UPDATED at 11 A.M. EDT on 2018-10-08
Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s military chief, and representatives from ethnic armed groups that have signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire accord will discuss basic principles for a future federal system of governance and a one-army policy when they meet on Oct. 15, leaders who are involved in the process said Friday.
The de facto leader of the Southeast Asian nation, commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and ethnic army leaders will hold their discussions in the Poppa region of Kyaukpadaung township in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region, they said.
The meeting will be the first time that the heads of the government, military, and ethnic armed organizations have engaged in direct talks since the start of Myanmar’s peace process in 2011, though the ethnic armies have met separately with Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing in the past.
Leaders from all the ethnic armed groups have informed the government that they will attend the Oct. 15 meeting, although Lieutenant General Yawd Serk, chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and commander-in-chief of the Shan State Army-South, said he is not sure whether he will be present.
“It was proposed that we hold the meeting in the Poppa region where it can be more informal, open, and friendly,” said Colonel Khun Okka, leader of the Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLO). “Holding a meeting in [the capital] Naypyidaw would feel very official and not open.”
Zaw Htay, spokesman for the President’s Office, on Friday confirmed the participation of Min Aung Hlaing and said it was “a clear sign that the military’s relations with the government are positive.”
Government representatives held a preliminary meeting with their counterparts from the armed forces and ethnic armies earlier this week to urge them to attend the Oct. 15 event because it would be the first meeting with both the state counselor and the military chief, he said.
“Whether or not these ethnic leaders demonstrate political goodwill will be determined by their attendance at this meeting,” Zaw Htay said.
“If they attend, the problems that are hindering the peace process will be resolved,” he said. “If they avoid attending the meeting, the problems will never be resolved. We can say whether or not they really want peace by seeing who attends the meeting.”
‘It’s a good step’
Khun Myint Tun, chairman of the PNLO, said the participants must discuss basic principles and policies for a future federal system and talk about holding two rounds of peace negotiations in 2019.
“We will discuss matters such as not seceding from the Union [of Myanmar] and other barriers to proceed with the peace process during the Oct. 15 meeting,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“I hope all parties are able to reach an overarching decision because the leaders who will attend this meeting are the ones who are the decision-makers,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi is spearheading the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s key peace initiative known as the 21st-Century Panglong Conference in a bid to end seven decades of civil war.
The government intended to hold the talks every six months after the initial round in August 2016, but the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Rakhine state and hostilities in Kachin and Shan states have stalled the process.
Sai Nyunt Lwin, general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) party, said that talks in the past failed to yield desired results because low-level officials who participated in the discussions did not have the authority to make important decisions.
“So it’s good that top leaders will meet in this meeting,” he said. “They will discuss not seceding from the Union and security issues. It’s a good step.”
Naing Han Thar, chairman of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the umbrella organization for ethnic militias that have not signed the nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), said although the participants will discuss policies for a future federal union, especially before the 2020 general elections, it is currently impossible to attain them given the military’s power.
“They will need to find an informal way to get want they want,” he said.
A democratic constitution
Mya Aye, one of the leaders of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group, now known as the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society activist group, cast some doubt on the peace process, noting that the government has excluded other ethnic armies from the NCA, which 10 ethnic armed organizations have signed.
“To be frank, I don’t think this process will work, because the NCA is not all-inclusive,” he said.
The military has insisted that the ethnic armies relinquish their arms as a precondition for peace, but some of the groups have indicated that they want a federal union before agreeing to give up their weapons.
He also said that a key component of peace is a constitution that reflects the federal system that the stakeholders are striving for.
“It would be best if the meeting is held to draft a democratic constitution that works for a federal union,” he said. “If it is, then the Panglong Peace conference will move forward as well.”
Myanmar’s current constitution, drafted in 2008 by a military junta that ruled the country, enshrines the power of the armed forces in politics by giving it control of three security and defense ministries and reserving a quarter of the seats in parliament for military officers.
During the third round of the Panglong Conference in July, Aung San Suu Kyi called for a new strategic vision to build a peace framework to end ongoing hostilities between the government military and ethnic armies, which have ravaged Myanmar’s ethnic minority-populated border regions and driven tens of thousands of civilians from their homes.
To date, the parties to the talks have agreed on 51 basic principles involving the political sector, the economy, and land matters, but they have yet to reach an accord on the security sector.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Khin Khin Ei, and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.