Key ethnic armed groups are boycotting the talks and more than 100 civil society organisations called for their postponement, but nonetheless President U Thein Sein’s government yesterday launched the first round of a political dialogue aimed at bringing a permanent end to over six decades of civil war.
More than 700 delegates at a packed convention centre in Nay Pyi Taw heard a hardline speech by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing that contrasted with a call by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to end fighting with “a family spirit”.
President U Thein Sein said in his opening speech that the five-day conference would not result in any decisions but would still lay a good foundation for the next government due to take office in less than three months.
“Statements and opinions of stakeholders made in the current dialogue will be carried over to next conferences … If we can collect those diverse opinions in the best way then political dialogue conferences during the next government’s term will have good results,” he said.
The conference is the direct outcome of the “nationwide” ceasefire agreement signed by eight ethnic armed groups last October and brought together representatives of the current military-backed government, the Tatmadaw, parliament, political parties, ethnic leaders, observers, invitees and the signatory groups.
U Thein Sein, who had intended the peace process and transition to a democratically elected government as the main legacies of his five-year term, has in effect laid out a roadmap for dialogue on the future federal shape of Myanmar that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will find hard to deviate from.
The National League for Democracy leader, in the process of choosing a president and government to replace U Thein Sein at the end of March following her party’s landslide election victory, gave an opening address to the conference and then promptly departed.
Her main message was that a peace process had to be all-inclusive – a reference to the major armed groups that refused to sign the October ceasefire and those that the government and the Tatmadaw excluded from the process.
“It is important that there is no misunderstanding among the signatory and non-signatory ethnic armed groups,” she said.
“Our country is in need of national reconciliation. We cannot ignore national reconciliation in the peace process. Without national reconciliation, we cannot build a sustainable peace.”
The 70-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate has sought to distance herself from the roadmap laid out by U Thein Sein and the military. She shunned the grand October 15 ceasefire ceremony and had earlier said she would not attend this week’s Union Peace Conference.
The United Nationalities Federal Council, an ethnic bloc whose members include influential groups such as the Kachin Independence Army, sacked two of its members – the Pa-Oh National Liberation Organisation (PNLO) and the Chin National Front (CNF) – for signing the nationwide ceasefire pact, and is also boycotting the dialogue which it had been invited to as observers.
Myanmar’s two largest ethnic armed groups in Shan State, which maintain quasi-independent buffer states on the border with China, also stayed away.
However, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Kaplan, an armed group active in both India and Myanmar, was a non-signatory that did attend.
Whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi manages to change the direction or substance of future peace conferences will largely depend on the consent of the Tatmadaw. Under Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing the military has said the non-signatories must sign the ceasefire to join the process of dialogue, while three armed factions fighting in Shan State must first surrender before they can be accepted.
His hardline speech yesterday introduced new components that will be hard for the non-signatories to accept, participants said.
The commander-in-chief said the process of DDR/SSR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, and security sector reforms) must be implemented within a set timeline and political negotiations would be conditional on this.
“Bearing arms, we cannot talk about political affairs like democracy and federalism for our Union. That’s why we need to set a timeline to follow an international standard of DDR/SSR process to solve internal conflicts,” he said.
“Various countries in the world have only one army. We, adopting that concept, are building the Tatmadaw to be a standard army by all means,” he added.
He invited ethnic armed groups to join the Tatmadaw for national security and defense, as smaller factions have in the past as border defence forces under central command.
Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing said Myanmar should adopt a political system that fitted the country most in terms of its history and national characteristics.
“There is no fit-for-all theory, equation and system. Our democracy will only be sustainable if we can find the one best suited to us,” he said in remarks reflecting the military’s intention to maintain its power base under the next government.
The senior general also reiterated that ethnic armed groups must adhere to laws based on the 2008 constitution which was written before by the former military junta before handing over limited powers to U Thein Sein’s government in 2011.
But General Saw Mutu Say Poe, chair of the Karen National Union, one of the eight signatories, said in his speech that building a federal Union required constitutional amendments.
Colonel Khun Okkar, patron of the PNLO, said the armed groups outside the ceasefire would see the senior general’s demands as a good reason for not taking part in future peace dialogue conferences.
CNF member Salai Sui Khur also questioned Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s comments. “It is not clear whether that means a sole army that has the same uniform and abstains from politics, or an army composed of different uniforms but united in the time of urgency. We need detailed talks for cooperation,” he said.
U Ko Ko Gyi, a member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society who attended the event, said divisions should later be narrowed.
“When we look at international peace processes, peace stakeholders sometimes get to the nearest point to agreement, while sometimes they have gone far from the goals. That’s the nature of it. A split should not be assumed to be a permanent matter,” he said.
Political writer U Kyaw Win said Myanmar’s peace process was linked to international interests, and the world’s superpowers.
“There is great power competition between the United States and China. If there is no hand behind the groups along the Myanmar-China border, the peace process for the next government will not have much trouble,” he said.
He noted that most ethnic armed groups along the Myanmar-Thailand border had joined the nationwide ceasefire while those on the border with China had not.
He also said the ethnic armed groups would have a better chance of negotiating deals with the next government only when civilian-military relations were good.