Can Aung San Suu Kyi Bring an End to Civil War in Myanmar?

A fledgling peace summit brought together democracy leaders, military chiefs, and warring ethnic rebels. But it didn’t go all that smoothly.

Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi attends a joint press conference with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (not pictured) in Naypyidaw on June 17, 2016.
Ayrault is on a three-day visit in Myanmar to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries.
 / AFP / YE AUNG THU        (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)
Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi attends a joint press conference with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (not pictured) in Naypyidaw on June 17, 2016. Ayrault is on a three-day visit in Myanmar to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries. / AFP / YE AUNG THU (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — The government and military held their first peace conference with ethnic rebel groups since Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader when her party took office in April. Last week, she managed to bring together the largest group of stakeholders yet, in an attempt to end a civil war that has plagued the country’s resource-rich frontier regions since its independence in 1948.

The grand event, held in an enormous convention center in the sprawling, military-built capital of Naypyidaw, brought to the table government officials, lawmakers, political party delegates, military officers, and representatives of 18 ethnic armed groups. All participants in the four-day event, which ended Saturday, had a chance to present their ideas for establishing peace and a democratic federal government in Myanmar. It was the first such sharing of opinions over the country’s political structure since 1947.

Dozens of ethnic groups, which make up around 35 percent of the population and live mostly in Myanmar’s rugged borderlands, have long been fighting for political autonomy. During its five-decade rule, the Bamar majority-dominated military brutally suppressed the rebellions, but the groups managed to survive through local popular support, taxing the flow of timber and jade, and large-scale involvement in the opium trade.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, cast the peace talks as a historic first step toward a nationwide cease-fire and political solution for years of conflict. “If all those who play a part, however big or small, in the peace process cultivate the wisdom to reconcile differing views … we will surely be able to build the democratic federal union of our dreams,” she said, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, leaders of parliament, and the powerful army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, looked on from the front row.

A diverse crowd of hundreds of observers listened intently to the democracy icon. Many NLD members wore orange shirts and longyis — sarong-like garments — styled after Myanmar’s independence leaders while ethnic representatives donned an array of traditional garb and headgear, some adorned with peacock feathers, silvery jewelry, and precious stones.

Ban hailed the conference’s inclusiveness, saying, “There is a long road ahead, but the path is very promising. This is the first time that such a peace process has been initiated in the 70-year history of conflict [in Myanmar].”

Sai Kyaw Nyunt, a member of a peace process committee and representative of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, a major ethnic political party, said the event was breaking new ground. “Through the speeches at the conference, the whole of Myanmar now has a chance to hear all the ethnic voices and desires. We didn’t get that in seven decades.… Now we can consider how we can shape our country,” he said during a break in the conference.

Aung San Suu Kyi had raised expectations for the peace talks after she called the event the “21st-Century Panglong Conference,” referring to the 1947 Panglong Agreement between independence hero Aung San (the NLD leader’s father) and major ethnic groups. The deal granted them political autonomy from the Bamar majority, but it collapsed after Aung San’s assassination just five months later, sparking a civil war that has continued to this day and has displaced more than 200,000 civilians. The military seized power in 1962 and ruled with a vise-like grip for nearly 50 years. A democratic transition began in 2011, leading to elections last year, which the NLD won.

Despite the conference’s heavy symbolism and historic inclusiveness, most participants and observers expressed limited optimism about its ability to effect lasting change, noting it was merely an opening ceremony for a NLD-led peace process and lacked nitty-gritty political discussions. “We view this as the first step for the new government to open the way toward peace — that is the only reason we decided to join this conference,” said Khu Oo Reh, the general secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an 11-member armed ethnic alliance.

He said the next conference, expected in six months’ time, should include proper negotiations. “But we don’t know if the next meeting will be as inclusive,” he told Foreign Policy, noting that the army might be reluctant to allow as many stakeholders to participate in political talks.

Many here at the conference have staked their hopes for peace on Aung San Suu Kyi’s political power and skill in persuading the military to negotiate a nationwide cease-fire and amend the military-drafted constitution. The charter grants the army extensive powers and the central government control over ethnic states. The peace process is part of the army-initiated democratic transition, but the military has kept tight control of the pace and scope of the negotiations, leading many ethnic groups to wonder if it will ever allow changes to the constitution.

The United States has closely supported Myanmar’s transition but appears to have little involvement in the peace talks. Aung San Suu Kyi is scheduled to visit Washington next week to discuss the progress of her new government. China is considered influential in the peace process due to its historic ties to powerful rebels in northern Myanmar (whom Beijing backed until they gave up their communist cause in 1989), though its role remains unclear. The European Union has supported negotiations and created, with several other Western donors, a $100 million Joint Peace Fund last year to further aid the process.

Ban has strongly backed the country’s democratic reforms, and during his visit he also urged the government to resolve tensions between Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar. A week before his visit, and perhaps in anticipation of it, Aung San Suu Kyi announced the formation of a commission lead by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that will try to address the conflict. Myanmar’s government has come under international criticism for its treatment of the Rohingya but has long maintained that outsiders do not understand the situation. Although many in Myanmar are likely to find the Annan commission’s suggestions unthinkable, its formation does suggest some openness to new ideas on the government’s part.

After taking power in April, Aung San Suu Kyi moved quickly to resume the peace process initiated by the previous, quasi-civilian government and adopted its negotiating mechanisms and road map to a nationwide cease-fire. Last year, eight ethnic organizations signed a joint cease-fire agreement with the government, but 7 groups opted out — including the Kachin Independence Organization, whose armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army, has been active conflict with the military since 2011, leading to the displacement of 120,000 civilians in northern Myanmar.

The nonsignatory groups are now expected to negotiate with the government and army for adaptions to the political conditions of last year’s accord.

Khu Oo Reh, the UNFC general secretary, said that even though Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have found a modus operandi for working with army chief Min Aung Hlaing, ethnic leaders are unsure if she can coax the military into accepting the political conditions for a nationwide cease-fire or agree to constitutional change. “It is too early to say whether the new government and the army can get along or not [in the peace process],” he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi has stated numerous times that resolving ethnic conflict as soon as possible, through an “all-inclusive” peace process involving all groups, is her government’s top priority — as she sees internal conflict as the root cause of poverty, instability, and poor rule of law in Myanmar.

But the army’s enduring power was on show ahead of the conference when it demanded that three rebel groups representing the ethnic Taang, Rakhine, and Kokang peoples publicly commit to ending their armed struggle — a position the NLD government endorsed. The groups refused and were barred from the event, to the dismay of the UNFC alliance, of which they are members.

Mai Lyruk, an activist with the Taang Students and Youth Union who did not attend the conference, said its success rang hollow among the Taang community, some of whom have been displaced in recent years. “Whatever people in Naypyidaw say about peace, we have a situation where there is fighting and villagers are fleeing every day,” he said.

Tom Kramer, an expert on Myanmar’s ethnic conflict for the Transnational Institute, a Netherlands-based policy organization, said the exclusion of the groups could signal trouble ahead for the NLD-led peace process. “All the rebel groups are allies. How can you have a cease-fire with some and not the others? Excluding these three groups can have serious political and military consequences,” he said.

At the conference, the NLD government’s organizational capacity to guide the peace process also came into question. On the opening day, participants received no agenda or time slots for their speeches while conference staff erroneously gave delegates of the United Wa State Army — the most powerful rebel group, with 20,000 fighters and heavy Chinese arms — “observer” passes.

Upon noticing that it appeared to have been treated differently than other groups, the Wa delegation decided to walk out on the second day. The mistake was particularly painful because the government had faced difficulty persuading the Wa to join the nationwide talks to begin with. Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi, told FP that a letter had been sent to the Wa leadership explaining that the incident was caused by a “technical error” by a volunteer staffer.

He played it down as a minor mishap and said the conference was a resounding success.

“We can see the common ground: Firstly, all in the conference agreed to work on the peace process together; second, all agree to make our country a democratic federal union. So now we can negotiate on the table, and give and take,” Zaw Htay said.

 Photo credit: YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Vrieze is a journalist based in Yangon, Myanmar, where he has worked for local independent media and international news outlets since 2013.