An umbrella group of ethnic armies in Myanmar announced Thursday it will skip a government-sponsored peace conference next week, citing coronavirus-related travel difficulties and solidarity for a rebel group that was excluded, diminishing already low expectations for the negotiations.
The seven-member alliance, known as the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), includes some of the largest of the ethnic armies that have been at war with the central government for decades and have resisted signing a recent cease-fire with the Myanmar military.
Aung San Suu Kyi won office in 2015 on pledges that included ending wars between the national army and armed ethnic groups that stretch back to the country’s independence from Britain in 1948. To achieve this, she launched the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, and held annual sessions from 2016-18.
The Panglong process, also known as the Union Peace Conference, treats the ethnic groups differently, depending on whether they have signed the cornerstone nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) in October 2015.
The FPNCC’s seven armies are not NCA signatories, and the invitation that the six of them turned down Thursday only covered the opening ceremony of the next talks slated for Aug. 19-21.
The six armies “will not be able to join the fourth session of the UPC, mainly due to COVID-19,” the FPNCC said in a statement.
The group also said that it was disappointed that its seventh member, the Arakan Army (AA), was not invited. The AA, which is fighting Myanmar troops in western Rakhine state in a war that erupted in late 2018, was declared an illegal association and terrorist group by the government in March.
“The FPNCC member groups held a meeting today and decided not to attend mainly because the government didn’t invite our allied group, the AA,” said Brigadier General Tar Phone Kyaw, second-in-command of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
“We decided not to attend to show our solidarity,” he added.
In addition to the AA and TNLA, the armies staying away from the talks next week include the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA)/Mongla group, the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP)/SSA-North, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA)/Kokang group.
Nyi Rang, liaison officer for the UWSA, Myanmar’s largest non-state army which leads the FPNCC, told RFA that the ethnic force was in accord with the umbrella group’s statement and that he had no further comment.
Talks next week with the 10 ethnic armies that have signed the NCA are likely to focus on technical details and terminology, much like in the previous sessions.
‘Of utmost importance’
Aung Thu Nyein, director of communications at the Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar, said it will not matter to the government or to the peace process if the FPNCC members do not participate in the fourth and final round of talks before general elections in November.
“The government views the Panglong peace conference as being of the utmost importance for its performance,” he said.
“So, the government will hold the Panglong conference and portray it as its victory no matter what happens,” Aung Thu Nyein said. “If it fails to hold the conference, it will be a weak spot for criticism during the election campaign.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) faces competition from nearly 100 political parties who are putting forward candidates in the Nov. 8 elections to vie for 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.
No matter which party wins, however, it is important that the next government continues the peace talks and possibly includes the FPNCC groups in future conferences, Aung Thu Nyein said.
RFA was unable to get a comment from government spokesman Zaw Htay, who is also a member of the state’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center, which runs the peace negotiations and is chaired by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
RFA also could not reach Myanmar military spokesmen for comment on the FPNCC’s decision to sit out the peace conference.
‘A clear path’
In Naypyidaw on Thursday, representatives from the government, the military, and ethnic armed groups agreed on a draft of the Union Accord Part III to be signed during the peace conference.
First inked at the 2016 round of the Panglong negotiations, the Union Accord comprises a framework agreement for implementing the NCA, steps for implementing the peace process after 2020, and issues pertaining to democracy and basic principles for the federal system that Myanmar seeks to adopt.
Parties who attended the ninth meeting of the Joint Implementing Coordination Meeting (JICM) for the NCA, agreed on seven points, which will be submitted to the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) and signed at the peace talks.
The UPDJC comprises officials from the government, military, and parliament, and representatives from ethnic armed groups and political parties.
The Union Accord “will show a clear path to resolve Myanmar’s ongoing crises — a crisis of politics, a crisis with building a democratic federal union, [and] a crisis on constitutional reform,” said Aung San Suu Kyi at the meeting.
“But we still have to maintain negotiations on the details of the processes,” she added.
Ongoing discussions will include security matters as defined in the NCA plan, said government spokesman Zaw Htay, who also serves as director general of the State Counselor’s Office.
“It will include bilateral discussions and preparations,” he said. “These security processes are intended to balance the progressing political processes.”
Senior Vice General Soe Win, deputy commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, said that many of the issues discussed at Thursday’s meeting have been covered in the NCA.
“The meeting wasn’t able to cover the main issues as it was hindered by redundant discussions due to misunderstandings,” he said.
Reported by Thiha Tun, Kan Tar, and Soe San Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.