By Ellen Chambers —
Myanmar’s second Panglong Conference — the cornerstone dialogue of the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) push for peace and national reconciliation in the long-running conflict between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups — is slated to begin August 31. Earlier this year, Aung San Suu Kyi revealed plans to restrict the conference to political and security issues, demoting economic, social, and natural resource issues to a separate but concurrent track two “Civil Society Organizations’ Peace Forum.” Separating these critical issues into different negotiating forums, however, could slow the dialogue process and ultimately threaten the prospect of achieving long-term peace.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to focus on politics and security is intended to ensure efficient discussion at the conference. Putting the most complex matters at the forefront of the dialogue will allow the parties additional time to negotiate pressing issues such as the establishment of a federal political union, security sector reform, and negotiating a ceasefire in northern Kachin and Shan states. On the other hand, keeping critical economic issues off the agenda at the conference may prove a major roadblock by precluding key stakeholders from participating in important discussions.
Kachin and Shan states have witnessed Myanmar’s most intense conflict between ethnic armed groups and government military forces. By no coincidence, both states are also rich in natural resources. Myanmar’s jade, worth an estimated $31 billion in 2014 and roughly half of the country’s total gross domestic product, is extracted almost entirely from Kachin state. However, Kachin residents receive almost none of the revenue, while military-controlled jade mining companies and local military networks procure enormous financial benefits through the illicit extraction and distribution of the precious stones.
Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to prioritize peace through an inclusive and participatory dialogue process, powerful ethnic armed groups – such as the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army — have incentives to continue fighting for greater access to land and resources. Military officials allegedly involved in the illegal jade trade also have an interest in sustained conflict, as peace could lead to mining industry reform and thereby threaten their economic interests. Sustaining these parties’ full engagement in the peace process could prove challenging for Aung San Suu Kyi if economics and natural resource management are not on the table at the conference. The prospect of a permanent ceasefire, a comprehensive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration plan, and ultimately a nationwide peace accord, could also remain in doubt.
Sidelining critical issues may also hinder Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to maintain the support of the eight ethnic groups that signed the 2015 nationwide ceasefire agreement. By focusing her efforts on enticing non-ceasefire parties to participate in the Panglong conference, Aung San Suu Kyi risks stringing along those whose backing has been critical in her campaign for peace. Although the national ceasefire agreement effectively ended fighting in many parts of the country, economic development and land rights remain contentious issues for many signatory ethnic groups. In restructuring the framework for political dialogue and denying discussions of these issues, Aung San Suu Kyi could risk frustrating key ethnic allies. It could be difficult for NLD and military negotiators to extract concessions from ethnic groups if the root causes of their political grievances are relegated to a separate civil society dialogue.
Since becoming Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has made agricultural reform — one of the key pillars of the NLD’s economic strategy — an urgent priority. However, improving agricultural productivity will be an extremely tough task. For decades, the military junta engaged in mass land confiscation while offering farmers limited or no compensation. Although efforts have begun by the NLD to facilitate the return of some of the land seized under the military’s rule, decades-old land rights grievances of many ethnic populations remain unaddressed. Because the military retains a strong influence in this area through its control of the Ministry of Home Affairs and 25 percent of the seats in parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi is likely wary of pressing the issue too hard and enflaming delicate NLD-military relations. Preventing critical economic issues from being discussed at Panglong, however, could delay the prospect of inclusive growth and rural development.
Although a sense of nationwide enthusiasm from all parties ahead of the conference provides reason to be optimistic, Aung San Suu Kyi will need to exercise caution given the intractability of the conflict and the varying interests represented among diverse stakeholders. Economics and security are not mutually exclusive; treating them as such could compromise the momentum of the peace process and undermine genuine efforts to repair fractured relationships.