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Myanmar Peace Talks, But No Peace: Both Aung San Suu Kyi And the Army Are to Blame

The Economist

Aug 18th 2020

Aung San Suu Kyi


JUST FOUR years ago, war-weary Burmese could imagine that one day the guns might go silent. It was August 2016 and Aung San Suu Kyi was hosting the “21st Century Panglong Conference”, the first of several talks designed to end the numerous ethnic insurgencies that have ravaged the country since its founding in 1948. The peace process had been launched by Myanmar’s previous leader, a former general, but Ms Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel peace prize, inspired genuine hope that a lasting truce could be made. Since then, however, that delicate hope has withered. Talks have stalled.

Sporadic clashes continue to occur in Kachin, Kayin and Shan states, while new conflicts have since 2018 erupted in Rakhine and Chin states, where there have been nearly 1,000 civilian casualties and at least 80,000 people displaced. As Ms Suu Kyi’s government, the Burmese army and several ethnic-minority groups gather together from August 19th to 21st in the capital, Naypyidaw, for the last peace pow-wow before a general election in November, the question on everyone’s minds will be: what went wrong?

It was never going to be easy. Ms Suu Kyi inherited what is often described as the world’s longest-running civil war. Her peace process was named after the first “Panglong conference”, convened by her father, Burma’s independence leader, in 1947. Ever since then, conflict between the army and a plethora of ethnic-based forces has spluttered on in many of the country’s border regions, and Ms Suu Kyi took over “one of the most labyrinthine peace processes” in history, according to the Transnational Institute (TI), an international research outfit. Thein Sein, her predecessor, had drawn up a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which promised to establish a federal system.

Those who signed it would graduate to the next phase, political dialogue. But the army angered the biggest, most powerful rebel outfits when it declared in 2015 that six of their number would not be permitted to sign the NCA. Initially just eight armed groups, representing 20% of Myanmar’s rebel soldiers, signed up, making a mockery of the notion that the NCA is “nationwide”. This created a complicated, two-track peace process: dialogue with NCA signatories; and bilateral ceasefire talks with non-signatories. Since Ms Suu Kyi’s ascent to power, she has been able to convince just two piffling non-signatories to commit themselves to the NCA and has not made any real progress in peace talks.

The army is not helping. Ms Suu Kyi cannot force it to extend an olive branch to its foes. The constitution gives the army, or Tatmadaw, control of the ministries of defence, border and home affairs, and a quarter of the seats in parliament, giving it in effect a veto on constitutional reform. It “has not made any commitments or any real concessions to ethnic groups during the peace process,” says Tom Kramer of TI. In fact it has deliberately sabotaged the peace effort, for instance, by clashing with two NCA signatories, the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic-Karen (or Kayin) group, and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), an ethnic-Shan group, while talks were taking place. In October 2018, both groups withdrew from the peace process.

Since January 2019 the army has also escalated fighting with the Arakan Army, an ethnic-Rakhine group, and one of the six prevented from signing the NCA in 2015, leading to the bloodiest fighting in Myanmar in decades. “They’ve not been pursuing peace, they’ve been pursuing conflict,” according to Priscilla Clapp, a senior adviser to the Asia Society, an American think-tank. The commander-in-chief views Ms Suu Kyi as a rival, and does not want to give her any political victories if he can help it. Moreover, the Tatmadaw has always been viscerally opposed to the idea of federalism. It is committed to a vision of Myanmar as a unitary state, dominated by the majority ethnic group, the Bamar, a vision that it is all too happy to impose on restive minorities by force. “I don’t think they want a genuine peace,” says Naw K’nyaw Paw, general secretary of the Karen Women’s Organisation.

The Tatmadaw leaves Ms Suu Kyi little room to manoeuvre. Yet she has made many missteps. At first she set about jump-starting the peace process with gusto. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, her hope was that a deal would be the swiftest route to constitutional reform, the only way to curb the power of the army, something Ms Suu Kyi longs to do. The army has said that resolving hostilities is a precondition for reform. But as the scale of the challenge of brokering peace impressed itself on her, Ms Suu Kyi’s enthusiasm waned, and she focused on other issues. It has become clear that “the priority of the NLD government has been to build reconciliation with the army, not with [ethnic groups],” says Mr Kramer. The hope was that, if the army does not feel threatened by the civilian government, it might consent to constitutional reform. One consequence is that the army has tried to dominate the peace process.

Even as her government neglected peace negotiations, it inflamed relations with ethnic minorities. In March the government refused to give state legislatures, some of which are dominated by ethnic parties, the right to choose their chief ministers. Ms Suu Kyi has failed to acknowledge the long-standing grievances of ethnic minorities, or to tackle concerns among signatories to the NCA about the army's breaches of the agreement and its failure to treat ethnic groups as joint partners in, or articulate a vision of what a federal union might look like. “A lot of ethnic voters feel betrayed,” says Mr Kramer. “We are disappointed in her,” says Ms Naw K’nyaw Paw.

The prospect of facing voters at the general election in November with nothing to show for years of peace talks has galvanised Ms Suu Kyi into action. There are promising signs. In January the KNU and RCSS returned to the negotiating table, apparently reassured by the government’s willingness to deal with some of their concerns. But none of the principles likely to be agreed on at Panglong go beyond what is already in the constitution or existing law: “It doesn’t give these groups anything new,” Mr Kramer says. And as Ms Naw K’nyaw Paw says, if not every armed group is included in the process, “we are wasting a lot of our time.” She suspects that the government has convened this week’s conference merely to “save face” ahead of the election. It will do nothing to stop the fighting that she says is “always” present in her country.

Original Headline: Aung San Suu Kyi has brought Myanmar peace talks, but no peace

Source: The Economist