Politically, Myanmar is experiencing a new phase under its new government. Undoubtedly, the approach toward national reconciliation in Myanmar has changed after the installation of National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2016. The 21st Century Panglong Conference, which is going to be held this year in March, is part of the NLD’s new way of pursuing peace. However, the persistent armed conflict simmering between the Myanmar Army and ethnic armed groups poses a big challenge to the government’s credibility.
Therefore, it is pertinent to critically evaluate whether armed conflict in Myanmar has stabilized after the institutionalization of a new government. I argue that the ongoing conflict remains the same and obfuscates the process of national reconciliation.
The NLD Approach to National Reconciliation
Previously, it was the military juntas who took the initiative on national reformation in Myanmar. Military leadership oversaw two important episodes in the history of national reconciliation in Myanmar: the national referendum of 2008 and the general national elections of 2010. Generally, these two events were conducted to lay out a roadmap to “disciplined democracy,” as proposed in August 2003 by the military junta. After the 2010 elections, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government headed by President Thein Sein introduced a plethora of national reforms in Myanmar. However, after the 2015 general election, the entire process of national reconciliation was handed over to the newly elected NLD government.
The NLD, in taking power from the USDP government in 2016, also ultimately inherited the problems of an armed conflict left behind by the military governments. In a short time span, the NLD government, under the leadership of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has altered the mechanisms of the peace process. The debate about national reconciliation runs within and outside of the country, yet it is generally perceived in a positive way. Many people in Myanmar as well as mainstream external observers consider the current process to be more substantive than the previous military governments’ efforts. No doubt this comparison is somehow spurred by the nature of the current changing political landscape and the 21st Century Panglong Conference.
First of all, the NLD government appointed members of ethnic minorities as speaker and deputy speaker of both the Lower House and Upper House. Ethnic Karen Mahn Win Khaing Than of the NLD and ethnic Rakhine Aye Tha Aung of the Arakan National Party (ANP) were sworn as the speaker and deputy speaker of the Upper House, respectively. In the Lower House, Win Myint, an ethnic Bamar NLD member, and T. Khun Myat, a Kachin lawmaker representing the USDP, were elected as the speaker and deputy speaker. And Henry Van Thio, a Chin member of parliament, was appointed as the second vice president of Myanmar. All these appointments demonstrate a big success for the NLD’s vision of nominating ethnic minorities to important positions in Parliament. Doing so also fulfills the recommendations of some scholars, analysts, and observers who critically underscored the importance of giving ethnic minorities space at the podium of the State Assembly.
In the context of political dialogue, the NLD government have constituted a new government peace monitoring body called the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), replacing the previous Myanmar Peace Center (MPC). The UPDJC committee is constituted by the ethnic armed ceasefire groups, political parties, and the Myanmar government; their role is to oversee the “Framework Political Dialogue.” Furthermore, Suu Kyi framed a new seven-point policy of national reconciliation on October 15, 2016. The points are as follows: review and amend the political dialogue framework; continue convening the 21st Century Panglong Conference; sign a Union peace agreement based on the 21st Century Panglong Conference; amend the 2008 Constitution; hold multi-party democratic elections in accordance with the amended Constitution; and build a democratic federal union.
Realistically, it is obvious that the entire process of ethnic reconciliation or ceasefire policy initiated by the military regime is to some extent undemocratic and unconstitutional. Some critics have commented that the Myanmar Army tried to emasculate all ethnic armed groups with the policy of counterinsurgency. Further, they said that the military government always wanted complete surrender from all ethnic armed groups and adherence to the 2008 Constitution. On the other hand, the armed ethnic groups had no feasible means of engaging with the desires and proposals of the military governments; they would resort to infighting or break ceasefire agreements when the Myanmar Army conducted military operations in the ethnic dominated regions. Thus, the approach of the military government ran counter to the goal of achieving tangible ethnic reconciliation.
Continuity of Armed Conflict
Not surprisingly, till today the Myanmar Army has determinedly applied the same unproductive approach toward the new dynamics of national reconciliation flourishing under the NLD government. Since the ascendancy of military rule in 1962, a dreadful armed conflict has occurred in northern Myanmar, unchanged even in the 21st century. Some of the stronger armed ethnic groups refused to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement brokered by the USDP in 2015 and did not participate in Suu Kyi’s first, much-vaunted 21st Century Panglong Conference, held in the late summer of 2016. The international community, domestic political leaders, and unarmed ethnic civil and political bodies all strongly criticized the first 21st Century Panglong Conference for not inviting the armed ethnic groups that were not signatories of the previous ceasefire. Recently, the Union Peace Development Joint Committee (UPDJC) re-scheduled the next 21st Century Panglong Conference, pushing the date from February to March 2017.
The most disappointing outcome of the 21st Century Panglong Conference is the continued military combat between the Myanmar Army and the non-ceasefire armed ethnic groups like the Kokang, Ta’ang, Arakan Army, United Wa State Army, and the Kachin Independence Army. There has been no respite in the casualties, displaced villagers, and torture meted out by soldiers in the war-torn northern region.
The armed conflict in Myanmar should not be understood through the relationship between Suu Kyi and non-ceasefire armed ethnic groups. Rather, the ongoing violence testifies to the stiff political differences and antagonism between the Myanmar Army and the non-ceasefire groups. Therefore, it is arguable that the NLD government does not have the necessary power to truly pursue national reconciliation.
One crucial point that weakens the NLD government’s ability to deal with armed conflict is the mantra of “civil-military cooperation.” The irony of civil-military cooperation is that both the NLD government and Aung San Suu Kyi seem to be constricting their political ability to deal with the problem of armed conflict. Rather, the NLD government is merely trying to slowly diminish the far-reaching influence of the military generals. As a result, the on-going armed conflict in Myanmar remains largely the same as it was during military rule.
This is one of the failed tasks of the ruling NLD. For the moment, unless and until any new reform policy emerges from the upcoming 21st Century Panglong Conference, stabilizing armed conflict is a must for the NLD government.
Paode A is an independent research scholar. He completed his PhD from the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.