Glimmers of hope for peace in Myanmar: The Nation

Myanmar's ethnic people attend the closing closing ceremony of the second session of the Union Peace Conference - 21st century Panglong, on May 29, 2017.
Myanmar's ethnic people attend the closing closing ceremony of the second session of the Union Peace Conference - 21st century Panglong, on May 29, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on June 6, the paper sees the recently concluded peace talks in Myanmar as a sign of hope for the country.

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK)- A second round of peace talks between the government of Myanmar and ethnic groups last week ended without significant progress, but at least both sides agreed to keep trying until a consensus is reached on settling the country's endless, brutal conflicts.

The so-called 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference reassembled from May 24-28 in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. At the negotiating table were representatives of various minority militant groups that have long battled for the right to conduct their own affairs as they see fit. The fighting has lasted nearly seven decades, intermittently pausing for peace discussions, but a permanent solution remains elusive.

The government's boldest move to date, taken under former president Thein Sein, was the offer of a national ceasefire for all 15 warring factions.

Some accepted the truce, but seven groups shunned it.

Last week a large contingent of these holdouts, led by the ethnic Wa, had informal talks with the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

It was she who initiated the current peace "conference" whose name echoes that of the Panglong Agreement, which her father, General Aung San, signed in 1947 to grant ethnic groups self-determination. The agreement was never allowed to take effect, but Suu Kyi clearly wants its spirit to infuse her own efforts to pacify the nation.

The second round last week drew more than 700 delegates, including representatives of parliament, the military, political parties and both armed ethnic groups and minority citizens who are not part of the fighting. In the course of several sessions they agreed on 37 of 41 proposals covering political, economic and social matters, even land concessions and the environment.

The four still-unresolved points are crucial to reconciliation, however.

One stumbling block was the phrase "non-secession from the union", in which the ethnic people perceive government distrust of their intentions. They wanted more "positive" terminology, at the same time insisting they have no wish to secede from the national union.

Government negotiators stood firm, saying the ethnic groups should have no difficulty accepting the phrase if they intend to remain loyal to the common national entity. Fortunately the stand-off didn't chase away the "Panglong spirit" - everyone agreed to resume the talks in six to 12 months.

If the secession point seems trivial to outsiders, it is only so in comparison to the central obstacle to peace in Myanmar - the unappeased armed groups that rejected the ceasefire and the talks. In this regard, all parties are obliged to lure them to the negotiating table. The Wa-led group's meeting with Suu Kyi produced no strong commitment to accept a truce.

The Wa in February formed an alliance among its fellow non-signatory groups under the name of the Federation Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee.

It includes the Kachin Independence Army, National Democratic Alliance Army (Eastern Shan state), Shan State Progressive Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang), Ta'ang National Liberation Army and Arakan Army.

Last November the Kachin, Kokang and Ta'ang launched a series of offensives against state troops, disrupting trade on the Chinese border.

Army commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing made it clear, as the Panglong conference opened last week that contrary to these groups' stated wish, the military would accept no "alternative" to the national ceasefire proposed.

Obviously there remains a vast chasm separating Myanmar from the peace it seeks.

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