21 Century Panglong Conference: A step towards peace?

15 August 2016


Almost everyone in Burma is familiar with the Panglong Conference of 1947. Schoolbooks portrayed it as the moment when the country’s entire ethnic group came together to join a union after gaining independence from the British colonial rule. In reality, however, the political outcome was quite different. One month after the conference, its main initiator and Burma’s independence hero- General Aung San – was assassinated. After the failed conference, tensions grew between the demand for regional autonomy from the different ethnic groups and the aim to build  a centralized government which led the country to the world’s longest running civil war

By the end of August 2016, the new civilian government under the leadership from Aung San Suu Kyi will have held the “21st Century Panglong Conference” aiming to fulfill the initial conference aim of a unified nation. However, after decades of civil war and ethnic violence, most non-Burmese groups such as the Shan, Kachin, Chin, Karen, Mon or Rakhine do not trust the government or military which is a huge challenge for the civil government. It is important to remember that it is impossible for a single political event to rebuild that trust. Hence, the 21st Century Panglong Conference should not be overestimated and rather be perceived as a further step in the difficult process of nation building.

The question of who to include in the conference is central for any future political discussions. After six decades of civil war there are already significant strides towards ending the fighting, such as the signing of bilateral ceasefires and initiating joint negotiations on a national agreement. However, there is still a lack of clarity about the further implementation since the text of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was agreed between all 15 warring groups, but only signed by eight groups in October 2015. The other seven, especially key rebel armies that control the most territory and arms – the Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army and United Wa State Army- refused to sign.

Until now it is unclear to what extend those groups will participate in the peace conference. Furthermore, it is necessary to extend the list of current participants, which is mainly based on ethnicity and include other marginalized groups such as religious and sexual minorities. Examples of other post conflict transformations, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, showed clearly that this is a necessary step to create a more just society. A further main issue will be the demand of the nation’s frontier states and different ethnicity for an increase of power in the shape of more control over their economic and political affairs. Here, federalism could be the key to de-escalate tensions between the different ethnic groups and the central government.

However, a key player in this process is the Burmese military which is constitutionally entitled to 25 percent of parliamentary seats. It is quite unrealistic that the military will give up the control over the Kachin state, since they gain a profit about $31 Billion  through the extraction and trade of jade, teak and other materials in the resource-rich borderland (Read more on Joshua Colebourne’s recent blog).

Official production of Burma's jade sector was estimated by Global Witness to be worth $31bn (£23.5bn) in 2014. Yet the poverty-wracked populations of jade-producing states have not seen these vast profits. Washington Post/Getty Images.
Official production of Burma’s jade sector was estimated by Global Witness to be worth $31bn (£23.5bn) in 2014. Yet the poverty-wracked populations of jade-producing states have not seen these vast profits. Washington Post/Getty Images.

A further risk is that decentralisation could reinforce secessionism.  Many border regions have already significant military force and with further political power this could easily turn into claims for separation. Here, the aim will be to connect peripheral regions to the economic core and spread the nation’s now burgeoning foreign direct investment outward. While infrastructure development and resource extraction take place in the border regions, the local population is most of the time excluded from benefits. Thousands have been forcefully displaced or relocated, loosing livelihoods with insufficient compensation and finding themselves at risk of violence and abuse due to increased military presence in the regions (Read the HART report here).

Other examples in history showed that post-conflict transformation and the process of nation building is one of the most difficult challenges for countries. Here, time and patience are necessary pre-requisites for a successful outcome. Hence, single events should not be overestimated and rather be perceived to be part of a long chain of events. Matthew Walton, a Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese studies at University of Oxford, recommends  “reconceptualising the Panglong conference as an institutionalized process which needs to be continually and actively constructed rather than achieved through a single event. This would give the country the opportunity to build trust between estranged groups and create a more inclusive and just union.”

This might be a good suggestion helping Myanmar  to use the spirit of Panglong to achieve sustainable peace.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw on Tuesday meeting with the eight ethnic armed groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement


Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

Additional Information: The excerpt image is from the historical Panglong Conference 1947.

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