By most standards -- and against very low expectations ahead of the event -- Myanmar's latest round of peace talks between May 24 and 29 made good progress. Following a deal brokered by China on the eve of the conference, many more armed groups came to Naypyitaw than had been expected. And on the final day, agreement was reached on 37 "principles" that are to form part of a future peace agreement, including a key provision that the state will be a federal democracy.
These are welcome developments and represent a step forward. But there remain fundamental questions about where the peace process is heading and how many armed groups are ready to participate. Without new momentum and broader participation, a negotiated end to the conflict will remain elusive.
Up until the eve of the conference, the dynamics had appeared much bleaker. The event had already been delayed by three months as negotiations to convince more armed groups to join by signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement had become bogged down, and only a small number of the planned subnational preparatory dialogues had been held. Other dialogues -- those involving the Shan and Rakhine armed groups -- were blocked by the authorities, adding to frustration.
In a further setback for the government, the powerful United Wa State Party in April convened a summit of seven armed groups located in the northeast. They issued a statement rejecting the NCA as a basis for the peace process and called for a new approach. They announced the formation of a new alliance to represent the groups, stating they would now negotiate only as a bloc. A deadlock appeared inevitable since the government and military continued to insist that it is only by signing the NCA that armed groups could join the peace process.
What would have been a high-profile failure of the signature initiative by Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi was only avoided through some last-minute shuttle diplomacy by Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping had pledged his support for the peace process in a meeting with Suu Kyi following the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on May 16. As a result, an envoy from Beijing convinced representatives of the seven armed groups to assemble in Kunming, China and after obtaining concessions from the Myanmar government, they were flown to Naypyitaw on a Chinese government plane on the evening before the conference.
This meant that 15 of 21 armed groups were present for the opening -- the eight that have signed the NCA and the seven in the Wa-led alliance -- a symbolically important win for the government. Beyond symbolism, this also set an important precedent by allowing three groups in active conflict with the military -- the Kokang, Palaung and Arakan armies -- to engage in negotiations. Previously, these groups had been told they would have to commit to disarm before they could join the process. In addition, it could open up new channels of communication as the seven groups met with government peace negotiators and with Suu Kyi herself, although in batches to avoid conferring legitimacy on the new alliance.
Yet, the extent of progress should not be overstated. The Wa-led alliance attended the opening session and dinner that evening, but did not participate in any of the substantive sessions and returned to Kunming on May 27, two days before the end of the conference. They did not address delegates nor agree to any of the outcomes. They submitted written proposals for a new NCA text to the government, but in their meetings with Suu Kyi they were reportedly told in no uncertain terms that there was no alternative to signing the NCA in its existing form. They did not meet with the military. It is unclear how much appetite there is on all sides for the significant concessions that will be needed to bring them into the peace process.
The process continues to be deeply unsatisfactory for many involved, particularly armed groups that have signed the NCA. They see a deepening and worrying convergence of the government and military positions, and an increasingly unilateral approach rather than the joint process to which they signed up. This has manifested itself in everything from promotional material for the peace conference, with delegates' conference bags branded with Suu Kyi's image, to the lack of informal negotiation channels to prepare meetings.
But the most striking example is the way in which the proposed principles were conceived and agreed. Nominally, these represented a winnowing of the points raised in the subnational dialogues, agreed to by the sectoral committees and then endorsed by a tripartite Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee, which includes government, armed groups and political parties. In fact, most proposals inconsistent with the constitution or that were not universally accepted were set aside over the objections of some participants, and the key proposed concessions were those introduced by the government. The most significant of these were the right of states to have their own constitutions within a future federal system, and explicit rights of self-determination for ethnic groups.
However, these concessions were rejected by delegates of the ethnic armed organizations, who could not accept the quid pro quo requirement that they must explicitly eschew the possibility of secession. This failure to achieve what should have been a fairly acceptable compromise -- state constitutions are a longstanding demand of ethnic communities and no group wishes to secede -- throws the deficiencies of the process into sharp relief.
Among other weaknesses is the lack of understanding on the part of government that invoking the 1947 Panglong conference as the branding for the current peace process brought with it some baggage. In particular, it made it difficult for ethnic groups to accept an explicit rejection of secession that was a key right granted to them in the original Panglong agreement. In addition, the lack of informal preparatory meetings prior to the conference left the government unprepared for the extent of these concerns.
Furthermore, most of the 37 principles that were agreed reaffirmed existing provisions of the constitution and were pushed through the plenary without any real opportunity for objections. The chair announced that they had all been agreed to in committee and so they were taken as adopted. No discussion was permitted. It remains to be seen how much long-term damage has been done by this short-term quest for results.
The Wa now occupy a critical place in the process. If they can be convinced that they have more to gain than lose by joining the process, then significant progress can be possible. But this will not be easy. It will require some explicit recognition of the de facto autonomy of the Wa region and guarantees for its future status. In particular, the Wa want to come under the authority of the central government, preferably as an eighth ethnic state, rather than under the Shan State government. Shan politicians and armed groups are strongly opposed.
Ultimately, much depends on China, and the extent of its commitment in supporting Myanmar's peace process. If its efforts remain focussed on delivering symbolic wins at critical moments, little may change. But if it is really determined to see a sustainable peace on its border, it will have to use its considerable leverage and some sophisticated diplomacy and mediation to push all sides -- armed groups, the military and government -- to make real compromises. So far, there are no indications that China is inclined toward such a major intervention. The Myanmar government and armed groups would also do well to be cautious. As a powerful neighbor, China has clear interests at stake which may not align -- and may even run counter -- to those of the government, military and ethnic armed groups.
Richard Horsey is a political analyst based in Yangon. He serves as Myanmar Adviser to the International Crisis Group, and advises a number of organizations on political and conflict risk.