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Politics

Suu Kyi's power at risk as Myanmar peace process stalls

Minority groups feel safety has deteriorated under her party's rule

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the 21st Century Panglong peace talks. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the 21st Century Panglong peace talks. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

YANGON -- Myanmar's latest round of peace talks with armed ethnic minority groups has failed to make significant progress, as the military shut down key discussions on security.

With an end to armed conflict no closer at hand, confidence in State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's ability to deliver the results her party promised in the election of 2015 seems to be wavering, raising questions as to whether the National League for Democracy can keep its hold on power in 2020.

On its face, the third round of the 21st Century Panglong peace talks, held for six days through Monday, was a moderate success. The government and representatives of ethnic insurgencies added 14 items to their list of shared principles, including political participation for women and the fulfillment of health and education needs. At the previous round of talks, participants agreed to a list of 37 basic principles.

But no headway was made on matters of security, including the central question of what should be done with the minorities' military assets. Discussion of possible solutions, such as establishing independent armed forces in Myanmar's various states controlled by local ethnic groups, was tabled thanks to objections from the military.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, chief of Myanmar's armed forces, protested that it is "only natural" for the military of a modern state to be unified, warning that "useless discussion" would only delay peace, putting the country at risk of crisis.

Myanmar's government and military met with representatives of armed ethnic groups through Monday, but made little progress toward lasting peace. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

Convening the latest round of talks seems to have been a challenge in its own right. When Myanmar launched the 21st Century Panglong talks in 2016, meetings were to be held twice a year. But the last round was in May 2017, and round three was held around six months later than planned. Suu Kyi spoke in her opening address of the off-the-record dialogues and unofficial negotiations needed to bring the meeting to fruition.

Conflict is still endemic between Myanmar's military and about 20 armed groups, as it has been more or less constantly since 1948, when the country gained independence from British colonial rule. After military rule gave way to democratic government in 2011, the 10 groups that formally participate in the Panglong talks signed a ceasefire. But that did not bring the stability many had hoped for.

On July 9, violence erupted between the military and the Restoration Council of Shan State, one of the ceasefire signatories. The four-day clash that ensued led to casualties on both sides, and forced several hundred residents to evacuate.

Failure to make peace could have political consequences in Myanmar's next general election, expected in 2020. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy triumphed at the ballot box in 2015 thanks in large part to minority groups drawn to the party's promise to bring peace at long last. But with talks now stalled, "there is a strong feeling among minorities that public safety has deteriorated," says Yoshihiro Nakanishi, an expert in Southeast Asian politics at Kyoto University. And while economic development has advanced in cities, conflict-ridden areas have been left behind -- another reason for voters to turn against the NLD.

In an analysis of social media posts concerning Suu Kyi's 73rd birthday on June 19, the news website Irrawaddy found that, while positive posts prevailed overall, negative comments were far more common in areas with large minority populations, such as Kachin State in the north and Rakhine State in the west. Plans to erect statues of Suu Kyi's father, independence leader Maj. Gen. Aung San, have also drawn backlash, reflecting growing resentment of the country's Burman majority ethnic group.

Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst, believes ethnic minority parties will gain seats in the next election, and could hold the balance of power. Because 25% of seats in the national legislature are reserved for the military, the NLD must win two-thirds of elected seats to hold an overall majority. A source close to the military speculates that Suu Kyi may resign her positions in the country's cabinet as the election draws near and launch a nationwide tour to drum up support for the NLD.

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