New peace talks between Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and Myanmar’s myriad guerrilla armies beginning Wednesday are designed to end decades of bloodshed and set the country on a new path.
The outcome could be significant, helping to determine what happens for decades to come in a country where China, the U.S. and India are vying for influence. United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to attend, and China’s President Xi Jinping signaled his support for the peace process during a joint press conference with Ms. Suu Kyi when she visited China earlier this month.
The gathering in the capital, Naypyitaw, however, is weighed down by lofty expectations.
Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who spent years under house arrest, has made a point of trying to bridge the country’s political and ethnic fault lines since her November election win. Since then, she has said her main goal is to bring an end to decades of civil strife. During her recent visit to China, she told a press conference that “without peace there can be no sustained development.”
Wednesday’s meeting will take place nearly 70 years after Ms. Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, met with the country’s different ethnic groups in the town of Panglong to discuss how to share power after independence from Britain. (Back then, the participants sketched out a tentative plan for a federal union, but Gen. Aung San was assassinated and the country slid into dictatorship before it could be put into practice.)
This time, Myanmar’s government and its disparate groups are searching for a formula that would allow peoples such as the Shan, Wa and Kachin to manage their own affairs. While the government has been tight-lipped ahead of the talks, the hope is that devolving power and autonomy to these groups could help keep the peace and ensure stability, providing a foundation for economic growth.
It won’t be easy. Delegates and officials regard the first meeting on Aug. 31 as just the beginning of a long process.
“There are still several barriers to overcome for the country to reach the end of decades of war,” Yangon-based risk consultancy Thura Swiss said in a research report. Armed ethnic groups continue to battle one another in some areas, while skirmishes still occur between guerrillas and government troops in the far north.
The overlapping ethnic conflicts in Myanmar have claimed upward of 130,000 lives since independence from Britain in 1948, according to an estimate by University of Massachusetts researchers. Continued conflict has acted as an economic brake on what was once one of Asia’s wealthiest countries and enabled the military to entrench itself in a political role. Even today, after breakthrough elections last year which brought Ms. Suu Kyi’s party to power, the army has direct control of Myanmar’s defense and interior ministries.
Myanmar isn’t the only Southeast Asian nation plagued by armed conflict. The Philippines is home to communist and Islamist insurgencies, while security analysts and police say separatists from the mostly Muslim south of Thailand are most likely behind a series of blasts in August which killed five people.
Homegrown terrorism continues to threaten Indonesia and Malaysia. Scores of militants, many inspired by compatriots who joined Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, have been rounded up recently as security forces attempt to get a grip on the problem.
The conflicts in Myanmar are messier than most. Since colonial times, armed ethnic groups have been at loggerheads with the military and government, which are dominated by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Burmans.
Disputes over how to share natural resources add to the tension; Myanmar’s minorities often live in areas where there are rich deposits of jade, gold and tin. Shan groups in the past week warned that a Chinese-backed hydropower dam project on the Salween River in Myanmar’s east risks worsening the conflicts there, while the Kachin group in the north remains opposed to the resumption of another Chinese venture, the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam, which was suspended by the previous government. Beijing will need the buy-in of the local Kachin if it is to have any hope of building the dam, analysts say, and that might mean Myanmar’s government allowing the Kachin to negotiate directly with China.
By committing to peace talks, Ms. Suu Kyi appears anxious to build on these first steps and address international concerns about the country’s ethnic tensions—particularly the plight of the country’s stateless ethnic-Rohingya Muslims, who won’t be attending the peace conference—before she visits the U.S. in September. The Rohingya aren’t attending because the government doesn’t consider them to be Myanmar nationals.
Other ethnic groups might not be there, either. Three groups, the Kokang militia, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army, have said they wish to attend, but Myanmar’s army insists they disarm first—what could be an impossible request, in the eyes of the insurgents.
Wan Wansai, a political activist from Shan state, said Myanmar’s army should wipe the slate clean and declare a unilateral cease-fire to allow all the warring parties to participate. Last year, the army signed a truce with eight of the largest groups after lengthy negotiations.
“It is a must, a necessary step,” he said, but also a step that might be a little too far for the army. Military leaders couldn’t be reached for comment.
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