It was presumptuous on the part of the Myanmar authorities to have packaged last weekend&’s peace talks with the ethnic groups as a landmark event under the new dispensation. Perhaps a little too much was expected at the threshold. As it turned out, the “historic talks” hit the reefs on the second day with one of the most heavily armed ethnic groups storming out of the conference hall at Naypidaw. It was the nature of the recognition accorded to the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army that appears to have punctured what was hailed as the “best chance in a generation” to end the ethnic strife.
That strife is likely to fester for some time yet with no indication of an attempt to address the disaffection of the Rohingya Muslims, a stateless group on Myanmar&’s border with Bangladesh. At another remove, Wa, whose potential for violence is considerable, had somewhat grudgingly agreed to participate in the conference following “pressure” from China and discussions with Suu Kyi. Its opposition to the meeting stemmed from its claim that it had concluded an agreement with the military government way back in 1989, reaffirming its lack of faith in the country&’s tryst with democracy. That Beijing had to exercise its persuasive powers vis-a-vis this ethnic segment would suggest that it still wields influence in the domestic affairs of Myanmar.
This time around, the irritant was Wa&’s degree of participation; it was informed ahead of the conference that it would not be allowed to make a presentation. It appears that the government had effected a fine distinction between being allowed to participate and not “present”, to summon seminar jargon.
That calculated distinction – to which Suu Kyi must have been privy – was formalised when the Wa delegation was given “observer” badges instead of the ones that would have entitled them to address the “landmark conference”. Not to put too fine a point on it, the group was discriminated against and for which no reason has as yet been proffered. The peace negotiator, Khin Zaw Oo, has attributed the fiasco to what he calls a “misunderstanding”, a strained excuse that shall cut no ice. The group was accredited only as “observers”, which in itself falls short of full recognition. And if indeed, as reports suggest, Suu Kyi had persuaded Wa to attend the meeting, she must have been aware of the very possible discrimination. The walkout, therefore, was a stout expression against the treatment accorded to the group. In the net, a major conference convened soon after the National League of Democracy assumed power has come a cropper. A front-row seat without the right to speak means nothing. Suu Kyi will now be expected to be suitably bold to speak up on behalf of the Rohingyas.