Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured at the end of the last set of peace talks, in September 2016.

A third round of peace talks are taking place in Myanmar this week between armed ethnic groups and government forces, but the military has ruled out discussions on the autonomy that ethnic groups crave.

The six-day meeting, which has been dubbed the 21st century ‘Panglong Conference’ after the historic 1947 event when ethnic groups were first promised autonomy, is an attempt to end one of the world’s longest running civil wars. Among the ethnic groups are some which are majority Christian, such as the Karen and the Chin peoples.

The latest talks, which are taking place in the capital Naypyidaw, have been in the pipeline since the visit of Pope Francis in November last year.

But even before the conference started, the two sides were already at loggerheads, with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s army) saying there was no need for a separate discussion on the rights of ethnic groups, but that rather the focus should be on all citizens’ rights.

“But ethnic armed organisations insist that there must be [a separate discussion on] ethnic rights and minority rights. The two sides could not reach an agreement,” Dr. Tu Ja, the chairman of the Kachin Democracy Party, told the national news site The Irrawaddy.

The Kachin are one of Myanmar’s eight ethnic groups that petitioned for autonomy after the country gained independence following the Second World War. But the Panglong Agreement signed in 1947, promising all ethnic minorities a place in the new Union, fell apart after the leader at the time, the father of current State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated. Decades of civil war and ethnic rebellion followed, continued by some groups to this day.

“The Tatmadaw wants ethnic groups to promise they will never seek secession,” The Irrawaddy reported ahead of the talks, and “has refused to discuss self-determination as a federal issue at the conference if the ethnic armed groups do not make the promise”.

Meanwhile the army has blamed ethnic groups for the stalled peace talks. Defence Minister Sein Win told AFP that ethnic militias were not doing enough to stop the ongoing conflict, saying they “need to control their people. If their people have no discipline, problems can happen”.

No trust

Ahead of the conference, Bishop Francis Daw Tang, from Myitkyina in conflict-torn Kachin State, told the Catholic news agency UCAN that all parties needed to compromise in order to achieve peace and finally see the fulfilment of the Panglong Agreement. He also urged the army not to reinforce its troops in ethnic areas.

Thomas Muller, analyst at the World Watch Research unit of the charity Open Doors International, told World Watch Monitor that “peace talks only make sense when both sides can trust each other’s genuine interest in seeking peace”.

“Given the government army’s track record of dividing and conquering ethnic insurgencies, such trust is positively lacking in Myanmar,” he said. “In a cryptic way, this was confirmed by the Minister of Religion, and former army general, U. Aung Ko, who implied that the army was countering all efforts at taking effective action against radical Buddhist elements sowing religious discord.”

The army and radical monks

Following a violent campaign by the army last year against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya ethnic group in southwestern Rakhine state, causing around 700,000 people to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh, the military has stepped up its offensive in predominantly Christian northern Kachin state in recent months.

In its fight there against the Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar’s military has been accused of numerous atrocities against civilians including murder and rape, destroying villages and bombing churches.

Bob Roberts, member of the Faith Coalition to Stop Genocide in Burma and founder of a church in Texas, who recently visited Kachin, said there were comparisons to be made between Rakhine and Kachin: “Already, there has been murder, there has been rape; there has been all of these things. It has not yet gotten to the level of the Rohingya. But there is concern that it could, real easy.”

Roberts also reported that “in the last 18 months, they [the military] have bombed 60 churches … [and] they have put Buddhist pagodas in 20 of those sites to reclaim them”.

“The army and radical monks do work side by side,” Muller confirmed to World Watch Monitor last week. “The army uses the motive that the country is threatened by outside forces – Muslim, Western or others – and therefore finds radical groups like Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation [formerly known as Ma Ba Tha] quite handy. Preserving national unity means defending Buddhism as well; this is where they meet.”

An elderly Kachin woman looks for shelter after fleeing fighting between Myanmar's army and Kachin rebels in December 2011. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
An elderly Kachin woman looks for shelter after fleeing fighting between Myanmar’s army and Kachin rebels in December 2011. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

World Watch Monitor reported in 2012 that while the conflict is largely a struggle for self-determination, during which civilians are caught up in the crossfire, the Burman Buddhist-dominated troops are often accused of being harsher on Christian civilians than on their Buddhist counterparts.

Saw Tu Tu, at the time head of the Karen Refugee Committee, said some churches were attacked as a result of a misunderstanding. “Soldiers with the Karen National Liberation Army run to hilltops – that’s where churches are normally built – to take a strategic position when military personnel launch attacks on them,” Tu said. “And troops think the bullets are being fired from the church, and they retaliate.”

‘Distressing reports’

The military’s actions and support for radical Buddhist elements have raised questions about how much influence Aung San Suu Kyi has over the military and its leaders, with whom she shares power. “People lost their trust in the State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi because the people from the whole country elected the NLD [National League for Democracy, which Suu Kyi leads], the civilian government, to avoid wars and fighting,” women’s rights champion and youth movement leader Sut Seng Htoi told Reuters in May.

“Christian minorities continue to suffer from the raging war, especially in northern Kachin State, and experience has taught them not to expect much from the scheduled talks,” Muller said.

He added, however, that it was encouraging that the Chinese ambassador earlier this month “had linked economic development in the ‘One Belt, One Road’ framework [which seeks to re-open the Silk Road trade route that historically connected China with the West] with progress in the peace process. This is particularly encouraging since some of the ethnic insurgent armies allegedly obtain weapons from China”.

Meanwhile, on Monday (9 July) the European Union and Canada announced sanctions on seven Burmese military officials, including the general who was in charge of the military campaign in Rakhine state, Reuters has reported. In response, the army said it had removed two of the seven generals.

Muller, however, said the army’s actions in Kachin also necessitated wider international action, as thousands of lives have been lost and at least 120,000 people have been displaced in the decades-long conflict.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, told the UN Human Rights Council in her report on 27 June that since violence flared up again in Kachin in March, more than 13,000 people have fled their homes.

“There are distressing reports that fleeing civilians, including a number of children, were allegedly used by the military as human shields and minesweepers,” she said. “Thousands of villagers were forced to flee, only to be trapped in the forest without assistance, and in some villages affected by hostilities they were reportedly blocked from leaving by the military.”