Negotiating Peace in Southeast Asia

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Negotiating Peace in Southeast Asia

A quick look at peace efforts in Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

Since last month, peace talks have been successfully initiated in Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines – three Southeast Asian countries where local wars and ethnic armed conflicts have been in existence for several decades.

Last week, representatives of the Thai government met with leaders of Mara Patani, an umbrella organization of rebels and independence advocates from the country’s Deep South. Most of Thailand is Buddhist, while Thailand’s southern region has a Malay Muslim majority population. The meeting was facilitated by the Malaysian government.

There were no important agreements signed by both parties but they discussed several “administrative issues” that could pave the way for the formal reopening of peace talks.

The Thai government is hoping that the peace dialogue will lead to the resolution of the insurgency, which has already claimed about 6,500 lives in the past 12 years. It is also an opportunity to promote reconciliation since majority of voters in the Deep South rejected the constitution drafted by the junta during last month’s nationwide referendum.

On the part of Mara Patani, they told the media that various civil society groups have raised the issue of “safety zones” to ensure that public spaces such as schools, markets, and places of worship do not become targets of violent activities.

In Myanmar, the government convened the Union Peace Conference in early September in order to unite the country’s more than 100 ethnic groups, some of which have local armies that continue to fight for either autonomy or independence. Dubbed as the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, it was inspired by a similar initiative in 1947, which succeeded in uniting Burma’s ethnic groups before the military grabbed power in 1962.

The three-day conference was attended by 1,400 people in total. There were 750 official participants with 75 representatives from the government, 75 from Parliament, 50 from the Tatmadaw (military), 200 from ethnic armed groups, 150 from political parties, 50 ethnic minority rights groups, 50 other groups, and 50 observers.

A total of 72 stakeholders delivered ten-minute presentations about their views on federalism, autonomy, management of natural resources, women’s participation in government, demobilization, social reform, and constitutional amendments. Representatives of the military insisted that the peace treaty should adhere to the constitution it drafted in 2008.

The agenda of the next conference, scheduled six months from now, will tackle the political dialogue framework of the peace process.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is optimistic that the peace conference will lead to the realization of the “democratic federal union of our dreams.”

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the government and the communist-led National Democratic Front (NDF) are back at the negotiating table after years of refusing to resume the formal peace talks. The impasse was broken when the government of President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to the release of detained NDF leaders.

Facilitated by the Norway government in Oslo, the reopening of the talks led to the signing of a joint statement that affirmed the validity of previous peace agreements, the recommendation to release more than 500 political prisoners through amnesty, the acceleration of the peace process by aiming to finish the drafting of the agreements on socioeconomic reforms and political reforms in the next six months, and the declaration of an indefinite unilateral ceasefire by both sides.

The military wing of the NDF has been waging a guerrilla war since 1969, making it the longest running communist rebellion in Southeast Asia.

The peace initiatives in Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines are off to a good start. Will it all lead to the resolution of armed conflicts in the region? Aside from sustaining the peace process, the more crucial factor is the willingness of the ruling parties in Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines to implement social and political reforms that will redound to the benefit of ordinary citizens, especially those living in the margins of society.