Myanmar has recently begun important peace talks between armed ethnic groups, known as the Panglong peace conference. The conference is being pushed by Nobel peace prize winner and de-facto new leader of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi. Here we reproduce an opinion piece first published by the independent publication Frontier Myanmar on September 15 under the title “Panglong and the Wa walkout”, looking at the current challenges for the peace talks.
The 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference ended successfully in Nay Pyi Taw earlier this month. Among those who spoke at the historic gathering was Lieutenant-General N’Ban La, vice chairman of the Kachin Independence Organisation.
The fact that he could address the conference – in the presence of the president, state counsellor, Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) commander-in-chief, vice presidents, parliament speakers and hundreds of other participants – as a representative of an organisation that has not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and is still involving in fighting, demonstrated the significance of the event.
But it was another powerful non-signatory of the NCA, the United Wa State Army, that was in the headlines after its representatives dramatically walked out of the conference on September 1, the second day of the event. Although the walkout meant that the UWSA did not get to address the conference – an opportunity given to all participating groups – its report was officially recorded by the conference convening committee.
What prompted the walkout by the Wa? What was in the UWSA’s report to the conference and what are the chances of the government being able to negotiate with the country’s most powerful ethnic armed group?
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a driving force behind the conference, had devoted considerable effort to ensuring that it would include all ethnic armed groups. She was successful in persuading the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of nine groups that did not sign the NCA, as well as the UWSA and another non-signatory group, the Mongla-based National Democratic Alliance Army, to send delegates to the conference.
UNFC members did not sign the NCA because three groups – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and its allies, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army – were excluded from the peace process following an offensive against the Tatmadaw in the Kokang region last year.
The UWSA was not represented at the Union Peace Conference hosted by President U Thein Sein in January and was reluctant to attend the 21st Century Panglong gathering. The reason goes back to the National Convention that first convened under the junta in 1992 to draft the 2008 Constitution.
The UWSA was among the ethnic groups that participated in the National Convention but it was disappointed when its proposals were not included in the constitution and said it had no desire to participate in further political conferences.
The UWSA’s decision to be represented at Panglong came at the urging of a high-level delegation from China, which is able to exert influence over the Wa because it controls territory along the border. To show its displeasure at being pressured by the Chinese to attend the event, the UWSA sent a group of four low-ranking officials.
The walkout occurred because of a mistake by conference organisers over their accreditation. This was apparently perceived as a deliberate slight by the UWSA.
The group, led by the head of the UWSA’s liaison office in Kengtung, was given observer passes instead of accreditation as conference participants. When the delegation alerted UWSA headquarters at Panghsang, it was instructed to leave the conference.
The walkout came despite the UWSA delegation being seated in the front row with the president, state counsellor and Tatmadaw commander-in-chief on the opening day of the conference, and an apology for the mistake being offered the next day by officials who went to the group’s hotel in an effort to convince them to stay.
The UWSA’s policy paper, prepared by its central politburo committee and submitted to conference officials, consisted of 15 chapters that included some ambitious proposals, including reiterating a longstanding demand for a separate state encompassing several majority Wa townships in northeastern Shan State.
It proposed that the 25 percent of hluttaw seats reserved for unelected military appointees be allocated to ethnic minorities, and also put forward a formula for self-government based on population. The proposal calls for self-administered regions for ethnic groups with a population of more than 100,000, self-administered divisions for groups of more than 200,000, and self-administered states if their numbers exceed 300,000.
The UWSA wants ethnic groups to be able to exercise control over natural resources in their areas and to have the right to issue visas.
The UWSA also proposes that the Tatmadaw have no control over ethnic armies except by mutual consent and that ethnic armed groups be able to exist freely in a future federal union. Another demand is that the Union government cannot have administrative offices or Tatmadaw bases in autonomous ethnic states and regions.
The future union desired by the UWSA would be a union of separate countries or a confederation.
The UWSA’s wish list leaves no doubt that persuading it to participate in the peace process will be a challenge for the National League for Democracy government.
This column originally appeared in the September 15 edition of Frontier.