YANGON – Peace talks in Myanmar aimed at ending more than half a century of conflict between Myanmar’s army and an array of armed ethnic rebel groups are due to start in the capital, Naypyitaw, on Wednesday.
The talks are the first formal peace negotiations since Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy party swept elections last November and took office in April, vowing that national unity would be its top priority.
Suu Kyi is expected to address the five-day conference, along with the powerful head of the nation’s military, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and representatives of at least 17 of the 20 main armed groups. Hundreds of delegates are expected to attend.
The rebel armies control a patchwork of remote territories rich in jade and timber that are located mostly in the north and east along the borders with China and Thailand. They represent various ethnic groups that for decades have been fighting for autonomy while resisting “Burmanization,” a push by the Burman ethnic majority to propagate its language, religion and culture in ethnic minority regions.
A look at why this week’s meeting is significant:
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Armed ethnic conflict has plagued Myanmar for decades. The first uprising – launched by ethnic Karen insurgents – began shortly after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.
Restoring stability nationwide is crucial to Myanmar’s long-term political and economic health. Ethnic minorities make up about 40 percent of the population, and stability can’t be achieved without their support.
Fighting is not only bad for business, it’s a threat to the fragile democratic reform process that began in earnest when the military ceded some of its formal power to a nominally civilian government in 2011.
Skirmishes, particularly in northern zones where Kachin insurgents are fighting the army, have displaced more than 100,000 civilians since 2011 alone. At least 100,000 more have sought refuge in squalid camps in neighboring Thailand, and are unlikely to return home until true peace takes hold.
Suu Kyi promised that bringing peace would be her top priority when her government assumed power.
The previous military-backed government brokered individual truces with various insurgent groups and oversaw a cease-fire covering eight minor insurgencies last year that fell short of a nationwide deal.
Suu Kyi’s administration is hoping to build on those gains, but there are still skirmishes between the army and rebels, particularly in Kachin and Shan states.
WHO IS TAKING PART, AND WHO ISN’T
Suu Kyi said all ethnic armed groups would be invited to the talks, and most of the main rebel movements are taking part, including the Karen, Kachin, Shan and Wa ethnic groups.
At least three smaller groups are not: the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army. The MNDAA, made up of ethnic Chinese Kokangs, waged fierce battles with the army in 2015 that displaced tens of thousands of people.
THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE
This week’s talks are called the “21st Century Panglong Conference,” a reference to the Panglong Agreement brokered in 1947 by Suu Kyi’s late father, independence hero Gen. Aung San.
The deal granted ethnic minorities autonomy and the right to secede if they worked with the federal government to break away from Britain together.
Aung San was assassinated the following year and the deal fell apart. Since then, ethnic groups have accused successive, mostly military governments of failing to honor the 1947 pact.
PROSPECTS FOR PEACE IN THE NEAR TERM
The short answer: slim.
Although the formal start of negotiations is a positive step, this week’s meeting is likely to be largely ceremonial, with discussions of contentious issues delayed until later rounds.
That has happened plenty of times before – including in January, when Suu Kyi met leaders of the ethnic groups a few months before taking office. An official representing a coalition of rebel groups, the United Nationalities Federal Council, called those talks “a meeting that led to constructive intentions for the future meeting.”
Some ethnic rebel groups have said they are not fully prepared for talks yet, and complained the government set the date without consulting them. It’s also not clear whether the handful of rebel groups not attending will join later; the ethnic minorities believe that only a comprehensive agreement including all can succeed.
Part of the problem is that distrust between ethnic groups and the army is profound, and the military has retained enormous influence even though Suu Kyi’s party has assumed nominal control of the government. Rebel representatives in Naypyitaw also said Tuesday that Suu Kyi was playing her cards close, and they could not clearly gauge her government’s stance.