Thursday, August 17, 2017

Second Panglong meet looks set to be a lonely affair

With the government showing little sign of backtracking on the stipulation that only ceasefire signatories can attend the upcoming second Panglong meeting, it looks likely that one-third of the armed ethnic groups will attend, while many influential actors will be left in the dark, according to peace analysts.

While no invitations have yet been sent, the charm offensive has not kept pace with the overtures that preceded last August’s inaugural meet up, leaving activists and observers to fear for the inclusivity of the coming gathering.

“[If the stipulation holds], there is no way for the [Kachin Independence Army] KIA to attend the Panglong meeting. The whole [United Nationalities Federation Council] UNFC might not attend the meeting as well. I assume that out of 21 armed groups, 13 of them will not attend the meeting,” said U San Aung, a member of the Peace Creation Group.

The first 21st-Century Panglong Conference in August was welcomed as an inclusive, if largely symbolic affair, which concluded without any real agreement or decisions, except to meet again in February. The format of the conference allowed members of the ethnic armed groups to air grievances, but did not permit dialogue, or leave room for questions. As the meeting wrapped a day earlier than anticipated, the ethnic armed organisations were left with the parting advice that all groups should sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and quickly.

In the five interim months, no additional group has shown even inclinations to join the pact, which itself was criticised for being a vague document that leaves many of the traditional ceasefire principles to be worked out in later dialogues.

Nai Shwe Thein, a central executive committee member of the New Mon State Party, as well as a member of the UNFC, told The Myanmar Times, “The armed groups which haven’t signed the NCA cannot attend the second Panglong meeting. On the other hand, there are several obstacles to signing the NCA. One of them is that they [the government] haven’t fulfilled our demands.”

The powerful alliance of seven armed ethnic groups laid out eight demands in meetings with government negotiators in June and August last year. The list includes the bilateral declaration of a truly nationwide ceasefire by the government and armed ethnic organisations, the commitment to include all armed ethnic organisations in the peace processes, and the inclusion of international observers in the joint-monitoring mechanism.

Nai Shwe Thein said he expects in the coming Panglong meeting only the eight NCA signatories will be invited to attend.

Yangon-based political analyst U Than Naing Soe said if that proves to be the case, then the second 21st-Century Panglong Conference will be as much of a window dressing affair as the previous iteration in August.

“If non-NCA signatory groups are not allowed to attend the second 21st-Century Panglong meeting, the armed groups which are currently engaged in fighting with the Tatmadaw will not be allowed to attend. These groups actually are the ones which are vital to be meeting with to discuss the peace process,” he said. “If these groups are excluded, the meeting will not be meaningful.”

But U San Aung, from the Peace Creation Group, said that the ongoing offensives are only pushing the KIA further from being in a position willing to agree to sign the NCA. He said the trust deficient has only deepened as the air strikes and artillery fights continue.

Rigid timeline, escalating conflicts limit NLD's peace process

After four months of escalated fighting, two key KIA outposts were overrun and seized by the Tatmadaw last month – Gidon and Lai Hpawng. The situation continues to be tense, with small skirmishes centred around the Lai Hawng area.

Mung Gawn, a KIA spokesperson, told The Myanmar Times that the group has not received an invitation for the Panglong event, but added that the Kachin Independence Organisation would be willing to attend future peace discussions.

U Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst, said now is the time for the government to act. “Critical negotiations must now take place between the government and the non-signatory groups before the second Panglong begins,” he said.

“If the UNFC does not attend the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, it can’t be considered a complete or all-inclusive meeting,” he added.

The NLD-led government, and leader of the National Reconciliation and Peace Center Daw Aung San Suu Kyi especially, had pledged to make the peace process a more inclusive affair than it had been under the U Thein Sein administration.

U Hla Maung Shwe, a senior government peace adviser, said that since no exact date has been set for the Panglong meeting yet, no invitations have been sent to anyone.

“It’s still too soon to say who will be joining and who will not. We are trying to make sure to involve everyone in the meeting according to the [all-inclusive] policy,” he said.