By Angshuman Choudhury*
On 21 August, Myanmar drew the curtains on the fourth iteration of its flagship union dialogue forum, Union Peace Conference (UPC), also known as 21st Century Panglong Conference. The three-day conference was held in Naypyidaw with COVID-19 protocols. It was attended by senior representatives from the civilian government, Tatmadaw (military), ten Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) who have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), and political parties.
This was the final UPC held under the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) administration. The last one was held in July 2018. This year’s edition culminated in the signing of the third Union Accord (UA-III), which is a formal compendium of political, social, economic and security sector agreements between the stakeholders.
While the UA-III shows willingness among the key stakeholders to continue dialogue, it only offers a modus operandi to implement previous agreements. It does not do much to resolve the main stalemates in the peace process. Further, it is a guarantee for the NCA signatories (NCA-S) that the peace process will not stall after November national elections. What shape the peace process takes in the future is, however, contingent on the evolving relationship between the Tatmadaw, civilian government, and EAOs.
The UA-III spells out how to achieve what was agreed on earlier. It establishes a mutual guarantee between the Myanmar state and the NCA-S EAOs that talks will not stall after 2020, regardless of which government comes to power in Naypyidaw.
In her concluding speech, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi said that the third accord “depicts in detail what kind of Union” the stakeholders of the peace process want. It lays down three programmes: implementation of 51 ‘basic principles’ (under five main themes) to build a ‘democratic federal union’ (DFU) that the participants agreed to in the second and third UPCs; 20 principles to clarify and implement the NCA; and a comprehensive post-election plan for the dialogue process.
The bulk of these were agreed in a meeting of the Union Peace Discussion Joint Committee (UPDJC)—the central tripartite organ of the national reconciliation process that sets the framework for talks—on the second day of the conference. The members then submitted proposals for the UA-III, the final draft of which was signed on the closing day.
On the post-2020 agenda, Suu Kyi outlined the government’s three priorities. First, open up “parallel negotiations” with EAOs not signatory to the NCA and strengthen the existing ceasefire regimes with the signatory EAOs. Second, implement structural reforms to achieve a DFU; and third, also the trickiest, amend the military-drafted 2008 constitution. In fact, amending the constitution, which the NLD unsuccessfully attempted to do over the past year, is key to building a DFU.
In the same vein, Suu Kyi also spoke about strengthening the UPDJC and the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC) to ensure the “effective implementation” of the UA-III. Both are pivotal to ensuring that the peace process remains in good health and ceasefires with the NCA-S EAOs endure.
One of the notable agreements made in the NCA implementation process was the building of a ‘union identity’ that respects and recognises the histories, traditions, literatures, cultures, and identities of the various nationalities. For the EAOs, this is a crucial assurance from a political centre that has long been perceived as ethno-majoritarian. This can encourage new forms of ethnic inclusion and reconciliation within the proposed DFU.
Key Stalemates Continue
One of the most glaring failures of the fourth UPC was the absence of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), a group of seven northern EAOs who have not signed the NCA.
Except the Arakan Army (AA)—an FPNCC member currently engaged in a war with the Tatmadaw in western Myanmar, and classified as a ‘terrorist group’ in March—the government had invited all other members as observers to the conference, much like last year. However, they turned down the invite, stating Naypyidaw’s decision to not invite the AA and COVID-19-related movement restrictions.
While FPNCC members did not sit at the table in last year’s conference (because of their NCA non-signatory status), their presence in Naypyidaw and the informal meetings on the sidelines established a degree of trust and a limited working relationship between the group and the government. Thus, the FPNCC’s absence this year is no less than a setback, particularly given that a key post-2020 priority is to open dialogue channels with its members.
More importantly, FPNCC’s absence matters because its members are some of the most heavily armed and influential EAOs in Myanmar. Without them ceasing fire and joining talks, ‘national reconciliation’ will remain a pipe dream. Notably, the FPNCC has already expressed willingness to join the peace process through an alternate framework of dialogue that they presented to the government in 2017.
The fourth UPC also failed to make progress on some difficult sticking points in the dialogue process, most prominently on the military’s demand for a “non-secession” clause and proposed Security Sector Reforms (SSR). For long, the military and EAOs have been unable to agree on whether the NCA-S EAOs should be allowed to retain their own armies and also have an exit clause from the union. Needless to say, the Tatmadaw wants to be the sole national security guarantor and does not want a ‘break up’ of the union. This iteration of the UPC saw these deadlocks continue.
The fourth UPC was somewhat different from the previous ones, since this is an election year and both the NCA-S EAOs and the government had vested stakes. The Suu Kyi administration did not want to renege on its promise of national reconciliation, and the EAOs wanted an assurance that a change of regime would not bring back war.
The Tatmadaw, on the other hand, remains a distinct non-reconciliatory third party, as shown by the commander-in-chief’s critical remarks against the government and EAOs in his opening speech. It is this complex and uncertain relationship between the three entities that will decide a lot of the outcomes in the peace process ahead. However, if the NLD returns to power, then much of the current structure and scope will be retained.
*Angshuman Choudhury is a Researcher at IPCS and the Coordinator of its South East Research Programme (SEARP).