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Suu Kyi revisits Panglong peace initiative ahead of election

Country is no closer to peace than 2016 when talks resumed

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's state counsellor, is once again making peace overtures toward some of the country's disaffected insurgent minorities.     © Reuters

YANGON -- Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is making her fourth push for peace with insurgent ethnic minorities ahead of national elections in November when the three-day 21st century Panglong Conference opens today in Naypyitaw, the national capital.

There have been three conferences since Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide election victory in 2015, and was able to form a civilian government after decades of military rule.

The NLD's election prospects on Nov. 8 will be affected by criticism of ongoing wars with minorities that date back to 1948 and the end of British rule. With just months to go, Suu Kyi's decision to press ahead with another Panglong conference following a number of postponements is clearly intended to show that peace efforts are making progress.

Government officials and members of the military are due to meet with 10 ethnic armed groups to discuss a political accord for a "federal, democratic union'' that will provide the basis for a constitutional amendment.

"In our efforts to find a solution to our political problems, we need to have the ability to conduct our negotiations based on patience, forbearance, and mutual trust," Suu Kyi said on Monday while chairing the preparatory meeting.

The original Panglong Conference took place in Shan state in February 1947, nearly a year before independence, and attempted to lay the foundations for unifying one of most multiethnic nations on the planet. Suu Kyi's father, pre-indepence hero General Aung San, brokered an agreement with the four largest ethnic groups -- the Burmans, Chins, Kachins and Shans. Aung San was assassinated five months later, and ethnic rebellions against the new government in Rangoon -- Yangon today -- quickly followed the British departure early the following year.

Among those attending the latest Panglong conference, Khun Okka, patron of the Pao National Liberation Organization (PNLO), said that while the peace process has been protracted, Suu Kyi deserves some credit.

"I recognize the effort of the state counsellor," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "She is trying hard to conduct negotiations among the stakeholders."

Khun Okka said the implementation process needed to speed up after talks broke off in 2018 and no progress was made in 2019. The two-year gap brought an end to Suu Kyi's plans for twice yearly meetings. "We hope for the best from this peace conference," he said.

Attending armed groups are all signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a framework for ceasefires and political dialogue initiated in March 2015 under the previous government of President Thein Sein, a retired general.

However, renewed dialogue is not expected to bring significant progress, especially in areas where fighting is continuing and anti-NLD sentiment growing. 

Seven ethnic armed groups who are not signatory to the NCA were invited, but not the Arakan Army, which has been designated a terrorist organization. It has been fighting government forces in Rakhine state since December 2018, and is a member of the country's largest armed group coalition, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC).

The other six FPNCC members have decided not to attend in light of the government's decision to exclude the Arakan Army. 

The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), another ethnic armed group that does not belong to the FPNCC, also said it was unable to join on this occasion.

"I believe that those who are not attending this time will be involved at some point," Khun Okka told Nikkei.

Ko Ko Gyi, a former student leader who leads the newly founded People's Party, is a member of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee. He said he recognized the sufferings of ethnic minorities, and also the need to create political space for their parties.

"Election politics is one thing and peace talks another," he told Nikkei. "We have no coordination between them. National reconciliation is not just between two sides, but for each and every community."

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief, meanwhile met with the leaders of 34 political parties last week in anticipation of the peace conference and general election -- a firm reminder of the military's key role in national security and politics.

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