Glimmer of hope in Myanmar peace talks

Hundreds of participants are being asked to rekindle the spirit of the historic Panglong Agreement
Glimmer of hope in Myanmar peace talks

Myanmar ethnic rebel leader Bao You Yi (center), vice-chairman of the United Wa State Party and the United Wa State Army, arrives for the Panglong Peace Conference in Naypyidaw on July 10. (Photo by Thet Aung/AFP)

The largely Christian Kachin Independence Army (KIA) of far-northern Buddhist-majority Myanmar only three months ago was at the center of heavy fighting with the nation's military, which used jet fighters and artillery against them.

But now the KIA is among armed groups attending peace talks with the top brass who ordered the offensive.

A July 11-16 conference in capital Naypyidaw is attempting to mirror the historic 1947 Panglong Peace Conference between several ethnic minorities and the national government. It follows earlier rounds of discussions in 2016 and 2017.

Seven ethnic armed groups, known as the Northern Alliance and led by the United Wa State Army, are yet to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement but are attending the conference with the support of Chinese officials.

Representatives of 10 armed groups that have already signed the ceasefire agreement are also involved.

More than 700 participants at the opening included Christine Schraner Burgener, the new U.N. special envoy for Myanmar.

Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw in Kachin State described the gathering as a step forward, particularly the involvement of the KIA.

In 2011, tens of thousands of people in Kachin and neighboring Shan State were displaced when a 17-year ceasefire collapsed.

The KIA is estimated to have about 4,000 active soldiers, mostly at bases near Myanmar's border with China.

"I hope the conference brings positive outcomes that will reduce clashes and help the speedy return of internally displaced people to their homes," Bishop Gam, an ethnic Kachin, told ucanews.com.

The nation's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi said in an opening speech that there was a need to solve "political problems" with the remaining non-signatories to the ceasefire agreement.

However, Khin Zaw Win, director of a think-tank called the Tampadipa Institute based in the commercial city of Yangon, does not have high hopes of this being achieved.

He said lack of discussion on establishing a federal system was not in keeping with re-establishing principles of the Panglong Agreement guaranteeing various ethnic groups self-determination.

The military remains concerned that allowing a self-determination process could split the country if some groups insisted on independence. It maintains that a durable peace can only be achieved if all groups agree to the nationwide ceasefire.

"The sound of guns will become silent if all the groups with a true wish for peace observe the agreement," Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing told the opening of the conference.

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He warned that any country, democratic or otherwise, could only have one military force.

"If the peace process takes longer than necessary, there will be instigation, interference and manipulation, all of which will undermine hard-built trust and hard-earned agreement," he said.

The armed forces ruled Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for more than 50 years before Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government took office in April 2016. However, the military retains extensive political authority.

Suu Kyi's father, Gen. Aung San, led the country to independence from Britain after World War II and reached the Panglong Agreement with the Kachin, Shan and Chin ethnic groups.

Soon afterwards, Aung San was assassinated and the deal was never fulfilled.

Ethnic groups again took up arms against the central government and the latest peace conference in Naypyidaw seeks to deal with that legacy.

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