. Mutual understanding and collaboration of all the important stakeholders will be crucial for the future. One has to make a clear choice between “peace or war.” With that in mind, the successive 21st century Panglong conferences definitely need a new way of thinking and innovative tactics to cope with multiple conflict drivers, which have not been even touched for more than half a century.

Aung Tun is a researcher in the area of economic governance and conflict resolution in Myanmar.