NAYPYIDAW, Burma — When new peace talks opened here this week, in a country that has been torn by various forms of strife for more than six decades, they featured youthful entertainers in vibrant traditional dress from different regions of the country, soaring speeches, a stirring appeal for unity by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, representatives of most of the ethnic armed groups that have kept Burma on edge — and an inauspicious stumble right out of the gate.
Dubbed the 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference, it takes its name from the 1947 Panglong Conference, which led to an agreement on autonomy between Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, and several major ethnic groups. Aung San was assassinated later that year. Clashes erupted shortly after independence in 1948 and continue to this day.
“To end the civil war, to find the solution, this is the great question of Myanmar history,” U Hla Saw, a member of parliament for Rakhine State, said before the opening ceremony, using Burma’s official name. He was standing next to a display of drawings by cartoonists, all on the theme of peace.
The Burmese people, said Suu Kyi, long for peace. “To fulfill these hopes and to turn these dreams into reality is a huge responsibility," she said. "But huge is not to say heavy.”
But tensions, embarrassing moments and organizational bumbling plagued the first two days of the conference, including a lack of information about the schedule, a viral Facebook post about guests napping during proceedings, last-minute speaker reshuffles and paperwork mishaps that inadvertently insulted ethnic leaders by leaving their official ranks off ID cards. The Myanmar Times reported that one influential ethnic leader from Kachin State in the north was only added to the lineup of first-day speakers on the afternoon of the day before the conference began.
The second day of the conference was worse than the first. News broke that the country’s largest ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army, or UWSA, which controls a large swath of resource-rich territory on the border with China, was walking out. The reason? Their accreditation listed them as “observers,” not participants. They said they felt mistreated. Organizers scrambled to get them back, explaining in a news conference Thursday that it was simply an error as the group was not staying at the same area as other delegations and had been given different badges. Attempts to clear up the mess were not successful.
“Later, we learnt about the hiccup, so we were going to issue them with the correct passes in the evening," government peace negotiator Khin Zaw Oo was quoted as saying in the Democratic Voice of Burma. "But there must have been a misunderstanding.”
All is not lost. No one was expecting a major agreement to come out of the conference, which is built on a cease-fire deal signed between the former government and eight armed groups last year. Another round of meetings will occur again in six months, providing a chance for the handful of groups that did not attend and for the one that walked out to reconsider. The conference still has a few more days left, ending Sunday. But the friction shows how fragile the negotiations will be. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was present, and he said there was a long road ahead. He was right about that.