Tripartite dialogue revisited or shifting alliance?

The Aung San Suu Kyi-headed Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), which is made up of Union Government, Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and Political Parties, with 16 members from each group, recent restructuring meeting looks like it has created an atmosphere of a tripartite dialogue, which the UN has all along endorsed to resolve the ethnic and ideological conflicts that Burma has to endure, since the military coup of 1962.
The UN had, until 2010 nationwide elections that has ushered in the quasi-civilian Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)-Military government of Thein Sein, steadfastly stood by the tripartite dialogue initiative, which should involve representatives of the government, political parties and the ethnic nationalities, to resolve the problems and conflicts surrounding the country. But started to become silent on its insistence of tripartite dialogue, after the military has allowed limited political reform and the quasi-civilian government came into being in 2011.
Perhaps the UN, together with the international community would like to encourage the nascent reform process by staying on the sideline, rather than pushing hard for the tripartite dialogue.
But whether the planned 21st Century Panglong Convention (21CPC), also dubbed Union Peace Conference (UPC) by the former Thein Sein regime, would really be tripartite dialogue in a real sense or not is a question, which needs to be scrutinized. For equal representation is the key that would make the peace process all-inclusive and not unequal or imbalance representation.
Apart from this, the speculation of shifting alliance, between the EAOs and between those of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military also  requires careful attention, as the fate of the whole peace process would depend on the outcomes or results materializing from such interactions.
First, let us look at what the UPDJC structuring meeting of 27-28 May has changed and altered from the previous setting.
NLD or Aung San Suu Kyi's undertakings
Aung San Suu Kyi has taken the position of UPDJC chairperson with Kyaw Tint Swe, Thu Wai and Phado Kwe Htoo Win appointed as vice chairmen, and former government peace negotiator Hla Maung Shwe of the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), now renamed as National Reconciliation Peace Center (NRPC), as secretary.
The UPDJC meeting decisions are:
  1. Confirmation of the Union Government 16 members for UPDJC;
  2. Confirmation of the 8 EAOs 16 members, that had signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA);
  3. Agreement that for the Political Parties group, 16 of its members will be chosen by the government, including consideration of at least one woman representation; and
  4. Agreement that the UPDJC Secretariat will be formed with 3 persons each from the 3 groups, of which list would be sent to U Hla Maung Shwe, general secretary of the UPDJC.
Some of the NLD or Suu Kyi's policies were spelled out as the following in the recent two days UPDJC meeting.
  • Regarding the future peace process restructuring of MPC and 21st Century Panglong Convention (21CPC) would be undertaken.
  • Suu Kyi explained that 21CPC and UPC are the same and both names are usable and accepted.
  • UPDJC role will continue but amendment would be undertaken to meet political reality and future necessities.
  • Regarding political convention participation of more than 90 political parties, as the NLD's previous policy of parliamentary representation will be norm, only political parties that have at least one elected representative, in either union, or state/regional level parliaments, will be eligible to participate in the peace convention.
  • The role of the political parties, that have no representation in the parliament, would be to compliment the convention process through participation in the Civiian Based Organization (CBO) Parallel Forum, which is open to them.
  • Suu Kyi said that many understood Panglong as secession. She took Panglong spirit as being the main core necessary factor than Panglong Agreement. Saying that the Panglong spirit had united all the ethnic peoples leading to the achievement of independence through unity and cooperation and that the same could be done to reach the goals of peace, tranquillity and development.
Other than that the UPDJC will meet non-signatory EAOs in June, from which it hopes that many will join, leading to joint-activities to alter and review the Framework for Political Dialogue (FPD), which they will also become co-ownership and participate in UPC in July, according to the secretary U Hla Maung Shwe. He said the meeting participants also agreed to this arrangement, according to RFA report of 28 May.
Under the 21CPC preparation mould, two negotiation committees, one for the 8 EAOs signatory group and the other, for the non-signatory 13 EAOs , were formed. However, it is not clear if the military rejected 3 EAOs – MNDAA, TNLA and AA – will be covered is unknown.
Even as Suu Kyi actions have been in full swing regarding the peace process, the doubtfulness on her commitment to national reconciliation are rife, especially from the ethnic nationalities' point of view.
Shifting alliance
 Looking at the indecisiveness of Suu Kyi where all-inclusiveness of all EAOs is concerned, many are doubtful of her real sincere intention, whether she meant what she said. On several occasions she said that the convening of  21CPC or UPC would go parallel with soliciting the non-signatory EAOs, emphasising and including the former regime's usage of the phrase “those who deserve and are appropriate to participate” in the peace process.
Besides, it was said to be decided that she would curtail economic incentives of the EAOs, which the former Thein Sein regime had effectively used to win over the EAOs, and that future negotiations would only be conducted within the country and not in Thailand or China,  where previous meetings were held on several occasions.
And as she seemed inclined to give in to the military demand, the MNDAA, TNLA and AA, would likely be excluded.
Although this could be a tactical move or political tightrope walking of Suu Kyi, the EAOs took it as her possible shifting of alliance from being an ally to collaborator of their adversary, the military.
The ringing of alarm bell was evident, as an ethnic leader who attended a recent meeting of the newly formed peace committee dealing with the eight groups, which signed the NCA, but declined to be identified said: "In the past the army guys all attacked her, but now they hail her in our meetings," according to Larry Jagan in his commentary in Bangkok Post, on 27 May.
He stressed: "Clearly there is a strong understanding between the military and the government and we fear we will be isolated and Aung San Suu Kyi take the military's side."
The UWSA factor
 As the shifting of alliance seems to be in the making between the Suu Kyi-led NLD and Tatmadaw from adversaries to those of actual, grand coalition partner, the non-Bamar armed ethnic front is also gearing up for a possible change.
During the last few weeks, the Kokang or Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta'ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA) have tendered resignation to be excluded from 11 member military alliance, United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), of which both are members, although the decision of acceptance or approval is said to be pending for the moment.
The reason for their resignation was given as the UNFC being unable to do much for the said two EAOs practically, while they have to endure ongoing heavy Tatmadaw offensives. Besides, they didn't want to be on the way of UNFC, which has been adhering to all-inclusiveness and thus unable to sign the NCA, due to the former Thein Sein government's exclusion of the two, including the Arakan Army (AA).
The reasoning is that the new NLD regime is likely to toe the same policy line of excluding them, as it  doesn't like to upset the Tatmadaw, which had openly said that they all have to surrender first in order to be able to join the peace process.
And with the UNFC's rejection – after the 19-22 April meeting in Chiang Mai - of the United Wa State Party/Army (UWSP/UWSA) aspirations to lead the whole ethnic military alliance, it is only a matter of time that the MNDAA and TNLA would join the military alliance headed by the latter, including the Mong La or National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and AA.
During the Ethnic  Armed  Organizations Leaders’ Summit  held  from 26 - 28 March  2016  at  Pang  Kham Town, where  34  representatives  from  UWSP/UWSA,  KIO/KIA,  Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA),  PSLF/TNLA,  AA and  NDAA  attended, one paragraph of the statement issued after the meeting stated:
“Conflict  between  RCSS  and  TNLA  in  Northern  Shan  State  was  discussed  at  the  meeting  and  both sides  are  urged  to  immediately  halt  hostilities.    Both  sides  are  encouraged  to  solve  the  problem through  negotiation  mean.  In  case,  one  side  keeps  creating  conflict,  all  EAOs  agreed  to  collectively prevent  and  protect  from  it.  Simultaneously,  we  demand  Tatmadaw  immediately  cease  all  military offensives in Northern Shan State for the sake of the stability for the people living in the areas.”
 Following this some weeks later, heavy clashes involving some 700 troops of TNLA attacked RCSS positions, which let many, including the SNLD's secretary general Sai Nyunt Lwin, to say that other EAOs might be involved on the side of TNLA to rid the RCSS from its encroachment within the areas, which the TNLA insisted belongs to them.
The situation became even more complicated with the TNLA accusation that the RCSS and Burma Army were coordinating the assaults on its positions with heavy artillery and at time, attacking in tandem.
Thus, the UWSA military alliance, although not yet formally formed, might have already existed in practice. The inclusion of the KIA, AA and NDAA were highly likely in attacks against the RCSS, while SSPP could not be involved as it is also a Shan Army like the RCSS and also member of the UNFC, which is trying to mediate the conflict between TNLA and RCSS.
If this development process of UWSA forming a military alliance becomes real, the UNFC could be drastically weaken.
 Given the recent military and political developments, it is a bit too early to predict if the Suu Kyi initiated 21CPC or UPC would really lead to the tripartite dialogue of the government, political parties and ethnic nationalities, as had been endorsed for decades until 2010 by the UN.
It will actually depend on equal representation on all level of the peace process  from manning the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM) to overseeing its execution by two bodies: the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC) that essentially deals with military matters, and the other, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) that deals with the political ones.
Two points needed to be considered, in order to become a bona fide tripartite dialogue and would hinge on altering the following in an equal basis, acceptable to all parties.
Firstly, the restructuring of UPDJC will have to include the participation of the 13 non-signatory EAOs, which would also include the 3 left out EAOs. This would mean expanding the representatives from 16 each to 16 + 26 = 46. The added 26 representatives would come from 13 non-signatory EAOs inclusion of 2 representatives each, making it 26 altogether.
The present UPDJC is manned by 48 members, with 16 each from the government, ethnic armed groups and political parties.
Secondly, the Union Peace Conference that has been slated to be attended by a total of 700 delegates comprising 75 from the Government, 75 from the Hluttaw (Parliament), 150 from the Tatmadaw, 150 from ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), 150 from registered political parties, 50 from ethnic representatives and 50 from others who should participate, written in The Framework for Political Dialogue, would need to be adjusted to reflect the recent changing  political configuration and equality.
In the formerly UN endorsed tripartite dialogue, the three group stakeholders were the military government (State Peace and Development Council), the democratic forces (NLD) and the ethnic nationalities.
Speculation on possible de-escalation or heightened armed conflict will solely depend on how the Tatmadaw would go about with its non-inclusiveness in relation to the all-inclusiveness of the non-signatory EAOs and a not so clear stance of the NLD's stance regarding the matter.
If the Tatmadaw would continue with its strategy of side-lining the MNDAA, TNLA, AA and continues its offensives on the SSPP/SSA and KIO/KIA, the possibility that the Tatmadaw's military pressure would push the two groups into a wider alliance with the UWSA could become a reality. Then this would strengthen the hand of the UWSA and increased influence of the big regional power, neighbouring country, whether one likes it or not.
At the same time, the counter strategy of the EAOs could be like those of the Tatmadaw, which is talking peace, while fighting. In other words, the UWSA headed military alliance would tie down the Tatmadaw militarily, while the UNFC-led alliance would continue with the negotiations within the bounds of 21CPC.
But if such speculation would become a reality, where would the country's peace process lead us to?
The answer would likely be continued warfare, at the expense of the ethnic nationalities in the first place and hindering overall development and democratization process in the rest of the country.
As such, we should all take heart that compromise, or a real equal tripartite dialogue, is the only way out of this debacle and that it must be coupled with determined conviction to be able to end the decades-long ethnic armed conflict and strive to achieve durable peaceful settlement, that the people has been waiting for so long.


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