Myanmar needs to fill in the gaps: The Nation

In its editorial on Sept 9, the paper says peace in the country will remain piecemeal until all armed ethnic militias are gathered at the bargaining table.

Myanmar ethnic rebel leaders at the Union Peace Conference in Naypyidaw on Aug 31, 2016.
Myanmar ethnic rebel leaders at the Union Peace Conference in Naypyidaw on Aug 31, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

There were serious shortcomings - chiefly who was included and who was not - but last week's peace summit in Myanmar fostered hope that reconciliation might be possible after the long civil war. 

The 21st Century Panglong Conference, also referred to as the Union Peace Conference, brought  together government officials and nearly 2,000 representatives of a diverse array of ethnic groups.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the government's de facto leader, sought in organising the gathering to evoke the vast promise engendered in the 1947 Panglong Agreement that her father, General Aung San, signed with the saohpa (princes) of Shan State and chiefs of Kachin and Chin states.

If this could not be the long-yearned-for implementation of that dishonoured 1947 pact, it was at least a good start towards the goal. 

It was also a daughter's meaningful tribute to her father, the independence hero who was assassinated five months after the Panglong Agreement was signed. Aung San's murder scuttled many promises for improvement in the troubled land and left the agreement without clear legal status. 

Its memory has lingered on, however, in the ethnic minorities' steady appeals for basic freedoms and the right of self-determination.

Spirits were high ahead of last week's summit that Suu Kyi would carry on the hero's mission and bring about a properly "democratic federation". 

It soon become clear, though, that not every ethnic group had been invited, and the reaction among some others was to simply walk away.

The Ta'ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Arakan Army were all invited. Khun Tun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), invited to represent all Shan people, declined because other groups were being excluded. 

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) delegates walked out in frustration but said they might return when the conference resumes in six months.

Government officials blamed the Wa withdrawal on a technical issue and noted it was participating only as an "observer", after all. 

Perhaps there was a "technical" problem, but Khun Tun Oo was troubled by the question of who is being included in the peace process, and this is clearly the stumbling block that needs to be overcome.

Suu Kyi is attempting to grow fruit in a long-neglected orchard. 

Several of the armed ethnic groups signed peace deals with the ruling military in 1990. 

Battles continued elsewhere, but that truce held in most areas until 2009, when the army attempted to force the ethnic militants into its Border Guard Force. Instead many turned their guns on government soldiers again.

Following his election in 2011 President Thein Sein tabled a national ceasefire and in subsequent negotiations eight of the 15 minorities signed a truce. 

The remainder watched as Thein Sein's reforms took hold and pinning their hopes on Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy winning the promised forthcoming election and offering better terms.

The current government has managed to coax more ethnic militants into negotiations, notably the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of nine armed organisations that had rejected Thein Sein's proposals. 

But what's still lacking is a fully comprehensive plan. 

Any groups that are excluded will continue to serve as sources of friction against the engine of national progress.

Peace in Myanmar remains behind a daunting wall of stubborn challenges. The civilian government has performed relatively well in its first real test in dealing with armed insurrection. 

But there is still the question of whether the military will accede to a new Panglong accord and, beyond that, how the deadly tensions between the country's Buddhist majority and Muslim Rohingya can be addressed. 

The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 21 newspapers.