Aung San Suu Kyi’s plans for a 21st Century Panglong Conference following the NLD’s landslide victory in last November’s elections is a positive development raising the promise of national reconciliation after decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar.
That the State Counselor should feel emboldened to issue such an evocative clarion call so soon after her election victory suggests how quickly the pace of positive change is now unfolding. It lends impetus to her stated commitment to prioritize the peace process, assume personal responsibility for it, and actively consolidate a spirit of unity and reconciliation as her father did at the first Panglong Conference almost seven decades ago.
But whilst the prospect of such a conference might appear fresh and decisive after years of failed initiatives to bring peace to the country, an air of weary inevitability has quickly descended over the whole process. There is nothing new about this Panglong, as others have been at pains to stress, and as currently framed there is every likelihood it will prove another false dawn on the road to peace and national reconciliation.
Inclusion in Rhetoric and Reality
From the moment the idea of another Panglong was mooted, the issue of inclusion has dogged the project and continues to do so. If a lack of inclusivity has undermined the country’s peace process, any conference convened in the interests of resolving the ongoing conflicts will also struggle if it is not inclusive. Moreover, ensuring that it is suitably inclusive should be the first and fundamental priority for an initiative with aspirations to carry all parties forward together as part of the wider national political dialogue.
Government rhetoric has been less than convincing on this front. Whilst Dr. Tin Myo Win, the chairman of the Conference Preparatory Committee (CPC), has encouraged those who didn’t sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October last year to either sign up or take part in the development of a framework for the conference, preparations have proceeded regardless of who is or is not involved. As was the case at the original Panglong, a minority of ethnic groups and NCA signatories hold sway here, potentially fashioning the framework in their own image at the expense of those outside this crucial process.
News that ethnic civil society as well as ethnic political parties (dynamic stakeholders as well as effective and experienced arbitrators over many years of conflict and upheaval) will not be granted equal status within the political and security framework is cause for concern; still more given that many of these actors are currently working closely with conflict-affected communities on initiatives to monitor and maintain ceasefires in various parts of the country and therefore offer valuable practical understanding. This is indeed disappointing given that social and civil society interaction should now be deemed stronger but perhaps confirms speculation that the process is once again captive to elite politics and interests.
So, as the government pushes ahead with its plans with only the assurance of access, it risks leaving significant ethnic stakeholders behind, not just those non-signatories of the NCA currently outside the peace process but also other key ethnic stakeholders. The government therefore needs to assume a more reflexive approach in accommodating such outliers, working to ensure that the forum and the framework emerge through broad and inclusive representation which must be the starting point not the suggested outcome.
Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged in one of her “talks over the gate” in February 1996 that “people’s participation” was vital at the original Panglong Conference. She insisted, “The lesson we learned from Panglong is clear — unity is the vehicle to our destination.” Unity needs to be framed in terms of broad and inclusive state-society engagement at the new conference — rather than mere minority involvement — if it is to deliver on that promise and shape a country in its own image.
Defusing Spirits of Disunity
In many ways the peace process has opened up new divisions and therefore raised new challenges for this Panglong Conference. A gulf has now opened up between the minority of NCA signatories and the majority non-signatories, who appear set on different trajectories. This is expressed in contrasting approaches to the peace process, which are now institutionalized through representative structures such as the Ethnic Armed Organizations Peace Process Steering Team (EAO-PPST) for NCA signatories and the Delegation for Political Negotiation (DPN) for non-signatories. The former have a preference for dealing with the Tatmadaw rather than Suu Kyi’s newly created National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) whilst non-signatories have more confidence in the State Counselor and NLD government.
These divisions are further compounded by ongoing hostilities between the Tatmadaw and non-signatories in Shan and Kachin States in particular and increasing intra-ethnic conflict amongst those ethnic nationalities caught on either side of the peace process, namely that between the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
Indeed, it is no longer simply a case of reaching out to those inside the process and those outside but of alternative factions opening up within these camps. There is now evidence of significant divisions amongst non-signatories, with the TNLA and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) moving to resign membership of the non-signatory alliance, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). This raises the very real possibility of a “third bloc” emerging around the leadership of the country’s largest ethnic armed organization (EAO), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), in the north of the country.
Under these circumstances, EAO conference delegates will surely struggle to coordinate a clear message and a consistent set of demands, even more so without associated ethnic civil and political support to hand. This will only serve to fuel allegations of an increasingly powerful “united Burman front” existing between the Tatmadaw and the new government, making it that much more difficult to reach a lasting settlement; needless to say, this will come at the expense of the wider national political dialogue.
Taken together, these dynamics threaten to undermine Panglong before it convenes unless the new government seeks to acknowledge and engage with them from the outset rather than simply driving ahead. These issues attest to the Tatmadaw’s joint role as both mediator and malcontent, a conflict of interests with significant implications for any emerging peace settlement. It also suggests that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD do not enjoy the full support and confidence of all parties, raising questions over the government’s leadership. Furthermore, it points to the institutional shortcomings of new governmental structures such as the NRPC in mediating between groups.
It is unlikely that wider discussions on the shape of the federal union, the leitmotif of this new Panglong Conference, will be practical or even possible unless these issues are addressed, thereby stifling the potential for the Conference to fulfill its crucial broader objectives.
Mobilizing The Myth of Panglong
There is now a very real danger that if this new incarnation of Panglong is to proceed under current circumstances it will surely fail to meet its most basic objectives. It may in fact have the opposite effect, serving to compound divisions between groups and entrench those positions, unless it is responsive to current and evolving realities rather than beholden to a rigid framework and elite interests.
Myanmar is emerging from decades of conflict and state oppression. The democratic transition is fresh and tentative; levels of trust and understanding between stakeholders remain low. Confidence in the new government is not assured. The peace process is unraveling. Imposing an ambitious framework fashioned by the few against an exacting timetable in a context as raw and uncertain as this is unlikely to yield positive results. This may not be the best time to reignite the myth of Panglong.
The first conference in 1947 was undoubtedly a positive development at the time and its currency has only increased over the years; that currency is now based on the promise rather than the reality of unity. The potential of Panglong to resolve the country’s divisions then and its conflicts in the future has become an enduring myth and increasingly beguiling prospect to the peoples of Myanmar, not least at this moment in their history.
I would suggest that Panglong is therefore more than a catchy title and not an idea to be played with lightly by the new government. Whilst I am not necessarily suggesting that it is now being exploited flippantly, we should be very mindful that to mobilize such a potent myth (however flawed it might be) in name and deed is to run the risk of squandering its currency indefinitely and irreversibly, unless there is at least half a chance of making good on part of its promise.
Now that the genie is out of the lamp, Suu Kyi and the new NLD government are committed to making good on that promise. A pragmatic approach might be to ensure that the shape and substance of a 21st Century Panglong Conference assumes a marked break with the past rather than simply a template of previous action and intent; that the new conference is not captive to the old myth. Suggestions that it will not be limited to one event or location are encouraging but it needs to go further than this by facilitating a genuine culture of shared action and accountability.
Above all, there should be a much greater emphasis on process rather than product in the early stages of the Conference — on cultivating representative and inclusive decision-making processes through which collective action might emerge. This will necessarily concern issues such as the maintenance of peace and security at all levels in the future, but approaches developed in this context might also respond effectively to underlying issues of inter-communal violence and intra-ethnic relations.
Agreed and lasting settlements are far more likely to emerge given space for multi-stakeholder engagement than the current and historical emphasis on individuals and institutions, whilst the chances of making good on the promise of national reconciliation are that much more likely. In this way, this Panglong has the potential to respond to Myanmar’s endemic as well as emerging challenges in a way that its precursor could not, making the promise of a strong and enduring federal union of Myanmar a much more realistic prospect.
Richard Dolan has worked as an independent researcher and consultant in Myanmar; he is a DPhil Candidate in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford and is currently completing fieldwork in southeast Myanmar.