Myanmar’s latest Union Peace Conference, often called the 21st-century Panglong conference, is taking place at the end of the month amid fears that rebel groups, who reject the government’s 2015 ceasefire, might greet the event by launching a coordinated offensive.
Reconciling the demands of a huge range of ethnic-minority armies, which together outnumber Myanmar’s armed forces, was the main goal of the National League for Democracy (NLD) when it took power in April 2016.
Some non-ceasefire signatories did attend the previous Panglong conference six months ago under Chinese pressure but nothing tangible was achieved.
The peace process has remained stalled and civil war increasingly grips the union. The high hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government have crumbled into more of the same conflict and instability that have dominated post-independence Burmese history.
Suu Kyi, under increasing international condemnation for her feeble response to the military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, is being forced to look for Chinese support. The same nation that propped up the junta that held Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years is now offering her the best hope for peace.
Her toothless government is correctly seen by the insurgent leaders as unable to control the military or its commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was always the most powerful figure in Nay Pyi Taw.
Suu Kyi, in retrospect, made a strategic error in 2010 when she agreed to lead her NLD into parliament under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution that granted the generals permanent control of the three most important ministries: defence, home affairs and border security.
It also gave the military a veto on constitutional change by reserving 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for its officers.
By agreeing to enter the quasi-democratic process in Nay Pyi Taw, Suu Kyi ensured that she would eventually lead a puppet government.
The Chinese supply equipment to Myanmar’s Tatmadaw or armed forces and back the government diplomatically: Beijing protected Myanmar against UN Security Council action over the Rohingya crackdown after August 25. Meanwhile, China maintains close ties with the shadowy armed groups operating along its border.
In Kachin State, the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) says it is expecting a cool-season offensive and accuses the international community of double standards over the Rohingya issue, while neglecting the suffering of Kachin residents.
Sprawling Shan State is even less stable because of the numerous groups jockeying for turf as the Tatmadaw’s grip appears to weaken.
The Tatmadaw has several unholy alliances with Shan militias who collaborate with the authorities while profiteering from drug trafficking and illegal gambling. Suu Kyi’s ambitious pre-2015 election promises of peace seem very distant now.
Allegations of organised rape by soldiers and forced recruitment are still rife and the military is largely seen as a colonising oppressor from a different ethnic group.
Promises made under the October 2015 ceasefire deal have been broken, Shan armed groups claim, and the agreement has been used to merely extend Tatmadaw dominance. It is another example of how the achievements of the military-backed administration of Thein Sein have been eroded under Suu Kyi.
It could be argued that Suu Kyi blundered when she took office in 2016 by trying to extend the military’s ceasefire agreement. Eight armed groups had signed the deal in 2015 and she looked to add to the list.
If she had abandoned the ceasefire and proposed an ambitious federal state, where ethnic groups would have considerable autonomy, there might have been more prospect of persuading communities away from armed conflict. But Suu Kyi’s lack of real power would have meant any such dramatic intervention was easily dismissed as cheap talk.
National-level talks have now stalled between ceasefire signatories and the NLD, meaning some armies have publicly aligned themselves with the powerful Chinese-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA), which controls an entire mini-state along the border.
The UWSA has reinforced other rebel groups with weaponry, training and occasionally troops, demanding that Suu Kyi recognise its umbrella group, the Federal Political Negotiating and Consultative Committee, of northern armies as a single entity at the Panglong conferences.
A coordinated strike on Tatmadaw-held territory this month might expose the ceasefire process as bankrupt and further weaken the credibility of the NLD in the eyes of the public. Suu Kyi has managed to maintain some of her aura domestically, even as it was so rapidly washed away internationally in the wake of the Rohingya crisis.
But her prestige might not survive the collapse of her main objective in government: securing peace. The electorate voted overwhelmingly in November 2015 for an amateur leader and they might increasingly question her fitness for the role if all hope of peace is abandoned.
Suu Kyi has always lacked any grip on detail. Her speeches are littered with bland pronouncements and meaningless platitudes, while lacking a coherent strategy.
While in opposition in 2014 she proclaimed: “Our purpose is to show that the entire people entertain the keenest desire for a multi-party democratic system of government.”
It might be true that the majority of Myanmar’s citizens were ready for peace after near-constant conflict since the Japanese invaded in 1942 but she lacked a vision for how this could be secured, let alone the administrative skills to push through the necessary changes.
Add to this the plethora of problems facing the country’s border regions, not least drug trafficking and addiction, and the fact that the NLD was not really handed any power in 2016 and it explains why the peace process has been such a tragic failure.
Myanmar’s voters may have lost patience with the National League for Democracy by the next general election. Picture credit: Asean Economist