The Union Peace Conference, also known as the 21st Century Panglong Conference, that took place on 31 August to 3 September in Naypyitaw was the first major peace conference held with the NLD at the helm of the government. Its aim was not only to continue the peace process begun by former President Thein Sein in 2012, but also to symbolize the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) commitment to securing peace and reconciliation in the country.
In the scheme of things, it was not meant to bring peace negotiations to a close but to convey the NLD’s commitment to be as inclusive as possible and to build trust amongst stakeholders. As a result, a whole range of actors was invited to attend: representatives from the government, Parliament, the Myanmar Army, 17 ethnic armed organizations, foreign diplomats, the United Nations (Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon) and civil society organizations.
However, total inclusivity was difficult to achieve. Three ethnic armed groups – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA) – were barred from attending because the Myanmar military had demanded that they give up arms at some point in the future before they could join the formal peace negotiations. The United Wa State Army (UWSA) walked out of the conference on the second day citing unequal treatment as they had been erroneously given nametags with observer rather than participant status.
These incidents reveal the delicacy and sensitivities in managing attendance, participation and protocol, let alone the actual content of discussion. The NLD is on the right track in terms of inclusivity but it has a long way more to go before issues of trust and respect amongst all parties are resolved. One thing is certain, the Union Peace Conference is only one of the many steps on the road to peace and reconciliation.
Dr Su-Ann Oh is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.