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Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi

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Myanmar ethnic peace talks open marred by distrust

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Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi sits between President Htin Kyaw (right) and Vice President Henry Van Thio at the launch of the conference, 31 August 2016. AFP/Aung Htet

Myanmar’s government launched a five-day conference with seventeen ethnic rebel groups in Naypyitaw on Wednesday. While de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi hailed an opportunity to end decades of ethnic rebellions, deep-seated suspicion in the country means a deal is no foregone conclusion.


The conference, officially titled “Union Peace Conference 21st Century Panglong”, was organised by the government formed after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), entered into power in elections last year.

“So long as we are unable to achieve national reconciliation and national unity, we will never be able to establish a sustainable and durable peaceful union,” Suu Kyi told delegates at the opening of the conference.

“Only if we are all united will our country be at peace. Only if our country is at peace will we be able to stand on an equal footing with the other countries in our region and across the world.”

The Panglong Agreement and a new drive for peace

The name itself refers to the Panglong Agreement, a short-lived and informal deal brokered in 1947 by Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, to set out the guidelines for relations between ethnic groups following independence from British rule.

The agreement fell apart after Aung San’s assassination the following year, but it had remained a reference point throughout Myanmar’s modern history.

“There’s a lot of myths around Panglong, that it was some kind of definitive deal and it would have solved all the problems if General Aung San had not been assassinated,” says Lee Jones, reader in international politics at Queen Mary University in London.

“I think that’s probably not true, but nonetheless it has this sort of cache, which is why the term is being used again today.”

The conference sees the government – comprised of members of NLD, the military, the pro-military Union Solidary and Development Party and independent figures – looking for a new direction following local ceasefires negotiated by the former military rulers.

“These ceasefires have not really lead to a peace agreement, because the military insisted that the ethnic rebel groups fall in or surrender completely to the military,” Debbie Stoddard, a pro-democracy campaigner with the Alternative Asean Network.

“Now, since the government is led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, Suu Kyi herself proposed to create a genuinely national peace agreement between all groups, not just bilateral ceasefires that didn’t lead to peace agreements.”

Limited prospects for success

Behind negotiations over cultural and political autonomy, control over natural resources and laying down arms are minorities’ wishes to build a federal state, which come with both hope and doubt.

“The military want a strong central government, but we want more,” Colonel Hkun Okker, leader of the Pa-O National Liberation Organisation, told an RFI correspondent at the conference.

“The local government and the state government need to be equal. It’s two different views.”

What’s more, three rebel groups have not even been invited to the conference due to reluctance among military leaders to become too inclusive.

“If we allow [the uninvited groups] to discuss at the conference, every ethnic group will become rebels, and there are very many ethnic groups in our country, there are 135,” said army representative Lieutenant-Colonel Thet Naing.

Such mutual distrust is at the heart of doubts over what the conference will really achieve.

“There’s a huge amount of entrenched suspicion between the ethnic groups in Myanmar, and in particular between the Bamar-dominated military, which obviously ran the country for decades,” says Lee Jones.

“Given that the army are still the main power holders in the country, even with a democratically elected government, it’s quite difficult for the ethnic minorities to know how far they can trust the government, and on the other hand, it’s very difficult for the elected government to know how far it can really move, how many concessions it can make towards the ethnic minorities, without provoking the anger of the army and potentially provoking military intervention.”