Thursday, August 17, 2017

Will 2017 be the promised year of peace?

Fighting in the north and the west and a widespread acknowledgement of deep-seated military and economic difficulties are clouding hopes that 2017 will be the year of peace in Myanmar. 

A soldier patrols the hills near Mai Ja Yang, Kachin Independence Army-controlled territory in Kachin State, during a conference of ethnic armed groups in July 2016. Photo: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar TimesA soldier patrols the hills near Mai Ja Yang, Kachin Independence Army-controlled territory in Kachin State, during a conference of ethnic armed groups in July 2016. Photo: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar Times

The facts on the ground appear to be conspiring against the call by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to make this the year that peace finally comes to the country, a wish she expressed in a January 1 meeting in Nay Pyi Taw with youth groups.

The serious clashes that have persisted since the start of the year between the Tatmadaw and the Northern Alliance-Burma (which comprises the Kachin Independence Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)) are only the latest manifestation of long-standing strife.

“It’s time for peace. We shouldn’t have to wait any longer. I am asking everyone to cooperate and help to recognise 2017 as the year of peace,” the state counsellor told the youth delegates.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated that the peace process was her government’s top priority.

“Peace is our highest responsibility, as well as a challenge for a government elected by the people,” she said.

A sense of scepticism was apparent among the delegates, as some of those invited, from majority ethnic states, had been unable to attend.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seems determined to speed up the peace process this year, as we see from her speech to the peace centre and her talks with the youth delegates,” said analyst U Maung Maung Soe.

Rigid timeline, escalating conflicts prevent peace in 2016

Indeed, peace efforts have taken centre stage since the National League for Democracy took power last March. August saw the first 21st-Century Panglong Conference in Nay Pyi Taw, which brought together representatives of 21 ethnic armed groups. But any hopes raised by the encounter were soon dampened by a resumption of serious fighting in Shan and Kachin states.

Clashes between the Tatmadaw and the KIA intensified in August and blew up again towards the end of last year as the army seized Gidon, a KIA stronghold. Another major blow to the peace process was the emergence of the so-called Northern Alliance-Burma, which launched a coordinated assault on northern Shan State’s Muse township on November 20.

Hopes for the second round of the Panglong process, to be held next month, are therefore muted. An attempt by the government peace commission last month to meet the NA-B failed, for reasons not disclosed.

“We tried to hold informal talks with them on our negotiation policy, but we could not meet because of some issues that arose,” said Peace Commission adviser U Hla Maung Shwe, without offering further details.

Asked if representatives of all ethnic armed groups would attend next month’s resumed meeting, he said, “It’s too early to say. We plan to speed up negotiations after Independence Day. We will try our best to get a good outcome.”

He suggested that the proposed third round of Panglong, pencilled in for August or September, might yield better results.

Already, members of the umbrella group the United Nationalities Federation Council, led by the Kachin Independence Organisation, said they might boycott the meeting. “We won’t attend with just observer status. It doesn’t make sense for us if we can’t discuss or decide any issue,” said KIO spokesperson U Naing Han Thar.

UNFC did attend the first Panglong round in August and proposed a change in the 2008 constitution. Ethnic armed groups that have refused to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement proposed eight amendments to it, and are pressing for the inclusion of all armed groups and the participation of international observers in the process, including China.

Whether any of these points will be considered depends on the relations between the state counsellor and the Tatmadaw. Some analysts see little prospect for peace in 2017 as long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s national reconciliation policy fails to gain general acceptance. And some say that policy favours the Tatmadaw.

“Her national reconciliation policy is too appeasing to the generals,” said political analyst U Than Soe Naing bluntly. He said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments to the youth delegates avoided questions on the role of the Tatmadaw.

“I was surprised that she didn’t give a clear answer to the delegates,” he said.

During the discussion, the ethnic youth delegates said they had raised with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi the possibility of placing the Tatmadaw under the control of President U Htin Kyaw. They told her that in future discussion, they would like to have a chance to discuss the matter with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s desire to change the constitution in line with democratic criteria is well known, though lately she adds that this might take time.

Analyst U Maung Maung Soe said, “We all know it’s impossible to do anything without Tatmadaw agreement. If 2017 is to be the year of peace, we’ll have to wait and see if the Tatmadaw is willing to listen to the voice of people.”