Realization of comprehensive Panglong Convention needs Tatmadaw's open-minded endorsement

Quite a lot of activities by influential actors, prior to the start of 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC), have been taking place to empower and energize the gathering to be successful, although the military faction within the government might be having a second thought to the all-inclusiveness approach of the de facto country's leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

While not directly involved in 21CPC, the naming of former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan to head the  newly formed Arakan State Advisory Commission of fact-finding and suggestions to the “Rohingya” issue could be seen as a well-timed move to show the government's change of approach, from the consideration policy of purely domestic to international concern, complimenting its peace process as a whole.

Furthermore, the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to attend the opening of 21CPC; the Chinese diplomat who had enthusiastically participated in Mai Ja Yang ethnic leadership meeting, openly urging the UWSA and Mongla or NDAA to attend the Panglong Convention recently; the excluded three Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) – Kokang or Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Palaung or Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Arakan Army (AA), that the military (Tatmadaw) is keen to sideline, joint statement that they would attend the said meeting if invited; coupled with head of the MNDAA Peng Jaisheng's public statement and endorsement on 15 August, enthusiastically hinting to participate; and of course, the pending and unclear undertaking of the military in relation to this unresolved issue, on whether the 3 EAOs would be allowed to participate; all should be viewed within the context of 21CPC.

In addition, Roland Kobia, the European Union’s  ambassador to Burma, told journalists in Mandalay on 23 August that dialogue is an  important element of sustainable peace in the country.

“The EU’s concern is to at least give a chance to dialogue. If they [the ethnic groups] are  invited to discuss at the table, and when they are around the table, they can agree and  disagree, and at least, they will have a chance to dialogue,” said the ambassador, according to a recent report of The Irrawaddy.

“If Myanmar wants to have a democratic system, it needs to end the conflicts. Democracy is  incompatible with war. To make this happen, all‐inclusiveness is important,” Kobia correctly stressed.

Apart from such a host of conflicting interest and intense lobbying by various interest groups, the some 70 unelected political parties, which were given a five person representative quota, were furious for such small participation count and resolved to boycott the gathering.

According to Saw Than Myint, Chairman of the Federal Union Party, an alliance of sixteen ethnic political party, told Radio Free Asia, on 23 August, that after the meeting was held at the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre in Yangon by some 30 political parties.

They reportedly resolved to boycott the 21CPC, due to the small quota representation of five, for some 70 political parties that failed to get elected in last November nationwide elections. Apart from that, putting them into the category of appropriate persons ought-to-attend belittled their standing of being political parties and could not be accepted. Accordingly, a statement on their rejection and boycott by the 30 political parties was said to be eventually issued.

Also at this writing, it seems that out of the twenty-one EAOs, seventeen are almost sure to attend, according to Salai Lian Hmung of Chin National Front (CNF), when briefing the journalists at the end of the meeting between Suu Kyi and the signatory eight EAOs, on 24 August.

On 25 August, according to a statement released by the United nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) at the conclusion of a two-day “emergency meeting” in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it is committed to attend the 21CPC.

Parallel to this worry that the gathering would not be all-inclusive, the ongoing fighting in resources rich Kachin State, Hpakant area and Tatmadaw's offensives on KIA positions, including recent heavy artillery fires around the vicinity of it's headquarters, also could derail the peace process looms quite large. All these don't bode well for the forthcoming national reconciliation gathering to be successful.

And perhaps to make a last minute plea to all warring parties, EAOs and as well the Tatmadaw, Suu Kyi when meeting the signatory eight EAOs on 24 August urged them that to seriously consider  because it would not be known, for how long the country would have to wait (for peace) further and to what extend it could be hurt, if the peace convention is not successful.

She stressed: “A country's history is very lengthly. If an opportunity is missed, our times and abilities invested in the peace process would have been wasted.”

She added that all should ask critical question on why we failed to build a lasting peace and which side has failed to bring about peace to the country, emphasizing that if both sides apply fair thinking to these questions, trust can be established.

While her plea would be heeded or not remains unclear, especially by the Tatmadaw faction of her government - that is to let the three EAOs participate and stop the offensives in Kachin State, the convention is just going to be an “opening” and not yet a “substantive negotiation process” that would bring about the conflict resolution. Because the framework for political dialogue still need to be worked out, including the EAOs' preferred tripartite position against the military's inclined seven parties participation stance.

The ethnic nationalities uphold the decades-long United Nations endorsed tripartite dialogue which includes, the government-parliament-military,  the EAOs and all the registered political parties, while the military would like to hold on to the seven party arrangement, as was agreed in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed late last year with the eight EAOs, out of twenty-one.

Regarding the immediate, short term issue of all-inclusiveness, on the part of the military, it is actually not hard to bridge, as it is just a matter of some wordings that needs to be ironed out, according to Mongla's spokesman Kyi Myint.

Talking on the sideline, on the eve of China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang visit to woo United Wa State Army (UWSA) and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA),on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, to take part in the 21CPC, scheduled to begin on August 31, Kyi Myint downplayed the significance of the Burma Army’s demand, which does not entail actual, immediate disarmament but a commitment to do so at an unspecified point in the future: the current dispute between the Burma Army and the three armed groups is “a disagreement over words,” and could readily be solved through “negotiation,” according to The Irrawaddy recent report.

Reportedly, Sun Guoxiang, who attended the ethnic armed groups in the Kachin State border town of Mai Ja Yang in July, was able to secure the agreement of two armed groups to participate in the 21CPC.

Given such situation, even if the military faction reluctantly gives in to the all inclusiveness political position of Suu Kyi, a host of questions on core issues still remains to be resolved. But all would boil down to the fact if national equality, ethnic rights of self determination and democratization could be worked out satisfactorily among all the ethnic groups, Bamar included, as this would determine whether or not the lasting peace and political settlement could be achieved.

But first thing first and let us just hope that the forthcoming 21CPC will be all-inclusive,  comprehensive enough and that the Tatmadaw would cooperate and not place any barrier to the planned gathering.

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Salween River is not for sale, says Shan NGOs

Shan civic groups held a press conference in Bangkok today, claiming that the Burmese government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is working secretly in support of dam construction on the Salween River, despite knowing that the mega-project will greatly affect many people.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) in the Thai capital, Sai Khur Hseng of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization and spokesperson for this morning’s joint-statement, said that the new Burmese government has tried to implement the hydropower projects without caring about the suffering of ordinary people. 

“While all eyes were on the Irrawaddy- Myitsone dam, Burma has quietly sold off the Salween to China,” said Sai Khur Hseng. “We fear there has been a trade-off.” 

“Amidst the war, Australia’s Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) has been carrying out an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the Naung Pha Dam in secrecy, clearly to avoid the widespread grassroots protests that blocked its ESIA last year for another Chinese-backed dam on the Salween – the giant Mong Ton Dam in southern Shan State,” said the statement.

The civic groups said that on August 5, more than 200 residents Tangyan Township – an area in line to be flooded by dam construction – staged a protest.  Also, on August 21, about 60 community leaders from Ho Pang, Kunlong, Tangyan, Hsenwi and Lashio, including local Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) MPs, held a demonstration against the plans in Hsenwi Township. 

Representing environmental organization International Rivers, Pianporn Deetes said that the Thai government has been attempting to foster good relations with Naypyidaw, and had also done so with the previous Burmese administration, led by President Thein Sein, in a bid to push forward its agenda of building dams on the Salween River. 

The 3,000-kilometre Salween River, officially known in Burmese as the Thanlwin, is listed as the 25th longest waterway in the world, beginning in the Tibetan plateau, passing through southern China, Burma and the Thai border, before draining in the Andaman Sea.
“The Thai government is seeking to build at least three dams on the Salween River, including the Hatgyi Dam and Mong Ton Dam,” she said. “If the dams are built, there will be flooding in central Shan State.” 

She continued: “About a million Shan people had to migrate to Thailand due to forced relocation by the Burma army in the past 20 years. These people have to become migrant workers who work in construction sites. If the dams are built, they cannot return home because their houses will be under water. Therefore, they have to live in Thailand permanently.” 

Thai environmental activist Pianporn Deetes urged the hydropower investors, as well as both the Thai and Burmese governments, to deeply consider the local people’s needs when the dams are built.
“There will huge impact on the environment,” she added. “But, more importantly, there will be a huge impact on the Shan community as well as human rights abuses.” 

Tuesday’s joint-statement read: “Apart from concerns that the dam will cause increased fighting and displacement, villagers are fearful of dam breakage in this earthquake and flood-prone area.
“Ho Pang, the main Wa township to be impacted by the Naung Pha Dam, has suffered flooding and several earthquakes in the last few weeks. Ho Pang lies on the Nam Ting fault line.” 

Nang Charm Tong, a Shan activist and spokesperson for today’s event, said “As they [the Burmese government] have announced that there will be no gain in terms of electricity, they should not build dams on the Salween.”

She added: “We strongly oppose this activity.”

On August 18, Shan Herald reported that 26 Shan-based organizations had sent an open letter to Burma’s State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, during her visit to China. The groups had demanded that the Burmese government immediately stop all the hydropower projects on the Salween River.

The blueprints for a hydropower project on the Salween include a series of dams in Shan State: the 7,100 megawatt Mong Ton Dam; the 1,400 MW Kunlong Dam; the 1,200 MW Nong Pha Dam; and the 200 MW Manntaung Dam. The project would also include plans for a 4,000 MW Ywathit Dam in Karenni State, and the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam in Karen State. Investors in the projects include the China Three Gorges Corporation, a Chinese state-owned firm which operates the world’s largest dam on the Yangtze River. The other foreign firms involved in the Salween project are: Sinohydro; China Southern Grid; and a subsidiary of the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.
Local partners are the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power and the International Group of Entrepreneurs (IGE), a firm controlled by the offspring of the late Aung Thaung, the long-time industry minister under Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s military regime.
According to the related contracts, when the projects are completed, 90 percent of the electricity generated is to be exported to China and Thailand.

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Aung San Suu Kyi's China visit generates optimism with mixed results

As Aung San Suu Kyi's first visit, outside of the ASEAN countries, her call on China is an important undertaking in shaping, reiterating and confirming Burma's – also known as Myanmar - neutral stance, while reflecting and weighing the pro and contra of a pending and some gearing-up, future economic projects together with China and at the same time, soliciting China's help in resolving the ethnic armed conflict along the two countries' border.

One common understanding coming out of  this is the Chinese and as well Suu Kyi are of the same opinion, that absence of armed conflict and peaceful atmosphere are needed, if economic development benefiting both countries is to be achieved.

And thus, no wonder, Suu Kyi's visit although a first courtesy call as a State Counsellor – in fact the de facto leader of the National League for Democracy government – is more focused or inclined to find ways on how to iron out out a more acceptable workable condition, where bilateral economic projects are concerned and how the Chinese could be helpful in ending the armed ethnic conflict along the two countries' common border.

Let us take a close look on if Suu Kyi and the Chinese were able to advance their mutual benefit on all the scores mentioned.

Joint Statement

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, at the invitation of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, paid an official visit to China from 17th to 21st August. During the visit, she met Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang  to promote bilateral relations and friendship. She also met with Zhang Dejiang of Chairman of Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. During her visit to China, the Joint Press Release between Myanmar and China was issued as follows:

·         The two sides would carry forward their traditional friendship and advancing their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership in the new era; 
·         Affirmed that they would continue to uphold good neighbourly policy toward each other, the interests of the two peoples, adopt a strategic and long-term perspective, and work to achieve new progress in their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership;
·         Agreed to promote rule of law in the border areas, and to enhance trade, economic cooperation and various forms of friendly exchanges that would contribute to the well-being of the peoples, agreed to maintain close coordination on global issues such as climate change, natural disasters and communicable diseases;
·         Myanmar welcomed China’s “Belt and Road” initiative and the initiative of Bangladesh-China-India- Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor and thanked China for its active and constructive support to Myanmar’s efforts for national reconciliation and peace process; and
·         State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi conveyed the cordial invitation of President U Htin Kyaw to Chinese President Xi Jinping to pay a state visit to Myanmar. (Source: The Global New Light of Myanmar – 20 August 2016)

Myitsone and Salween Dams

While the controversial Myitsone Dam issue was not mentioned and touched, at least in the joint-statement between China and Burma's State Counsellor, the intense lobbying piece started to appear in China's newspaper Global Times, considered to be the mouthpiece of the government.

The piece titled “Suu Kyi visit raises dam project hopes”, written by Yu Ning, arguing, “The Myitsone project will boost local economic and social development and contribute to addressing the power shortage that has plagued 70 percent of Myanmar's cities, towns and villages.”

She added, “Based on the current agreement, Myanmar will get 10 percent of the electricity produced for free and the dam will become the sole property of Myanmar decades later. As about 60.7 percent of the return on investment will go to Myanmar, it's estimated that Myanmar would receive roughly $17 billion from the  project over the contracted 50-year period. This revenue, if properly used, will inject new impetus to vitalize the backward economy of northern Myanmar.”

Meanwhile, connected to this controversial Myitsone Dam, back at home, the anti-Salween Dam movement is also gaining momentum. People have been correctly asking as to, while the controversial Myitsone Dam has been taken seriously, forming commission to study the project, due to the outcry of public anti-dam stance,  why has the NLD regime given a go ahead construction, where the damming of Salween river is concerned?

Last Wednesday, on 17 August, twenty-six Shan-based organizations sent an open letter to  State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, calling on her government to put an immediate halt to hydroelectric dam projects on the Salween River.

The blueprints for a hydropower project on the Salween include a series of dams in Shan State: the 7,100 megawatt Mong Ton Dam; the 1,400 MW Kunlong Dam; the 1,200 MW Nong Pha Dam; and the 200 MW Manntaung Dam. The project would also include plans for a 4,000 MW Ywathit Dam in Karenni State, and the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam in Karen State. Investors in the projects include the China Three Gorges Corporation, a Chinese state-owned firm which operates the world’s largest dam on the Yangtze River. The other foreign firms involved in the Salween project are: Sinohydro; China Southern Grid; and a subsidiary of the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.

On August 12, the Burmese government, which is led by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, announced that the hydropower projects on the Salween River will be continued as the country is in need of energy.

The letter pointed out: “The unilateral decision to go ahead with the Salween dams before political dialogue about federalism has even begun, is depriving ethnic communities of their right to decide about natural resources in their areas, and indicates a lack of sincerity towards the peace process. Coming only weeks before the planned “21st Century Panglong Conference,” this green light to the Salween dams is highly worrying.”

It stressed: “ That the Salween river basin has been a conflict area for decades, where the Burma Army has been relentlessly expanding and committing systematic atrocities against villagers in its attempts to control ethnic lands and resources. Pushing ahead with these unpopular dams will inevitably lead to more Burma Army militarization, increased conflict, and ongoing atrocities.”

According to the related contracts, when the projects are completed, 90 percent of the electricity generated is to be exported to China and Thailand.

Environmentalist Sai Khur Hseng said that the planned dam projects are in active earthquake areas.

“Yesterday, there was an earthquake on the Nam Ting river [near the site of Kun Long Dam],” he said. “If this dam is built, the people who live along the river in Tanyan Township will be heavily impacted,” according to the recent report of SHAN.


Chinese involvement in Burma's peace process has been there since the beginning of the previous President Thein Sein's initiatives to end the ethnic conflict in 2011. But it is a welcome, additional move to have a formal endorsement with the promise to help peace prevail along the two countries' border and beyond.

According to Poe Than Gyaung, spokesman for the Communist Party of Burma, in his Radio Free Asia interview on 20 August, when asked about how much China could do to help with the peace process, replied that the solution would depend on the stakeholders within the country and whether the military wanted to stop fighting and have a desire to achieve peace. The Chinese could only do so much to persuade the parties involved to opt for peace, he stressed.

Closely connected to this is the all-inclusiveness problematic which the military is not reasonably cooperating  by side-lining the three Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) that it dislike for several reasons, even though Suu Kyi is keen to have it as all-inclusive as possible, regardless of whether the EAOs have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement or not.

Thus it could be said even if the Chinese could nudge the EAOs that it has influence to join the peace process, the military's stubbornness to exclude some of the EAOs could derail or create problems for the whole peace process and China won't be able to do much on this score.

Regarding the Myitsone Dam, it seems that Suu Kyi has been able to buy time until the Dam Commission files it's finding on 11 November and presumes that the Chinese would be acceptable to the suggestion made by the it.

All in all, the result of Suu Kyi's China visit could be said as having mixed results, as one billion Chinese Yuan (about 151 million dollars) to support Burma's growth and development has been given; an agreement to survey the feasibility study to construct Kunlong bridge; and promises to constructively cooperate in Burma's quest to achieve peace; while other economic bilateral projects that China is keen to undertake are still left unaddressed, at least publicly.

For now, optimism aside, China seems to be happy with its “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” approach and Suu Kyi is satisfied with her more “balanced relationship” undertaking vis a vis China, and what is going to come out of this in concrete terms is anybody's guess.

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Kokang leader throws weight behind Panglong Conference

The exiled leader of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Peng Jiasheng, released a statement last Monday, saying that the Kokang militia supported the new round of peace talks that are due to begin next week, negotiations which have been dubbed the “21st Century Panglong Conference.”

“It’s time to change from an out-of-date country to a developed country,” said the August 15 statement.

Peng Jiasheng, who is now 85 years old and lives in China’s Yunnan Province, stands accused by Burma’s military of igniting the conflict between Kokang rebels and government forces in February last year. The MNDAA, alongside its allies the Arakan Army (AA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), were refused seats at the peace talks table until now as they maintained hostilities against Burmese forces in the remote northeastern region of Shan State.

Burma’s military previously said the three ethnic armed groups would be excluded from any ceasefire initiatives until they had disarmed.

However, the new government in Naypyidaw, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, has shown a willingness to include all armed groups – whether they be signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement or not – in this new round of negotiations, which are due to begin in the capital on August 31.
According to political analyst Than Soe Naing, the MNDAA leader has changed his tune due to encouragement from Beijing. 

Last week, China’s President Xi Jingping hosted Burma’s State Counselor Suu Kyi, after which the United Wa State Army (UWSA) made a decision to attend the Panglong Conference. 

Than Soe Naing said he believes that if Suu Kyi’s government invites the MNDAA, AA and TNLA, they would “most definitely” join the conference. 

However, Khin Zaw Oo, the secretary of the Peace Commission, who also joined the official trip to China, stated that the MNDAA, TNLA and AA must first release a public statement saying they will disarm, before they can join the peace talks. 

On August 9, representatives of the three militias met for talks with a government peace delegation from the National Reconciliation and Peace Center on the issue of participation in the peace process.
The meeting was held in Mongla, the headquarters of the National Democratic Alliance Army, on the Sino-Burmese border. After the meeting, the secretary of the TNLA announced that their participation would depend on Burma’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
The so-called 21st Century Panglong Conference is slated to begin next Wednesday in the Burmese capital, where some 700 delegates from the military, government, parliament, political parties and ethnic groups will sit around a table to discuss the nature of future peace talks.

Hosted by Aung San Suu Kyi, this round of negotiations is being named after the 1947 Panglong Conference, when Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, sat for talks with representatives of the Chin, Kachin and Shan minority groups as the country prepared for independence from Britain.

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