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Peace in Suu Kyi’s time?

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses delegates on the first day of the Union Peace Conference in Naypyidaw in January 2016. (Photo: Ko Thet / DVB)

Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in her role as state counsellor, is taking concrete steps to kick-start the country’s beleaguered peace process and will address a newly appointed peace committee later today. Everything has been in abeyance, since eight ethnic groups signed a national ceasefire agreement (NCA) with the Thein Sein government last October, but some eight others refused to participate.

But before convening this new committee, which will oversee the peace talks and political discussions on making Burma a federal state, she had several secret meetings with four senior representatives of the military, including the army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

“It was necessary to know their opinion before re-launching the peace talks and political dialogue,” said Nyan Win, a senior member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), who has also been involved in the peace process in the past. “We must understand and accept each other’s views on the peace process if we are to achieve a stable, democratic and federal state in the future.”

At the beginning of May, Suu Kyi and her chief adviser on the peace process — and now lead negotiator, Tin Myo Win — met Min Aung Hlaing, Lt-Gen Ye Aung (minister for border affairs) and Lt-Gen Yar Pyae, who now appears to be the chief negotiator for the military in the peace talks. Several military sources close to the top brass noted the military were particularly pleased with the conciliatory tone mastered by the Lady.

On three issues in particular she seemed to accept the military’s position. Talks between the ethnic armed groups and the government will only take place inside Burma — previously meetings were occasionally held in China and more regularly in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. There will be no more economic incentives — car licences, building contracts and other business deals — offered to the ethnic groups to encourage them to sign ceasefire agreements, as under Thein Sein’s chief negotiator Aung Min. And the three rebel groups — the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army — which the army refuses to talk to unless they effectively surrender their arms, cannot be included in fresh ceasefire talks in the immediate future.

This newly found symmetry between the Lady and the generals — at least on the peace process — has alarmed many ethnic leaders. “In the past the army guys all attacked her, but now they hail her in our meetings,” said an ethnic leader who attended a recent meeting of the newly formed peace committee dealing with the eight groups that signed the NCA, but who declined to be identified. “Clearly there is a strong understanding between the military and the government and we fear we will be isolated and Aung San Suu Kyi will take the military’s side.”

Several meetings have been held since the secret detente with the military earlier this month, but with no substantive results as yet. At present, according to Tin Oo — the NLD patron and former army chief under Ne Win, it is a matter of building trust between all parties involved, re-organising the institutions and structures of the process, and forming the new National Reconciliation and Peace Commission — which will have the task of overseeing both future peace talks and the political discussion on federalism.

Later today Suu Kyi is due to address a meeting in Naypyidaw of the new committee set up to discuss the political framework needed to move the process forward. The committee is holding a three-day meeting, which ends on Saturday, with the hope of setting an agenda for the planned “21st century Panglong conference” tentatively set to take place within the next two months.

The proposed conference draws its legitimacy from the current Burmese leader’s father and founder of the country’s armed forces, Gen Aung San. It refers to the 1947 Panglong Agreement signed between Aung San and several though not all ethnic leaders at the time, committing the country to forming a federal state, prior to Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948. It seeks to draw all of the country’s ethnic armed groups — including those who have signed the NCA and those yet to — and ethnic political parties into a political deal intended to resolve half a century of armed insurgency fuelled by ethnic minority grievances.

“A 21st century Panglong symbolises an essential need to resolve long unaddressed crises in [Burma]’s national politics that have undermined state development and caused such sufferings for all peoples in the country,” said renowned expert on Burma’s ethnic struggles, Martin Smith.

But not everyone is confident that this will move the peace process forward as it remains vague, while even the government’s chief negotiator admits it’s an ad hoc process.

“There is no clear road map except adopting the old road map laid out by the previous government, which leaves out some ethnic armed groups,” said Cheery Zahau, a Chin activist and politician.

But many ethnic leaders are still prepared to give the new committee and the revitalised peace process the benefit of the doubt — in fact, they have no alternative but to put a brave face on it all. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Pa-O National Liberation Organisation leader Hkun Okker after last week’s meeting with the new committee. “It’s another opportunity for the ethnic groups to voice their concerns, and at least now we are dealing with a democratically elected government and that’s a vast improvement on previous attempts to bring peace to the country.”

This commentary was originally published in The Bangkok Post. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.