Stumbling blocks to progress remain at Myanmar’s 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference.

Myanmar’s freshly-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) has made national peace and reconciliation a key priority after coming to office in a landslide victory in November 2015.

As part of the NLD’s peace process the Union Peace Conference, also known as the 21st Century Panglong, commenced this week in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw. Almost all the ethnic armed groups have confirmed their attendance.

Recent interviews with representatives of armed groups throughout Myanmar, however, shed light on three of the major stumbling blocks to a truly nation-wide ceasefire agreement: faith in the NLD’s ability to implement a peace accord; the ‘all-inclusive’ principle; and the role and priorities of political party representatives.

Can the NLD implement a deal?
Only eight of 14 ethnic armed groups signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) led by the government of former President Thein Sein  in October 2015. All 14 are returning for the 21st Century Panglong negotiations, but both signatories and non-signatories alike fear that the NLD may lack the confidence of the Myanmar military required to negotiate and secure a stable agreement.

One perspective, shared both by a liaison officer from the Karen National Union and an official from Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, is that U Thein Sein’s government knew how to negotiate with ethnic armed group commanders and then secure an agreement with the Myanmar military.

As the Thein Sein government understood the psyche and culture of the Myanmar military, and had close personal ties with senior officers, interviewees said they were confident that if they made an agreement with the government, it would be accepted by the military. They argued that the popularly-elected NLD government might have much stronger popular legitimacy, but they wondered if they could implement an agreement made at the Union Peace Conference.

Meanwhile, the seven members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) who did not sign the NCA prefer to negotiate with the NLD government. They believe the NLD has learned a lesson from the former USDP government about the importance of ‘all-inclusivity’ and expect to be able to cooperate with them.

In the eyes of the UNFC, the current government has no significant influence over the military, and also doubt if the NLD would be able to secure them equal footing and rights with the NCA members in the peace process.

Tensions within the UNFC have seen it split into an NCA group and a non-NCA group since October 2015. In particular, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) took leadership of the UNFC, resulting in claims from some NCA members that it disintegrated the UNFC in the name of political gamesmanship with the USDP government.

There are clear indications of a ‘struggle for power’ between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Union (KNU). As the State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has highlighted, trust is essential to making peace. Without trust between ethnic armed groups progress in negotiations is unlikely.

Division over ‘disarmament’
The biggest impediment to reaching a truly ‘nation-wide’ peace agreement between armed groups and President Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP) government in 2015 was the exclusion of three ethnic armed groups from the negotiations. These included the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Ta’aung National Liberation Army (TNLA).

All three hoped to attend the 2016 Union Peace Conference under the ‘all-inclusivity’ principle advocated by non-signatories to the 2015 NCA agreement. However, there has been no formal invitation issued to them as yet as the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) has made a commitment to disarmament a requirement of their participation.

This condition is not imposed on other parties, and derives from the Tatmadaw’s belief that these three groups are seeking political advantage. In addition, according to the Tatmadaw, the three do not meet their criteria of an ethnic armed group (measured by the size of the army structure, life-span of the army and the incidents of recent engagement in heavy fighting).

Without the declaration on their disarmament, these three ethnic allies had no chance to attend the Peace Conference or air their grievances. For their part, the three excluded groups have rejected the Tatmadaw’s disarmament policy, citing a history of agreements ignored by the military.

For example, the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) gave up their arms in 2005 after signing a bilateral ceasefire with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) government in 1991. However, when the peace process stalled and there was no follow-up action from the government, the Palaung (Ta’aung) people formed the TNLA and began rearmament.

Recently, the TNLA, along with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA), have engaged in ongoing clashes with the Tatmadaw in northern parts of Myanmar near the border with China.

These actions have created an informal alliance of politically marginalised ‘spoilers’ who fear they would lose political and military leverage on the government and the Tatmadaw if they give up their arms. The Tatmadaw’s demand for the disarmament of these groups before negotiations remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a truly ‘nation-wide’ agreement.

Constitutional reform or truce?
Although the role of political parties has not been significant in the peace process so far, they can play a crucial role in finding common ground between the government, military and ethnic armed groups.

The NLD government thus invited representatives from the 22 political parties elected at the November 2015 elections to the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference. Representatives from the 70 political parties that failed to win seats in the November 2015 election were also given five places – sparking significant debate over how best to allocate the spots. Unable to resolve the debate, these parties have refused to join the Peace Conference.

The interests of the political parties participating vary somewhat from ethnic armed groups.

For example, some see the amendment of the 2008 constitution as the key element of the Conference. Without constitutional adjustments, they argue, it is very difficult to form the Federal Union, and without the Federal Union, peace is unlikely. However, other ethnic parties advocate negotiation of a truce first, with constitutional amendment to follow.

There is significant discord and distrust about the prospects for peace from the Union Peace Conference among signatories and non-signatories of the NCA, as well as political parties and the Myanmar military. The strong bargaining positions on all sides creates a recipe for deadlock.

If the 21st Century Panglong conference is to yield fruit, there needs to be a level of goodwill from all sides. Myanmar’s complex historical, political and social grievances can only be resolved through genuine negotiation and compromise.

Dr Khin Sanda Myint, Daw Lwin Cho Latt and Dr Marlar Aung are Assistant Lecturers of the Department of International Relations at University of Yangon. Gerard McCarthy is a Doctoral Fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.

This article is as part of a research collaboration between The Australian National University and University of Yangon, supported by the Australian Government’s Government Partnership for Development initiative.