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21st Century Panglong Conference Reaffirms Obstacles to Peace

By Burma Partnership  •  September 6, 2016

DSC_0083-copy-copyOn 4 September, 2016, Burma’s “21st Century Panglong Conference” concluded after four days of an exchange of opinions on the country’s protracted armed conflict and on ways forward to establish a federal democratic union. Issues ranged from the geographical composition of the Union to the formation of a federal army under the civilian government –  and thus the need to amend the 2008 Constitution – through the delivery of a series of speeches, proposals and position papers. Over 1,400 delegates attended including ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the Government, political parties, the Burma Army and third party observers.

Only a few days earlier, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Ms. Yanghee Lee, expressed concern over a lack of clarity on how the Panglong Conference would address the myriad of obstacles facing a lasting and unified solution. Of particular concern to Ms. Lee was whether the conference would achieve the necessary inclusiveness required for any meaningful progress. As she said, inclusivity is not limited to the involvement of EAOs: the participation of women, civil society organizations (CSOs), political parties and the youth are all vital for the peace process to be a success.

Yet, despite her warning, inclusivity remained an obstacle as the Panglong Conference progressed. Three of Burma’s EAOs that were not permitted by the Burma Army to sign the NCA  – the ethnic Kokang, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army – were barred from participating in the conference on the basis that they were unable to reach an agreement on whether they would disarm, as demanded by the Burma Army. Their dismissal from participation in the conference appears one-sided, as an earlier joint-letter from the three groups declared their intention and willingness to engage in negotiations with the Burma Army and the Government.

In addition, there were occasions that created tensions among the ethnic communities even on the eve of the Conference. First, official titles of representatives from EAOs, including their military rank, were omitted from their nametags while the Burma Government and the Burma Army representatives were all addressed according to their official titles – such as Lieutenant-General Khin Zaw Oo of the Burma Army versus Gun Maw instead of General Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Organization – led to dissatisfaction among the ethnic representatives and participants.  Another problem is that the United Wa State Army (UWSA) withdrew from the Panglong Conference on the first day, amid an alleged misunderstanding that left them in a demoted role as an “observer” only. Misunderstanding or not, the nametag issue and the withdrawal of the UWSA exemplifies the tensions present at the conference and the desire of the EAOs to be treated on equal terms with mutual respect, and have full and unrestricted participation in conference proceedings.

The Panglong Conference has also failed to include a substantive number of women. Following in the trend of other conferences, such as last January’s Union Peace Conference, observers and commentators of the peace process have expressed concern that the lack of women will prevent a durable and lasting solution.

Meanwhile, any concern for peace and human rights during the conference was undermined by the fact that fighting between the Burma Army and various EAOs still raged on in northern Shan and Kachin States. Only a week before the conference begun, fresh fighting erupted between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burma Army in Kachin State. The Shan State Army – North also reported that it was engaged in conflict with the Burma Army in Shan State’s Lashio District, merely two days before the conference was set to begin. Over 100 CSOs released a statement preceding the Panglong Conference demanding a halt to military offensives by the Burma Army, citing the lack of trust and mutual respect that such actions foster.

The 21st Century Panglong Conference created the space for ethnic nationalities from EAOs, political parties and civil society to express both concerns and solutions towards resolving the decades-long conflicts and achieving peace. This is indeed a very welcoming and first step. However, the Burma Army also made it very clear that they would stick to their six-point peace agenda which calls on the ethnic groups to give up arms absolutely and to come under the institutional arrangements of the 2008 Constitution. At the end it was clear, as it has been for years, that the answer to resolving armed conflict and attaining a durable and lasting peace lies in the 2008 Constitution and this will become more and more inevitable in upcoming peace conferences.

In order for Burma to achieve a lasting and genuine solution, as the tentatively planned future peace conferences to take place at six-month intervals are aiming to do, the Burma Government must demonstrate an understanding of the depth and breadth of factors that are currently impeding the peace process. Inclusivity must always be strived for – including for the EAOs actively engaged in conflict with the Burma Army that were so far excluded from the Panglong Conference. Echoing Ms. Lee, this inclusivity must also include all other stakeholders, namely women and CSOs, especially ethnic community based organizations from armed conflict affected areas, as their contributions to the peace process are fundamental. Most importantly, the Burma Government should recognize that any hope of achieving a lasting peace is contingent upon the Burma Army refraining from conflict with EAOs, as this only undermines their commitment to peace and poses the risk of losing public confidence in the process.

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