The Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong is scheduled to be held in Nay Pyi Taw from August 19-21. The Northern Alliance, including the Arakan Army, was invited to previous Union Peace Conferences, but this time, the government has said it will not invite the ethnic armed group, which it has designated as a terrorist organisation.

Fierce clashes have been ongoing between the military and Arakan Army in Arakan State, while nothing like these hostilities has occurred between the military and other armed organisations elsewhere in Myanmar over the same period. Fighting between the military and Arakan Army has been intensifying since late 2018, and military tensions continue to rise in Arakan State.

The number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Arakan State has climbed to nearly 200,000 due to the conflict. Civilian casualties in the country’s west have also been on the rise. The government’s decision not to invite the Arakan Army to the latest iteration of the Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong has become a sorrowful matter for Arakanese people, who want peace and stability amid the ongoing hostilities between two sides that have never seemed further from a truce.

You might not know it from where we find ourselves today, but the government has held peace negotiations with the Northern Alliance, including the Arakan Army (AA), several times. Though clearly those talks have not borne fruit, this not-too-distant history shows that if there is a will, there is indeed a way.

While prospects for peace in Arakan State seem dim at the moment, an AA invite to the upcoming Union Peace Conference may be the best chance for a reset. It would be regarded as a constructive sign for the bilateral relationship, even if AA representatives were to have no chance to formally contribute to the conference discussions.

If the AA is not invited, uncertainty surrounds whether its fellow Northern Alliance members — the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA, or “Kokang army”) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) — will attend the conference or opt out in solidarity with its spurned Arakanese counterparts. The cascading problems that this could pose for each of their bilateral relations with the military and government are evident.

Myanmar’s general election is set to take place nationwide on November 8. Political parties are currently busy working on putting forward candidate lists and policy platforms ahead of the vote. But there are valid concerns that Arakan State will become an asterisk in this upcoming election if constituencies in the state are unable to vote due to the Tatmadaw-AA conflict, which continues to disrupt daily life for many in the affected townships. 

Even if voting is nominally allowed to proceed across the whole of Arakan State, without a stated commitment from both sides to abstain from fighting over the election period, there is no doubt that many voters will stay home on election day out of fear for their own safety.

The 2020 poll is one of numerous good reasons for both sides to agree to a ceasefire — at least covering the election period, but ideally a more enduring accord that would help the region focus on its battle with the coronavirus pandemic and a host of other pressing matters that the conflict has diverted attention from. 

The simple fact of the matter is that the current conflict in Arakan State has taken place almost entirely during the ruling National League for Democracy’s term in office. From a purely political standpoint, it would behoove the administration to seek peace as it courts voters ahead of November 8, and what better way to signal an earnest desire to end conflict in western Myanmar than to bring both of the belligerents to the Panglong table.

The NLD campaigned in 2015 on a platform that emphasised peace as its top priority. As the election approaches, the party should put the Arakan Army on the guest list for next week’s Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong.

Not only is it the politically wise choice, it’s a potentially life-saving gesture. Is there any better reason to extend an invite than that?

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