More of the Same at the Latest Union Peace Conference

August 29th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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“citizens of Myanmar to live in harmony; each nationality must have equality in terms of rights, freedom and authority, and respect the identities of others.”

Sai Nyunt Lwin, Vice-Chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy

The fourth session of the Union Peace Conference (UPC), or 21st Century Panglong Conference  held in Myanmar[1] aimed at furthering the peace process ended on 21 August, 2020, with little substance or genuine achievement. In fact, given the hectoring tone of Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and the lack of inclusion of key actors, it is clear that the peace process is at an impasse despite the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-proclaimed success of a supposed agreement on a federal union.

The latest iteration of the UPC was held over three days in Naypyidaw, with opening speeches from State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, Min Aung Hlaing, and leader of the Restoration Council of Shan State, General Yawdserk. The speeches themselves reflect some of the key problems of the peace process. Perhaps in a symbol of the history of Bamar state-building since independence in 1948, it was telling that one of the key ethnic leaders, Yawdserk, was not permitted to give his speech in his own language – Shan, despite the fact that Burmese language copies of his speech had been pre-prepared for distribution. He was forced to give the speech in Burmese, a language that he is not comfortable in speaking. This, quite frankly, was disgraceful, and speaks volumes of the Bamar-centric mindset of the central government and military that refuses to acquiesce to ethnic demands for equality.

Min Aung Hlaing’s speech was full of condescension and was an insult to the ethnic nationalities’ generations-long armed struggle for equality, as well as a firm defence of the Myanmar military. He resolutely defended the military-drafted 2008 Constitution that concentrates power in the centre at the expense of ethnic communities and entrenches the role of the Myanmar military itself in key positions of power. He even had the temerity to assert that the 2008 Constitution promotes and protects ethnic rights, claiming that it is in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This, as any ethnic person could tell you, is total nonsense. He then went on to put blame on ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) claiming that ethnic actors are being dishonest when they outline the reasons for the conflict. He used a self-explanatory Myanmar phrase, stating that he “urge(s) them not to sell dog meat by displaying a goat head.” He also presented the military, as usual, as the defender of the nation, “EAOs are opposing the Union and successive governments. If one studies the history objectively, it can be seen that the Tatmadaw is protecting the Union and successive governments.” This typical hardline position is indicative of the mindset of the military – that it is the sole legitimate actor that is “keeping peace and stability” in Myanmar. Just how the devastation of ethnic lands with innumerable lives lost over generations at the hands of the violent persecution of the Myanmar military corresponds to peace and protection is not addressed.

Furthermore, the organization and structure of the UPC itself meant that key actors were not in attendance due to their deliberate exclusion. For example, the Arakan Army (AA), currently engaged in some of the most intense fighting with the Myanmar military, was not invited, while key northern EAOs did not attend out of solidarity with the AA. Furthermore, the role for civil society is much diminished, and reflects the broader trend within Myanmar as space for dissent and civil society organizations is becoming more and more restricted in the lead up to the 2020 general election in November.

The Myanmar military is the biggest obstacle to a successful peace process and the intransigence to reform, engage in substantive discussions, or to even recognize ethnic grievances as a first step, does not bode well for the future. For example, even a limited first step, of creating regional, state-level constitutions was rejected. As Vice-Chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, Sai Nyunt Lwin, stated at the UPC, “citizens of Myanmar to live in harmony; each nationality must have equality in terms of rights, freedom and authority, and respect the identities of others.” Yet for such harmony to occur, the Myanmar military must step back from political life by acquiescing to amendment of the 2008 Constitution, agreeing to a peace accord in which the principles of democracy and federalism are truly embodied, and cooperate with international accountability mechanisms for the decades of harm it has inflicted upon innocent people. The UPC is nowhere near that, unfortunately and international actors and peace donors that are pouring money into this failed process must realize that they are doing nothing more than supporting the violent state-making of the Myanmar military, not building peace.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”