Negotiations aimed at ending decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar have failed to reach a conclusion. The five-day summit, the “21st Century Panglong,” followed an earlier round of talks in August 2016. Both of them were organised by the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party and its leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The talks followed months of increasingly tense fighting in Myanmar’s regional areas. The government claims that negotiations faltered when rebel groups were asking for greater autonomy, stoking fears among Myanmar’s still powerful military (or Tatmadaw) of the breakup to the country.
These talks involved the civilian government of Myanmar, political parties, the Tatmadaw and representatives of ethnic armed groups. Channel News Asia reports that the parties signed an agreement on 37 of 45 proposed federal principles as part of the Union Peace Accord on Monday. However, many political and security-related discussion points remained unresolved. The various rebel groups pushed for a greater degree of autonomy in a federalist state structure, but would not guarantee “non-secession;” a term they believe undermines trusts that build among participants.
“As the issues are set to be discussed in package, we could not go further without any agreement on non-secession,” Presidential Spokesperson Zaw Htay told reporters on Monday. Suu Kyi posted a statement on her official Facebook page following the close of the talks. “Nation building is an unending process. As we complete one stage, we have to start on the next one. I would like to urge all organisations and individuals that are not yet participating in this conference to join us.”
Ethnic conflict in Myanmar has been ongoing since the country achieved independence from the British in 1948. Ethnic groups, such as the Kachin, Karreni, Shan, Rohingya, Karen and Kokang, have undertaken armed insurgencies against the central government and Tatmadaw, which is dominated by the Bamar ethnic group. At various times, these insurgent groups have received support from China and Thailand. In October 2015, a National Ceasefire Agreement was signed with eight armed groups, although this represents fewer than half of the factions operating in the country. Suu Kyi has stated that it is her number one goal to achieve a lasting peace agreement. Despite this, she has been accused of moving too slowly to resolve the issue, and to cosying up to the Tatmadaw. Further talks have been agreed, but have not been scheduled.
The scale of violence in Myanmar has been devastating, and the humanitarian crisis continues today. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people have perished during the various conflicts since 1948. Since 2012, Human Rights Watch estimates that around 220,000 people have been displaced nationwide. Both sides have been accused of using child soldiers and land mines. Restrictions and abuses of ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim minorities, are widespread. More than 200,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh in the past 20 years. Government forces have been accused of ethnic cleansing consistently throughout the conflict’s history. The conflict has also harmed Myanmar’s economic development, and led to the flourishing of a large illicit economy, particularly in regards to drug cultivation and production.
In order to secure political plurality after decades of military dictatorship, to pursue development, to end the humanitarian crisis and maintain a unified country, Myanmar requires peace. Aung San Suu Kyi already has a Nobel Peace Prize awarded for her struggle for democracy and against military abuses. Arguably, an even greater challenge lies ahead of her now.
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