The second round of peace talks under Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, called "21st Century Panglong”, commenced in the capital Naypyitaw Wednesday amid a cloud of frustration over the lack of progress made since the first conference held under her leadership in August.
Since then increased clashes in the north between ethnic armed groups and the military have made the prospect of peace seem even more distant than it did a mere nine months ago while a lack of clarity about the process has instilled uncertainty among the more than 120,000 people who are still internally displaced by fighting that first flared back up in 2011.
“Initially the IDPs [internally displaced persons] themselves had a lot of trust and hope in Panglong in the sense that they thought that their hope for dignified and safe return is closer, but unfortunately that has not become the case,” said Gum Sha Aung from the secretariat of the Joint Strategy Team, a group of nine local organizations working on humanitarian response in Kachin and northern Shan state.
Matthew Wells, senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International, said in an email that the fighting over the past half year in Kachin and Shan has deeply affected civilians who find themselves at risk of “indiscriminate shelling, torture and forced recruitment.”
“The government’s restrictions on humanitarian access, particularly to areas outside its control, have further squeezed tens of thousands of already vulnerable civilians,” he said.
Search for peace
Dubbed the 21st Century Panglong conference after a long-defunct 1947 agreement between ethnic groups and Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, the talks are aimed at ending decades of conflict plaguing Myanmar since independence in 1948, ideally through the establishment of a federal union.
After winning elections in 2015 and coming to power the next year, she said establishing peace was her main priority.
But the handling of negotiations, which used a nationwide cease-fire agreement signed by eight ethnic armed organizations under the previous administration as a starting point, has been bumpy.
Critics have pointed to fewer meetings between all sides than occurred under the previous government. Even small scheduling mishaps have not gone unnoticed.
Many expected the second round of talks to fall in February around the 70th anniversary of the original 1947 Panglong agreement. Instead, they were pushed back and it was unclear how many groups had agreed to attend until this week.
Government officials at the event expressed optimism, and there was some cause for it. Several powerful non-signatories to the cease-fire deal came. But another key organization, the United Nationalities Federal Council, or UNFC, declined to show up.
In a statement on Tuesday, the UNFC said its decision was based on the fact that they were invited as special guests and were thus not able to fully participate in the conference.The start of the five-day gathering at a convention center in Naypyitaw showed the diversity of Myanmar’s country, but also its differences. Attendees in dazzling traditional dress contrasted with the light green uniforms of Myanmar’s military.
In opening remarks, Aung San Suu Kyi said the next few days would witness discussions and "difficult decisions." Later in the speech, she sought to address the criticisms so far.
“As in peace dialogues across the world, during the first year of our new government we have experienced many highs and lows, progression and regression,” she said. “But at today’s conference, it can be said that our collective efforts have started to bear fruit.”
She told the audience that her government would not "resort to exerting pressure through populist politics, or coercing others through political means to achieve our goals."
But as with any peace measure in Myanmar, the military must be on board.
While army chief Min Aung Hlaing said for the sake of permanent peace, "the termination of clashes and armed conflicts is the dearest wish of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military],” some of his other remarks suggest everyone isn’t on the same page.
“Studying 72 papers submitted at the previous conference [in August], we came to notice that the discussions, activities and basic concepts of some ethnic groups are far beyond the federal system, which is the right of autonomy,” he said. “Such acts go against the desires and interest of the people who have high expectations of the democracy cause [sic] and peace process.”
He also hinted at an enduring crisis involving the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
In an attempt to go after Rohingya militants who killed nine border guard officers in October, a military crackdown has forced tens of thousands to flee into Bangladesh amid allegations of widespread abuses, which have been denied by the government and army.
"Today, we face not only the problem of internal peace, but also external threats," Min Aung Hlaing said.
The government believes the militants, who call themselves the Arakan National Salvation Army and are not involved in the peace process, have foreign assistance.