Introduction: The Contemporary Impasse
With the Union Peace Conference, known as the “21st Century Panglong”, rescheduled to start on 24 May, we are about to revisit some highly sensitive issues in Myanmar’s recent past that were very wrongly handled at the time. If the forthcoming conference is to right the historical wrongs that have since haunted us, it is essential that all sides in our country’s impasse look back to history and re-assess the reasons for the legacies of conflict and state failure that have long held back national progress. Seventy years after the Panglong agreement in February 1947, nation-building is still an unfinished process, ethnic conflict and human rights violations are continuing, and many of the political and economic challenges have deepened after more than half a century of military rule.
Since the advent to government of the National League for Democracy last year, there have been hopes that the country is on the brink of national peace and long-needed reforms. In reality, the experiences of the past 12 months have shown that the administrative structures of the new government represent a “hybrid” system between the NLD and the national armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, which continues to wield effective decision-making power over many aspects of national life. There can be no doubt that the political climate has changed considerably since the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein came to power in 2011, but warning signs are now increasing that, despite the NLD’s landslide election victory, the party is unable to usher in the democratic reforms that it promised in its campaign manifesto. The continuity in Tatmadaw domination, which began with a military coup in 1962, is not ended.
There are two main obstacles to political breakthroughs at present: the constitution and the failure to achieve nationwide peace. The two issues are closely related. The inability of the NLD to rewrite the constitution, make political amendments or bring about national reconciliation through peace negotiations are anchored in the Tatmadaw-drafted constitution of 2008. This is not by chance. The constitution was deliberately drawn up in ways that preserve the Tatmadaw’s supremacy in national politics by being reserved 25% of all seats in the legislatures as well control of three key ministries: home, defence and border affairs. Furthermore, constitutional amendments are only possible with the endorsement of more than 75% of parliamentary votes, meaning that the constitution can never be amended without military consent.
Similar impediments face the national peace process, which has lost momentum during the past year. In an important change in policy, the previous government of the Union Solidarity and Development Party-Tatmadaw called for a nationwide peace process in 2011 after recognising that development and national prosperity cannot be achieved without ending the country’s long-running civil wars. However, the haste to produce a concrete sign of progress before President Thein Sein left office resulted in a partial Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015, which only eight armed organisations signed. The remaining thirteen refused, including several of the most influential forces in the country. In January 2016, the outgoing government attempted to jump-start talks with a “Union Peace Conference”, but it was clear that progress was already slowing.