About 900 Myanmar government representatives, lawmakers, top military and political party officials, and delegates from ethnic armed groups opened the second round of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s key peace initiative on Wednesday.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who also holds the post of state counselor and foreign minister, told delegates who gathered for the five-day talks inside a conference hall in the capital Naypyidaw that the government, which has been in power for just over a year, is prepared to negotiate with various ethnic militias that have been engaged in decades of civil war with the national army.
The ethnic armed groups say they seek a federated state in which they coexist as equals with the ethnic Burman majority.
“We should not be afraid of negotiating with anybody,” she told the attendees.
“We will not resort to exerting pressure through populist politics to achieve our goals, but we will instead strive to reach an agreement acceptable to all with open, frank, and inclusive dialogue,” she said.
“As we negotiate to reach common agreement on issues where our views differ, we must recognize that courtesy is not weakness, and negotiation is not concession,” she said.
The second session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, also called the Union Peace Conference, comes nine months after the initial round of negotiations was held and made little headway.
Spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi, the talks are the National League for Democracy-led administration’s key initiative to end long-term fighting between heavily armed ethnic militias and the Myanmar military and to build a democratic federal union in the country.
The previous government brokered a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with eight ethnic militias in October 2015, but several other groups refused to join the pact or were excluded from it because of ongoing hostilities with the national military.
Aung San Suu Kyi wants to get the nonsignatories of the NCA on board so the resource-rich country can move forward with its political and economic development.
“We are better able to identify common ground if we meet face to face and negotiate, rather than if we listen from afar to the words and speeches of others and seek to draw conclusions from them,” she said.
“Only political dialogue can address underlying grievances,” she said.
In a speech during the opening ceremony of the conference, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, said the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, will actively participate in the peace process.
“Peace and stability can be found at the core of every developed country,” he said.
“As for our country, armed conflicts must be ended without fail to restore peace and stability,” he said. “We must prioritize the work of restoring internal peace in our cohesive march towards multiparty democracy under a unified goal.”
Min Aung Hlaing reiterated the military’s insistence on adherence to its “six-point peace policy” that requires ethnic militias to accept the 2008 constitution, drafted when a military junta ruled Myanmar, and to disarm.
“The standpoint of the Tatmadaw on the peace process is to stand firmly on the NCA path, which is the peace strategy of our country,” he said. “In implementing the NCA, the Tatmadaw will adhere to its six-point peace policy.”
“For the sake of permanent peace, the termination of clashes and armed conflicts is the dearest wish of the Tatmadaw,” he said. “In accordance with the objectives and intentions of the NCA, we always keep the door to peace open and extend a welcome to the ethnic armed organizations that should participate.”
Representatives from ethnic armed groups that have not signed the NCA—including the United Wa State Army (USWA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army/Palaung State Liberation Front (TNLA/PSLF), Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army/Kachin Independence Organization (KIA/KIO), and Shan State Progress Party, Shan State Army North (SSPP/SSA-N)—are attending the conference as invited guests.
Two other groups—the Karenni National Progressive Party and New Mon State Party—decided not to attend the conference, as did the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella organization that represents armed groups that have not signed the NCA.
“If the UNFC had attended, it would mean that almost every [ethnic armed] group would have been represented at the conference, but it hasn’t, and it’s like we have a void,” said Sai Kyaw Nyunt of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP).
Zaw Htay, director-general of Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, said the government has been speaking with the UNFC about getting its members to agree to sign the NCA and to proceed with a policy on political dialogue.
“We will try to get them involved in future political dialogues and ask for their suggestions at the same time,” he said. “We are working on how to get them to sign the NCA.”
Colonel Khun Okka of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) said that the focus of the second Panglong Conference on political dialogue differs from that of the first peace summit, which began in late August 2016.
“The previous conference was held to try to attract as many people it could get, but [in the end] no decisions were made,” he said. “This current one is not such an event, but rather a political dialogue.”
Northern Alliance wants meeting
In a related development, the Northern Alliance, a coalition of four ethnic armed groups, has requested a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, an official from one of the organization’s ethnic armies said Wednesday.
The government invited the members of the alliance—the AA, KIA, MNDAA, and TNLA—as observers rather than participants to the current peace conference, but it limited the AA to attending only the opening and closing ceremonies.
The coalition carried out coordinated attacks on government and military targets in Shan state last November.
“We will ask [the government] for a meeting with Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Lieutenant Colonel Nyo Tun Aung, the AA’s deputy commander-in-chief. “If she accepts our request, then we are ready to meet with her.”
Delegates from the Northern Alliance have not yet decided whether they will remain at the conference because they do not know the agenda for the next few days, he said.
The coalition’s members are attending the conference because the Chinese government, which has been pushing for an end to skirmishes that have sent refugees into its territory, urged them to do so, he said.
Fighting between Myanmar’s Kokang rebels and government army soldiers in the hills along the Chinese border during the spring forced about 20,000 refugees to flee to safety in southwestern China’s Yunnan province.
Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group, said progress has already been made with the attendance of the Northern Alliance groups at the conference.
“They can observe both formal and informal discussions,” he said. “As far as the informal discussions are successful, they will have chances to participate in the formal discussions.”
Political prisoners freed
In celebration of the opening of the second session of the Panglong Conference, President Htin Kyaw released 186 Myanmar nationals and 73 foreigners from jail on Tuesday as part of an amnesty that included activists and political prisoners.
The foreign prisoners were released and deported.
Among those released were 10 political prisoners from Mandalay’s Obo Prison, including four students who had participated in a protest against the Sagaing Institute of Education in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region and two Muslim interfaith activists.
The two activists—Ma Pwint Phyu Latt and Ko Zaw Latt—were sentenced to four years under the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act in April 2016 and the Immigration Act in February.
Ninety-four prisoners held in detention facilities in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state were also freed, including 59 from the AA.
Former minister of religion Hsan Hsint, who was sentenced to 13 years in Obo Prison on October 2014 on corruption charges but released on Tuesday, called on the government to free others still inside the jail.
“I want the rest of the prisoners in Obo Prison to be freed,” he said. “Some of them received unfair sentences. I want the government to consider releasing them as well.”
Those released also included Hla Phone, who had been imprisoned in Yangon’s Insein Prison for comments he made on his Facebook page under the name Kyat Phy Gyi for violating Section 66(d) of Myanmar's Telecommunications Law, widely used by officials to charge their critics with defamation.
“I found out about my release under the amnesty for the Panglong Conference when I woke up this morning,” he said, adding that he would like to see Section 66 (d) abolished.
Reported by Win Naung Toe and Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.