The newly sworn in government has managed to usher some incremental changes in Myanmar. Even after winning an overwhelming mandate in the recent held elections, Suu Kyi could not become President as constitutional provisions barred her from becoming one. Nonetheless, she was appointed as foreign minister and as special “state counsellor” which was a post created by the new government despite opposition from the military members of the Parliament. In another bold move, political prisoners of the junta era were freed by the NLD led government which was achieved after the military-dominated Defence and Security Council was bypassed. Suu Kyi as State counsellor also decreed against corruption and nepotism among officials. Despite these achievements, there has been precious little advance in the reconciliation of ethnic groups in Myanmar which has become one of the most glaring problems of the country.
In the recently concluded Joint Monitoring Committee which comprised of representatives from the government, the military and the eight non-state armed groups that signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) with the former government of President Thein Sein in 2015, Suu Kyi called for a major peace conference styled on the Panglong Conference with ethnic minorities. The Panglong Conference was a meeting held by Suu Kyi’s father Aung San in 1947 to secure the backing of all minority groups to help expel the British, in exchange for autonomy. However, demands for greater autonomy continues to be the key demand in present day Myanmar of its ethnic minorities, including the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon, Rakain, and Shan communities, which together represent over 30 percent of the 51 million inhabitants of the country.
Having been brutally silenced during the junta era, since 2011 there have been some efforts at reconciliation, however, these have not been to the satisfaction of all rebel groups. Suu Kyi stressed that a conference in the 21st century based along the lines of the one held in 1947 would enable the country to progress towards a federal arrangement which has been a constant demand of the many minority groups of Myanmar. Suu Kyi especially mentioned the need for the groups which did not sign the 2015 NCA to come onboard with regard to the proposed conference so as to seek and ensure an all-inclusive agreement on the peace process.
Apart from appointing her family doctor Tin Myo Win, as lead negotiator between the government and the minorities, the proposal about a Panglong style conference by Suu Kyi was the first of its kind with regard to ethnic reconciliation since the formation of the new civilian led government in the country. Those groups which stayed out of the NCA continue to have their own armies which have been at loggerheads with the Tatmadaw leading to violent clashes between the two even after the NLD- led government was formed. The situation has been dire partly due to the emergence in the recent months of a ‘Northern Alliance’ of rebel groups consisting of a band of armed groups operating along Myanmar’s border with China.
The groups which comprise this alliance consist of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army, none of which are party to the NCA. In addition, the Arakan Army with troops who have trained in Kachin state has been battling against the Tatmadaw in western Rakhine state, which has led to deaths as well as displacement of close to 1,000 of the region. Residents of the town of Kyauktaw in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state which has been the site of such clashes have been calling for an end to the fighting by means of a political solution.
Although, Suu Kyi may be sincere in her efforts to enhance the peace process several hurdles lie in her path. For instance, concessions or appeasement of the rebel groups would certainly lead to consternation among the members of the army. Acrimony with the army would make the NLD’s manoeuvres pertaining to enacting much-required new legislations related to reform more knotty and burdensome given the significant presence of the military in the Parliament. Escalating hostility with the army would not serve Suu Kyi well as she needs cooperative engagement with the army to amend the constitution which in its current form bars her and the civilian members of the Parliament from exercising authority in an unencumbered manner in many avenues. Moreover, the 2008 era constitution allows the army to control three key ministries – home, defence and border affairs, all of which are directly related to ethnic issues and it also prevents several kinds of freedoms to the ethnic minorities of the country, without which they will continue to suffer from the absence of rights.
Rebel leaders are of the view that to achieve peace, constitutional amendment is essential, for which the military must give up some of its powers. Moreover, there is a need for the ceasefire to be consolidated for a peace process to ensue. The role assumed by the military as the enforcer of national unity which they carry out by force needs to be stopped for any ceasefire or peace process to work as well as to win over the rebel groups still holding out on the NCA. The seemingly overwhelming power of the Tatmadaw makes it seem that the NLD led government would not be able to protect the ethnic minorities or to ensure any level of autonomy for them under a federal framework, making it difficult for them to disband their rebel armies. Thus, the military and its power must be reigned in prior for any peace process with the rebel groups to materialize.
Suu Kyi faces the twin hurdle of bringing the rebel groups not yet under the NCA as participants in the 21st century Panglong-style conference which she has planned as well as deal with the military whose power must be checked if any peace process or space is to be made available for the ethnic groups to unreservedly exercise their religion, culture and tradition, as well as political and economic freedoms in Myanmar that is sacrosanct for democratization to truly take root in the country.
*Obja Borah Hazarika is an Assistant Professor at the Dibrugarh University, Assam.