On a trip to China this month, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s ex-political prisoner turned de facto leader, outlined her greatest ambition for her country: “To achieve peace and unity among the different peoples of our union.”
On Wednesday that process begins with the opening of the Union Peace Conference, a major event aimed at ending decades of violence between the Myanmar Army and various ethnic armed groups that has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
It is the biggest challenge yet for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy Party since their landslide election victory last November. Conflicts continue across the country and, according to the UN, 240,000 people have been displaced by violence in the past five years.
Adding to these problems, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake in central Myanmar on Wednesday killed several people and damaged dozens of ancient structures dotting the plains of Bagan.
Considerable weight is being thrown behind the five-day summit. More than 1,600 participants will converge on Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw for the first day, and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon will deliver an opening speech.
The conference has support from the international community. Perhaps most notable is China, not only because Myanmar’s neighbour is its most important economic partner, but also because many of the ethnic groups occupy territory along the China-Myanmar border and some, such as the United Wa State Army, were once armed by Beijing.
“This the grand opening,” U Zaw Htay, deputy director general in the office of Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw, told CBC News. “It is the very first step of uniting the country. It the first important step on the road of political dialogue.”
But the Union Peace Conference, commonly known as the 21st Century Panglong conference, faces a difficult journey.
Ethnic fracture lines
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is divided into eight main ethnicities and further split into 135 ethnic groups. Many of these ethnicities have been demanding greater autonomy since Myanmar achieved independence from the British nearly 70 years ago.
Indeed, the conference, orchestrated by Suu Kyi, will see the Nobel peace laureate follow in the footsteps of her father, independence hero General Aung San.
The original Panglong conference in 1947 secured the support of three ethnic groups in joining a united country and was a key step in securing independence.
The general was assassinated several months later, without seeing independence achieved in 1948. However, successive governments have gone back on their promises of self-determination. The result has been decades of sporadic conflicts.
International human rights organizations have documented abuses on both sides of these conflicts, but in particular allegations against the Myanmar Army include extrajudicial killings, rape and torture.
Army admits killing 5 villagers
The army, also known as the Tatmadaw, regularly rejects such allegations, though last month it did admit its soldiers had killed five villagers during an interrogation in the restive northern Shan state.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told CBC News, “The Tatmadaw’s crimes, and the failure of any Burma government to hold them accountable for those rights abuses, is the biggest single factor that fosters mistrust between the government and the ethnic groups, and until this is resolved, it’s hard to see how these talks will ultimately succeed.”
Other concerns have been raised about the peace process, such as the lack of women involved.
On Monday Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, said, “Unfortunately, women will be underrepresented in the coming discussions despite making up over half of the population in Myanmar.”
Robertson adds, “Far too often, Aung San Suu Kyi is the only woman in the room, and that needs to change for a culture of human rights and peace to take hold and end the abuses of the past.”
The conference is hailed as ethnically inclusive, however. Last year the previous military-backed government orchestrated a ceasefire agreement that was criticized in some quarters because only eight of 15 invited ethnic armed groups signed up.
For this conference all 21 ethnic armed groups were invited, although three were later barred because they refused to release a statement signalling their intent to lay down arms.
For many of those caught in the crossfire, their concerns are the ongoing violence that has kept them from their homes. On Monday, the Myanmar Army was reported to have attacked one ethnic armed group, the Shan State Army.
Last week, the Myanmar Army used artillery and helicopter gunships to pound positions near the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army, another ethnic armed group.
In a tea shop in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, Zing Hkang Pri told CBC News why she does not believe the peace process will bring change.
The 55-year-old fled her home in Gin Si village with her children in 2012, after a bomb landed 1.5 metres from her home. She now lives in a crowded camp for internally displaced people in Myitkyina.
“I don’t have confidence in the peace process,” she says. “People talk about peace, but there is still fighting in my village.”
This week, Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest at the hands of Myanmar’s military junta, begins the process that she hopes will prove Zing Hkang Pri and other doubters wrong and finally bring peace to her country.