Burma's Historic National Dialogue
Update from Yangon
September 30, 2016
After 50 plus years of conflict between Myanmar/Burma's central government and many of its ethnic minorities, the newly elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy (the "NLD") hopes to fulfill the promise of the country's fledgling peace process. Earlier this month, 700 representatives of the country’s ethnic parties, armed groups, the Myanmar Army, and the Burmese government concluded the second round of the Union Peace Conference. This historic conference and the ongoing political dialogue processes taking place nationally and regionally within Burma is mandated to resolve the ethnic conflict and design the structure of the new “Democratic Federal Union”. The gathering highlighted new challenges to the peace process, as Burma's ethnic alliances continued to splinter. Though substantial progress has been made over the last three years, the NLD government must navigate a political transition that has entered a more complicated and challenging phase.
The increasing complexity of Burma's political transition has deep historical roots, as well as more recent origins. Prior to the inauguration of National League of Democracy government, the government of former General Thein Sein had entered into a national ceasefire negotiation with the country’s ethnic armed groups, many of whom had negotiated separate, individual bi-lateral ceasefires with the government previously. Despite broad agreement on core principles by nearly all parties, ultimately only eight groups signed the "nationwide ceasefire agreement" with the government. Others opted out, some indicating that they preferred to wait for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to assume leadership of the country before proceeding. However in the months since the NLD government took office, no new signatories have been added, and in several areas of the country occupied or controlled by the non-signatories to the ceasefire, violence has flared up, most recently resulting in the dislocation of thousands of civilians along the country’s border with Thailand.
How to move the peace process forward at both the national and state/regional level at this juncture is the central challenge. Both the nationwide ceasefire agreement and subsequent talks laid out plans for a national dialogue process, of which the recently concluded session of Union Peace Conference is one part. With the changing environment, these plans are being revised, but it is anticipated that Burma's national dialogue process will continue for at least three to five years at both the national and sub-national levels. Its fundamental purpose is to provide a forum for a more consensus driven redrawing of a federal Burmese State. Bringing all parties to the table is critical. In the initial session of the Union Peace Conference held last January (before the NLD assumed leadership of the government), only those ethnic armed groups who were signatories to the ceasefire attended as full members. In this month’s sessions, after much government outreach and support from international governments, including China, nearly all ethnic armed groups attended in some capacity.
However the Union Peace Conference showed that the envisioned participation of Burma’s many ethnic armed groups and political parties in the current national process will not be as a unified entity. Indeed some walked out of the Union Peace Conference. Three likely blocs are emerging; each with distinct views on how to engage in the future process and varying ideas of what a new Burmese State should look like. These blocs include: the signatories to the original ceasefire (comprising some of the largest ethnic armed groups, including the Karen National Union and others); a second bloc representing those non-signatories to the original process who are nonetheless willing to engage with the NLD government, including the Kachin, Mon, and Kayah ethnic groups; and a third set of parties, representing ethnic armed groups, such as the United Wa State Army (an ethnic armed group located in territory bordering China), who are more reticent to join in the process. Balancing these interests, those of the military which still holds 25% of the seats in Parliament, and those of her own constituents in the National League of Democracy, will be a massive challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi, in her capacity as State Counselor. Much support has been given to date, but even more will be needed if this transition is to be successful.
Photos: Aung San Suu Kyi addressing Union Peace Conference and delegates at the Union Peace Conference courtesy of KNU Headquarters.
This past month the people of Myanmar finally secured a “Free Burma” by giving Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), an overwhelming electoral mandate to govern the country – ending more than six decades of military rule. In the week following her party’s historic achievement, Suu Kyi announced that, despite winning the vast majority of the open seats in Parliament, her party will not govern alone, but will form a unity government that will include her former “enemy,” the Myanmar Military, as well as leaders from the country’s ethnic minorities.
A confident Suu Kyi has since urged the NLD’s newly elected MP’s to join hands with those once responsible for persecuting members of the party. For Suu Kyi, forgiveness is a necessary step toward national reconciliation: “Whatever mistake they have made in the past, we need to give them the chance to change, instead of seeking revenge. If they are doing nothing wrong at the present time, they can join hands with us.”
The Military Government of U Thein Sein that opened the “democratic space” over the past four years did not expect such a dramatic defeat at the polls. And, the provisions of the current 2008 Constitution provide that the Military still holds 25% of the seats in Parliament and will keep control of the defense, home affairs and border affairs ministries when the NLD takes over the reins in April of next year. Suu Kyi’s relationship with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing will be the center of attention for the months to come. Thus far, their relationship is off to a promising start. In their first meeting after the elections, both leaders expressed their willingness to cooperate. The military assured her that it will no longer play a “political” role.
On the international front, the NLD will face critical choices. Whereas the Military Government maintained close relations with China, the NLD is much closer to the West. The challenge for the NLD-led unity government will be to manage its engagement with the West and at the same time strengthen its relations with China. The NLD believes it would be a fatal mistake to choose between the West and China; rather, it should work hard to maintain good relations with both.
To meet the future challenges of Myanmar/Burma’s political transformation, the NLD will need to expand, strengthen and consolidate the peace process. Here are some key goals: bringing all of the ethnic armed groups who have been at war with the central government for decades into the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement; creating an inclusive National Dialogue process bringing together all the groups and people of Burma to jointly agree on a future vision and a new constitutional foundation for the country; working towards national reconciliation; creating a strong judiciary that will root-out corruption and ensure justice, fairness and equality for all; and restructuring the economy to ensure that the country’s rich natural resources benefit all its people.
Whereas outgoing President U Thein Sein’s government focused on ending the civil war, the challenge for the new NLD government will be to build a sustainable and just peace process. This peace process must address the deep structural challenges and societal divides in the country. The next phase will have to go beyond the agreements of the past four years and build on the achievements of the democratic movement and the ethnic struggle of the past six decades.
The Burmese “Framework for Political Dialogue” (FPD) was finally agreed upon yesterday, December 16th, by the Union Peace and Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) in the country’s capital. The Framework was handed over to the President who will publicize the Framework and call for a political dialogue in mid-January 2016. The UPDJC will be mandated to hold the upcoming political dialogue with the participation of 700 representatives from the government, parliament, defense services, ethnic armed organizations, political parties, ethnic leaders and special invitees.
The final framework was drawn from the 5 frameworks developed by the main stakeholders over the past three years – military, NLD, political parties and ethnic armed groups. Over the past 8 months the representatives from each of these groups developed a common framework draft that formed the basis of this agreement. The meeting in January will be an initial meeting to comply with the provisions of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed on 15th October this year. The formal dialogue process will start in late 2016 with the aim to develop a new constitutional framework guaranteeing equality to all the diverse ethnic groups, addressing the shortcomings in the current 2008 constitution and addressing the deep-rooted causes of conflict of the past 6 decades.
In Burma, 7 Common Spaces have evolved in its various ethnic estates since 2013. They serve as informal dialogue spaces to engage the various levels of society in the peace process, provide support to regional dialogues and negotiations, and will support the upcoming formal National Dialogue. The evolving common spaces together with national facilitators facilitated the drafting of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, the Deed of Commitment and the common elements of the Framework for Political Dialogue.
The Pyidaungsu Institute for Peace and Dialogue (PI) in Burma has an important role in developing shared knowledge and the tools for facilitation, such as the single text document on NCA (Nationwide Ceasefire) or on the FPD (Framework for Political Dialogue). PI analysis, mapping and knowledge tools are the facilitation documents used in facilitation, or in supporting facilitation strategies for key negotiations between the various Burmese stakeholders. PI has also been working systematically for almost two years on the thematic and technical files identified on the negotiation agenda by the stakeholders. It links this work with the 7 ethnic and regional Common Spaces.
Evolving Common Spaces: Building common understanding and develop consensus through knowledge-based dialogues, the creation of shared knowledge, and the evolving of permanent safe spaces -- A presentation by Hannes Siebert at the Rotary Peace Fellowship 10 year anniversary in Thailand, 2015
Over the past 15 years we’ve witnessed the emergence of several unique Track 1.5 initiatives following long periods of civil wars, governance system failures, political instability, or during intractable conflicts. They served as “safe spaces ” for confidential dialogues or as support mechanisms and safety nets for formal and constitutional change processes.
The development of each of these common spaces was determined by the dynamics of the conflict, the depth of the broken relations between groups, the failures of existing constitutional and governing instruments, competing interests and the breakdown in communications. In this presentation he briefly look at five of these dialogue spaces in Cyprus, Lebanon, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Burma/Myanmar