Aung San Suu Kyi now faces her greatest challenge. Source: Wikimedia
With the exception of Nelson Mandela’s words when he was finally released from Robben Island in 1990, William Baldwin argues that it is hard to think of a more significant political speech than Aung San Suu Kyi’s address to her union peace conference which started on August 31.
She has always held her cards close to her chest and gives few clues as to what will happen next. But she has been promising peace and federal powers for ethnic minorities during her many years in opposition and it is now time for her to come up with the goods. She lets this opportunity to establish peace fall at her peril.
But the obstacles are significant.
Ethic minorities make up around 40 per cent of the population and the powerful rebel armies outnumber the national army when combined. Several groups are actively engaged in combat with the Tatmadaw (armed forces) and each other.
Huge numbers of citizens in the border areas are addicted to drugs, there are long, porous frontiers and foreign interests, not least from China, that benefit from Myanmar’s instability to exploit its resources, like timber and jade.
A key complication for Suu Kyi is that she does not control her own army. It is hard to see her carrying much credibility with toughened warlords when she promises peace but is incapable of controlling her own fists.
An example of the democratically elected government’s impotence in the border regions was demonstrated this month during the Naga measles outbreak. As Naga children died from this most preventable of diseases, medics on the Indian side of the border were denied access by the military, which, under the 2008 constitution, controls the Border Affairs Ministry.
Instead, Myanmar’s authorities sent medics and supplies on motorbikes up the winding hill tracks into Nagaland: journeys that take days.
My father tells a story from his childhood where a popular cartoon character was being chased through a jungle by a cannibal tribe only for him to fall into a huge pit. Readers were made to wait for next week’s instalment to hear how their hero dodged the savages’ stomachs. Unfortunately, the writer died before the next publishing date, leaving an understudy to continue with the story. After a few days of sweating, no doubt suffering from the weight of expectation from the nation’s pre-teens, the magazine eventually appeared with the crushingly anticlimactic line: “With one mighty leap”.
It can only be hoped that Suu Kyi has something better up her sleeve for the “Panglong” conference being held in Nay Pyi Taw.
Unfortunately, her recent comments on the tricky task of establishing a federal state fit rather more into the “mighty leap” category than Mandela’s powerful prose.
“Unity among different ethnic groups of the country is greatly desired,” she said during her recent trip to China.
“This is what my father would have desired and what we all desire, not because it is part of his legacy, but because it is what we need for our country,” Suu Kyi told the media.
“The peace process, of course, is our process and the people of Myanmar must build peace in our country,”
One factor in her favour is Suu Kyi’s impressive contacts book. She is personal friends with almost every world leader and evidence of this is the presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the conference.
It is also positive that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is beside her during the event.
It is being called the 21st-century Panglong conference in reference to her father’s 1947 Panglong Agreement, which was due to establish a federal state but the independence hero was assassinated shortly after, killing off the process.
However, his daughter now has to deal with a legacy of an extra 69 years of mistrust and bloodshed between the many groups.
It is almost sacrilegious to say it in Myanmar but is it possible that the original Panglong Agreement might have broken down even if Aung San had lived?
Establishing a series of federal power bases that represent the interests of the many ethnic minorities and provide the powerful armies with the income and prestige they currently enjoy is a going to be a challenge.
Drawing the internal borders alone will be a deeply contentious process, as many of the armed groups are currently fighting each other to extend their turf. Myanmar’s ethnic makeup eclipses Bosnia in its complexity and its hills and forests make the perfect terrain for a prolonged insurgency.
And then there are the refugees. Around 100,000 have been displaced by fighting since 2011 and at least another 100,000 refugees shelter in squalid camps in Thailand and are unlikely to return until a reliable peace is established.
Can Suu Kyi’s government and the military sit back while warlords continue to enslave the border populations and establish drug fiefdoms?
This week’s conference is being attended by 17 of the 20 main armed groups, along with scores of political parties, many of which failed to win a single seat at last November’s general election.
The government has blundered over the failure to invite the brutal Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army. Their absence is a glaring omission and will need to be addressed in the next round of talks.
But it is important not to be too negative. Organising a gathering of so many hostile parties, and bringing in the public backing of her own military chief, is a crowning achievement for Suu Kyi. The vast majority of the people support Suu Kyi and want her to succeed in her quest to establish peace.
Myanmar is the missing piece in Asia: a crossroads between India, China, Thailand and Singapore. It is also at its own crossroads.
The country is seeing near-double digit growth and could establish itself as a significant regional player or it could descend into chaos if its many rebel armies decide peace will not meet their needs.
All eyes remain on Panglong and Suu Kyi to see which one way the fascinating country is heading.