SUSED IN THE the air, several meters above Aung San Suu Kyi’s head, was the image of a dove with an olive branch in its beak. Ms. Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar, was giving her opening remarks at the “21st Century Panglong Conference,” a series of talks aimed at ending the many ethnic insurgencies that have ravaged her country since its founding in 1948. The poster of the Dove indicates the hope that Ms. Suu Kyi inspired when she was elected in 2015 that she might one day silence the guns.
That day, alas, is not near. Sporadic clashes continue to occur in Kachin, Kayin and Shan states. A new conflict has erupted since 2018 in Rakhine and neighboring Chin states, where nearly 1,000 civilians have died and at least 80,000 people have been displaced. On August 19, 230 delegates from the government, military and ten ethnic minority groups gathered in Naypyidaw, the capital since 2006, for a three-day peace powwow ahead of the November general elections. They may have wondered, seeing this paper dove, when they will see the flesh and blood version.
It was never going to be easy. Ms. Suu Kyi inherited the world’s longest civil war. His peace process was named after the first “Panglong Conference,” convened by his father, Burma’s independence leader, in 1947. Since then, conflict between the military and a plethora of ethnic forces has grown. erupted in many border regions of the country. . The peace process Ms. Suu Kyi inherited from Myanmar’s previous leader is “one of the most labyrinthine” of all time, according to the Transnational Institute (IT), an international research team.
Thein Sein, his de facto predecessor, had drafted a national ceasefire agreement (NCA), which promised a federal system. Those who signed it would move on to the next phase: political dialogue. But the military angered the most powerful rebel groups when it said in 2015 that six of them would not be allowed to sign the NCA. As a result, only eight armed groups, representing 20% of Myanmar’s guerrillas, have registered. This created a complex two-pronged peace process: a dialogue with NCA signatories; and bilateral ceasefire talks with non-signatories. Since Ms. Suu Kyi’s rise to power, she has managed to convince only two whistling non-signatories to engage in the NCA, and made no real progress in the peace negotiations.
The army is not helping. She cannot force him to extend an olive branch to his enemies. The constitution gives the military, or Tatmadaw, control of the ministries of defense, interior and borders, and a quarter of the seats in parliament, so in effect it has a veto over constitutional reform. He “made no real commitments or concessions to ethnic groups during the peace process,” says Tom Kramer of IT. In fact, he deliberately sabotaged the peace, adds analyst David Mathieson, for example by bumping into the bigger two. NCA signatories, the Karen National Union (KNU), a Karen (or Kayin) ethnic group and the Shan State Restoration Council (RCSS), a Shan ethnic group. In October 2018, the two withdrew from the peace process.
Since January 2019, the Tatmadaw has also intensified the confrontation with the Arakan army, an ethnic group-Rakhine, one of the six prevented from signing the NCA in 2015, leading to the bloodiest fighting in Myanmar in decades. “They don’t seek peace, they pursue conflict,” says Priscilla Clapp, who advises the Asia Society, an American think tank. The Commander-in-Chief regards Ms. Suu Kyi as a rival and does not want to give her political victories.
In addition, the Tatmadaw has always been viscerally opposed to federalism. He is attached to the idea of Myanmar as a unitary state, dominated by the ethnic majority, the Bamar. “I don’t think they want real peace,” says Naw K’nyaw Paw, general secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization.
The Tatmadaw leaves little room for maneuver to Ms. Suu Kyi. Yet she made many missteps. At first, she began to relaunch the peace process with enthusiasm. She hoped that an agreement would be the quickest route to constitutional reform, the only way to limit the power of the military, which she is eager to do. The military said an end to hostilities was a prerequisite for reform. But as the scale of the challenge of negotiating the peace came upon her, Ms. Suu Kyi’s enthusiasm waned. She turned her attention to other topics.
Even though his government neglected the peace negotiations, it inflamed relations with ethnic minorities. In March, the government refused to give state legislatures, some of which are dominated by ethnic parties, the right to choose their chief ministers. Ms. Suu Kyi did not acknowledge the longstanding grievances of ethnic minorities, nor did she respond to concerns of ethnic groups about the military’s violations of the NCA. She did not sketch out a vision of what a federal union might look like. “Many ethnic voters feel betrayed,” Kramer says. “We are disappointed with her,” says Ms. Naw K’nyaw Paw.
The prospect of facing voters at the polls with nothing to show during years of peace talks prompted Ms. Suu Kyi to take action. There are some promising signs. In January, the KNU and RCSS returned to the negotiating table, apparently reassured by the government’s willingness to address some of their concerns. But none of the principles that can be agreed upon at Panglong go beyond what is already in the constitution or existing law. And as Ms. Naw K’nyaw Paw says, if the process does not include all armed groups, “we are wasting a lot of time.” She suspects the government called this week’s conference simply to “save face” before the election. He will do nothing to stop the fighting that she deplores to be “always” present in Myanmar.■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Will it ever stop?”