At Burma’s latest country-wide peace conference last month, participants made some progress toward broad agreements that can help end the country’s decades of ethnic conflicts. The talks advanced toward ideas for the country’s future in matters such as politics, social matters, the economy and principles for environmental policies. But not security.

A Shan State Army - South soldier walks through Bang Laem Village, Shan State, Burma. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Adam Dean
A Shan State Army - South soldier walks through Bang Laem Village, Shan State, Burma. (The New York Times/Adam Dean)

The talks on security arrangements deadlocked, underscoring that the peace process in Burma (Myanmar) faces its toughest challenge in shaping the country’s future military and security forces. The breakdown was a sign of the deep mistrust on security issues between the military, which ruled the country for five decades, and more than 20 ethnic minority groups that have fought long-running guerrilla wars for greater rights or autonomy.

To prevent this deadlock from undermining the peace process, all sides should slow down the talks on security and lay better foundations for a dialogue. Before attempting further nationwide (or, as Burma calls them, “union-level”) talks on how to shape the military, participants should consider stepping back to conduct a series of local and state-level talks with wider participation than has been allowed so far, notably to include civilians, women and youth.

Burma calls its talks the Union Peace Conference. (It also uses the title “21st Century Panglong Conference,” evoking the 1947 meeting at the town of Panglong between key ethnic groups and Aung San, the country’s leader in seeking independence from British rule.) Last month’s session of the conference held discussions on five themes: security, political, economic, social and environmental (including land rights) matters.

Amid the progress in other areas, the talks on security had to be shut down. A key reason is that, on the other themes, the peace process requires that these “union-level” talks be prepared by prior dialogues at local levels—those of the ethnic states or regions. But no such lower-level preparation has been permitted on security issues.

The security discussions at the Union Peace Conference included representatives of the government, military, parliament, political parties and the armed groups of the eight ethnic minorities that since 2015 have signed a cease-fire agreement with the government. The topic that led to deadlock was the principle that a future, peaceful Burma should have “only one Tatmadaw (military).”

The Burmese military (which remains politically powerful under a constitution that still guarantees it a quarter of seats in parliament) insisted on the absolute unity of all military structures. The government’s representatives argued for an eventual civilian, democratic control of the military by elected governments. Ethnic armed groups called for a federalized military system in parallel with a federal democracy. Amid deadlock, participants suspended the security talks only two days into the six-day conference.

The way to resume these talks, establish a true dialogue and strengthen Burma’s peace process overall, is to step back and begin more basic discussions about the broad security needs of Burma’s people. As prescribed by the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, Burma’s government should organize these local-level talks at venues favored by the various ethnic communities. These local dialogues should include all the current participant groups, as well as civilian community members, notably women and youth, who so far have been excluded from the process. Only that broad, inclusive dialogue can begin to build the trust that will be needed for further talks on how to shape Burma’s future military structure.

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