Burma’s Second 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference

Burma's second "21st Century Panglong Peace Conference," held in Burma's capital, Naypiytaw, on May 24-29, 2017, adjourned with mixed results. Some observers had hoped the conference could make significant progress toward ending Burma's six-decade long, low-grade civil war. While it succeeded in bringing new ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) into the discussions, some EAOs who had attended the first conference (held last autumn) did not participate. The NLD-led government, the Burmese military (or Tatmadaw), and the eight EAOs that signed the so-called "nationwide ceasefire agreement" (NCA) in October 2015 made progress on a proposed "Union Accord," but differences remain on key elements of the peace process. In addition, just as occurred during the first conference, the Tatmadaw and some of the larger EAOs presented incompatible models for negotiating an end to the civil war. As a result, just how much progress towards peace the conference generated remains unclear.

Who Attended and Who Did Not

The second conference was organized by the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), a body consisting of representatives of the NLD-led government, the Tatmadaw, the eight EAOs that signed the NCA, and selected political parties. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has sought to include all the EAOs in the peace conferences, but has been thwarted by the Tatmadaw's opposition to inviting EAOs that have not signed the NCA. In addition, a new EAO coalition, the Union Political Negotiation Dialogue Committee (UPNDC), also known as the "Panghsang Allies," emerged just before the conference began, while another EAO coalition, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), lost a key member, adding new complexities to conference organization.

Reportedly in part due to the intervention of China, the UPNDC—which includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), two of the largest and strongest EAOs—attended the opening ceremony, but did not participate in the conference because they were not invited to the conference as full members. Instead, Aung San Suu Kyi met separately with the UPNDC delegation during the conference.

The UNFC, which attended the first conference, declined an invitation to attend the second conference with "observer" status. In early May, the KIA withdrew from the UNFC, bringing into doubt the future of what had previously been Burma's most influential EAO coalition.

The absence of the UNFC and the partial participation of the UPNDC was a blow to Aung San Suu Kyi's hopes for a more inclusive peace conference. The Tatmadaw's acceptance of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the UWSA as conference "observers," however, was seen by some observers as a sign of some progress.

Key Results

Progress on Union Accord. The conference's official participants—NLD government, the Tatmadaw, the seven EAOs that have signed the NCA, and selected political parties—made some progress in negotiating the Union Accord, a document that is to be the basis for future discussions over Burma's governance system. Officially, the participants agreed to 37 different points, but differences remain over the nature and degree of self-determination to be afforded in Burma's federated state to its seven predominately minority ethnic States.

Setback over Secession Provision. There was also major disagreement over the proposed inclusion of a provision barring secession by any of the ethnic States. The original 1947 Panglong Agreement included a secession provision that made possible the formation of the Union of Burma, and some of the EAOs wish to retain that option. The Tatmadaw insisted that the EAOs renounce their right of secession.

Outstanding Issues

Roadmap to Peace. The UPNDC rejects the NCA and its roadmap to negotiate peace; it has proposed an alternative framework in which the NLD-led government, the Tatmadaw and the EAOs would begin talks aimed at developing the basis for a new federated state. The remaining UNFC members remain open to signing the NCA, but only if all the EAOs are permitted to join the resulting negotiations. The Tatmadaw's Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, said in his opening remarks that divergence from the NCA framework was "tantamount to grabbing power and splitting from the Union."

Defense Forces. The future structure of the nation's defense forces is also unresolved, as several of the EAOs wish to maintain their troops after a peace agreement is concluded; the Tatmadaw's leadership insists that all security forces must report to them. The Tatmadaw has also insisted that the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA renounce armed resistance and disarm before they are allowed to sign the NCA. All three EAOs have rejected that proposal.

Ongoing Fighting. Since the first 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference concluded, the escalation of fighting between the Tatmadaw and several of the EAOs, particularly the AA, KIA, MNDAA, and TNLA, has undermined trust in the Tatmadaw's commitment to the peace process. Some observers think the Tatmadaw's military assaults are designed to pressure the EAOs to sign the NCA; others view the assaults as part of a campaign to secure control over natural resources in contested areas, thereby denying the EAOs valuable assets to finance their forces. The KIA's shift from the UNFC to the UPNDC may reflect its doubt about the Tatmadaw's sincerity.

Implications for U.S. Relations

The Trump Administration's public statements have not specifically outlined its policy toward Burma. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia, W. Patrick Murphy, has reportedly said that U.S. relations with Burma will be "enduring" during the Trump Administration. Senator Mitch McConnell and other Members of Congress reportedly told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to forget or mishandle relations with Burma. Besides the nation's uncertain prospects for peace, some Members of Congress have expressed concern about the apparent inability of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD-led government to address the perceived "persecution" of the Rohingya, and to properly address the human rights abuses allegedly conducted by Burmese security forces during their "clearance operations" in Rakhine State late last year.