SECOND 21st CENTURY PANGLONG: Hurdles, woes and imagination

  • Written by Sai Wansai/ S.H.A.N
  • Published in Op-ed

Even though we have now and then conducted several interviews together in the past on various political issues surrounding Burma, I was very much delighted when U Kyaw Zan Tha from the Voice of America (VOA) called me to discuss on the situation of the upcoming 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC), as preferred to be addressed by the de facto head of National League for Democracy (NLD) government Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,  but of which the Military or Tatmadaw would like to retain its as Union Peace Conference (UPC), scheduled to take off on February 28.

My main argument is that without necessary basic factors being fulfilled, holding the second “Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong” (UPC-21CP) a compromised term worked out between the NLD and the Military bloc – comprising of the Tatmadaw and Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) – under the NLD regime, won’t be able to achieve its objective of national reconciliation and political settlement as anticipated.

The first Union Peace Conference (UPC) from January 12 to 16 of 2016 was conducted during the ex-President Thein Sein; the Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong (UPC-21CP) from August 31 to September 3, under the NLD headed government; and the forthcoming second UPC-21CP is geared to take off on February 28.

The issues or problem areas we touched upon were the timing of conducting the forthcoming conference; the assessment of first conference held under NLD regime; the controversial situation created by the Union Peace and Dialogue Joint Committee’s (UPDJC) decision on not to hold national-level political dialogue in Arakan and Chin States (latest BBC news of February 14 said Chin State would be allowed to conduct the meeting); Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s urging on making binding major decisions during the upcoming conference; all-inclusiveness debacles; Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s often promoted notion of “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”; reformation of the Tatmadaw into a federal army; creation of a Bamar State; new national states, nationalities states, national areas; and problematic of trust-building between adversaries or negotiation partners.

As the interview, or better the discussion, which lasted some thirteen minutes was in Burmese, I thought I should also made it known in English for international consumption, as the issues discussed here are crucial for a wider debate or brainstorming, which might possibly pave the way for a better conceptual thinking for all actors, stakeholders and opinion-makers to be able to conduct this delicate peace process in a fair and justified manner, if possible without much bias, in Burma or Myanmar.

True, there would be disagreement on the way I have approached various woes and issues surrounding the country. But my main aim is to be able to open the debate by pinpointing crucial issues in an objective manner and in order to do this, wider discussion possibilities among stakeholders and the general public might be the way to go. And as such, I sincerely hope that some key words mentioned here in the discussion or interview might serve the purpose.

Thus, the translated version of the VOA aired discussion between U Kyaw Zan Tha and Sai Wansai, titled, “The Prospect of 21st Century Second Panglong Convention”, on February 9, is presented here as follows:

This week Burma’s current affairs discussion would focus on how much the 21st Century Panglong second conference, that is to be held at the end of February, would be able to resolve the ethnic problems. The situation was discussed and analyzed by Sai Wansai, political commentator on Burma’s ethnic affairs and U Kyaw Zan Tha. Sai Wansai started with the criticism for calling the convention without fulfilling the basic needed factors.

Sai Wansai: I am beginning to suspect if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is blindly going ahead without looking back and forth (of the existing situation).

U Kyaw Zan Tha: You believe that the timing is not ripe to conduct the meeting. Sai Wansai, what has been achieved during last convention (UPC-21CP) and how much positive helpful outcomes to resolve ethnic problematic were being achieved? How would you assess the first conference (under the NLD government)?

Sai Wansai: The first meeting invited by convener were termed as meeting participants and not representatives, as there were problems in defining as such. All Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) were invited and nearly all came. The plus point is that all could made known their complete feelings, desires and aspirations. Because of this, we were in the situation to know who wanted what in detailed manner. Therefore, I see it as a plus point. But it didn’t seem like having the nature of consensus and just became a forum reading position papers, which was the weak point. No agreement was achieved, no discussion took place and no future guidelines were able to be mapped out.

 U Kyaw Zan Tha: But at that time, it was said that national-level political discussion would be made, followed by third conference (second 21st Century Panglong under the NLD government). Right?

Sai Wansai: Correct.

U Kyaw Zan Tha: As it is, national-level political discussion, according to the situation, just in three places. Now the inability to hold such meetings have even prompted the Chin National Front (CNF) to say something like that it is reconsidering to attend the meeting. So how important is that meeting for not being able to hold such national-level political discussions?

Sai Wansai: I believe that it is one of the very important chapter. Because those who are in politics or political elite are just speculating and saying on that the people might either want this or that, but (the best would be) national-level political dialogue must be made known to the public and as well also conducting it. I see it is as a very appropriate and good undertaking. By not conducting it in front of the masses, like U Kyaw Zan Tha said it was able to pull through only in three places. Arakan State was not able to do it. Chin State was not able to do it. I think, calling (holding) second Panglong under such circumstances wouldn’t be able to gather facts or enough inputs from the people and would be like jumping a step, which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and political leaders have hoped for. That is why holding second Panglong stubbornly and coercively won’t be conducive (to the peace process).

U Kyaw Zan Tha: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi likes to make a move to be able to make exact, decisive decisions in the second conference. Would it be possible?

Sai Wansai: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s intention is good. But if asked whether this is possible, I would say the chances are quite slim. Why the chances are slim is because all-inclusiveness still cannot be realized. Another thing is the ongoing wars cannot be stopped. Other than that, the Tatmadaw’s planned implementation with the aim and intention to swing the non-NCA-signatory organizations either to surrender or give in to its demand. So because of the inability to carry out all-inclusiveness and to conduct national-level political discussion all over the country, I think we don’t have enough facts or inputs. And if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would draw decisive conclusion from such given condition, I don’t think it couldn’t be correct and comprehensive decision-making.

U Kyaw Zan Tha: When you said that there is no all-inclusiveness, one leader from UPDJC said that non-NCA-signatory ethnic groups would be invited.

Sai Wansai: Yes, I have heard about it. But at the same time, Hkun Okker from UPDJC who is also the PNLO leader said that they won’t be invited. Even if they are really invited, the UNFC has clearly said that it won’t attend if given just observer status. So it seems like that the government side is just inviting to look good and to strike a posture that nobody has been left behind.

U Kyaw Zan Tha: I think, another thing, which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said is worth pondering. People who would be attending the conference should not only ask but mainly should give priority to ask themselves of what they could give. Couldn’t we say that it is correct?

Sai Wansai: I would say this thinking and advocacy are justified. Although it is correct, one point of consideration also comes to mind. About four, five, six months ago, a Karenni leader Khu Oo Reh said that we didn’t have anything to give. Our land and rivers have dried and our people have fled. We didn’t have anything more to give. At this moment, regarding conflict which is going on between powerful (Tatmadaw) and weaker (less powerful) ethnic resistance forces, I think the Tatmadaw is in a position that could give more, by having the desire to end the war. If this is done, all other related problems could become a lot easier to resolve. Therefore, among all the forces, the most that could give is the Tatmadaw; the second is the government; and the ethnic are the forces that could just give very little.

U Kyaw Zan Tha: But regarding the demands, for example could the ethnic desire for federal army (formation) be implemented? Another point is whether the the demand for seven states configuration like after the early stage of independence period be immediately realizable?  Couldn’t we consider that the demands would be like asking too much than needed?

Sai Wansai: We could consider. You said two points. One is the federal army and the other ethnic-based union. The federal army formation is a justified demand and it is not the thing that is impossible to achieve. If one looks at other countries, the Security Sector Reform (SSR) which is the reformation of the military forces could take decades. So basically, we need to accept the change of the lop-sided nature of the Tatmadaw, which is dominated by the ethnic Bamar. This is one part. The demand is justified but it would take time. At the same time, the Military would need to make flexible adjustment of give-and-take (for eventual reformation into a federal army). Another point is the demand for new national state, which have two parts. One is carving out new national states from the existing national states and the other, creation of national area or self-rule (for sub-ethnic groups or minorities within a dominant ethnic state). This is another category. The two demands are not wrong. They are correct. But in order to do this all stakeholders would have to sit down together and draw up standard,  like pondering on this is doable and this not, to agree on a criteria and only after this it could proceed step by step. So the demands are justified but time is needed. Regarding the formation of a Bamar State (the majority ethnic group in Burma without its own ethnic state but diversified into seven Division or Regions now), it is not an issue which could not be negotiated. We could work on it. Places where the majority Bamar ethnic group reside could be lump together to create a state if it is desirable. After such undertaking, Divisions or Regions with mixed ethnicity could form nationalities states, if the people residing there like to form them. All these could be done by sitting down together through negotiation, but would have to give time.

U Kyaw Zan Tha: So it is now questionable if there is such trust on each other to be able to sit down and negotiate?

Sai Wansai: We still cannot overcome the first hurdle of trust-building among each other. Why we couldn’t overcome this is due to the fact that the people who are sitting around the discussion circle still need to accept the idea that they are equal. To be straight-forward, the Tatmadaw administrative class considered itself as being above all the negotiation participants. Because of such consideration, it cannot accept other participants as equal fellow negotiation partners, leading to the inability even to start the trust-building process. As the first point, the Tatmadaw must accept that it is equal with the others and the meeting and negotiation conference is being held in unity together, with commonly drawn agendas. If this could be done practically, really believing in it, trust-building is not an impossible thing that we cannot achieve.

U Kyaw Zan Tha: Some might even say most of what we have discussed concerning the second Panglong Conference seems to be only talking about impossible situations, with negative outlook and pessimism. But whatever it is, in my mind I pray that may this convention be able to overcome all the difficulties and be successful.

Sai Wansai: I also like to wish like you that this convention be able to serve as a grain of sand or a block of brick that would help in the trust-building process.