Can the Panglong conference finally bring long-term peace to Myanmar?

Photo: Norwegian People's Aid/CC BY 2.0

By Dung Phan


In February 1947, General Aung San and leaders of several ethnic groups signed the Panglong agreement that promised, “full autonomy in internal administration.” He was gunned down by hitmen five months later。

Under the military rule that followed for more than 50 years, the country’s leaders did not honour the Panglong Agreement. General Aung San’s daughter, and Myanmar’s de facto leader, Suu Kyi, is expected to pick up what her father left – the Panglong spirit.

Peace-building in the fragile country is easier said than done. In a nation embroiled in the world’s longest civil wars, ceasefires agreements cannot ensure peace. The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in the Kokang region of Shan state agreed to a ceasefire with the government more than 20 years ago. But just last year a fight between these two groups resulted in the death of 100 residents and displaced thousands of refugees. Many of these refugees fled across the border into China.

On Tuesday, schools in the conflicted area closed because of the fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and national forces. Around 1000 villagers were also displaced. The clash has been ongoing for nearly a week.

Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia’s most resource-rich countries. The country earns billions of dollars each year exporting natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals. Natural gas exportation is one of the country’s prime sources of foreign revenue.

Yet residents in the ethnic states rich in oil and gas, have rarely enjoyed the benefits of these deals with neighbouring countries. The profits allegedly go directly to the military. This explains the hostilities between the government and ethnic rebel groups.

Hope for the future

Nearly all the rebel groups have expressed interest in the Panglong conference. But the National League for Democracy (NLD) is under no illusions that all will be ready to compromise. One delegate involved in the peace talks described the event as merely a, “grand opening” for any further attempt to address the civil war. Negotiators say no decisions would be made at the 21st Century Panglong Ethnic Conference as, “there was not enough time to make the necessary changes to the political dialogue framework.”

But hopes are still alive for positive progress. On August 15, Myanmar’s government decided to allow non-signatory armed groups to the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA) to join the conference. “It will be held according to the principle of all-inclusiveness. Each party can present its own policy but there won’t be any discussion or decisions made,” said Pado Saw Kwe Htoo Win representing the ethnic armed groups.

In another promising sign for the inclusive process needed to get a result, three previously excluded militant organisations are coming to the table; the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army. The absence of these groups was the primary reason for the failure of the peace process under Thein Sein’s leadership.

Diplomatic front

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi is in China this week. The government’s peace negotiating team suspects that some armed groups led by Chinese commanders did not sign the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Suu Kyi and her NLD government now understand that Myanmar needs China’s support to promote peace and stability in lawless border regions.

As long as the incentives of controlling exploitable natural resources are greater than the incentives to create stability, there is little hope for lasting peace. The plan to hold peace conferences every six months is encouraging but insufficient. Is enough being done differently to improve the lives of Myanmar’s people, so long caught in conflict?