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Who should be represented at the 21st century Panglong conference?

The current peace conference has raised questions about who should be at the table when key decisions are made about the country’s future. But this also leads us back to fundamental questions about what democracy, and representation, mean in Myanmar.

The 21st century Panglong conference has hardly been free from controversy. In the lead up to the conference media reports were filled with various groups expressing disappointment at the process. Even the name of the conference itself, with its overt references to the 1947 Panglong conference, has been questioned by many.

But underlying this process, and its disappointments, has been the question of representation. Who gets to ‘represent’? Who gets to sit at the table when key questions of peace and the country’s future are discussed?

A source of deep frustration for many civil society leaders, and political parties who were unsuccessful at the elections, is that they have been allowed only limited representation, or have been separated off into a possible ‘CSO forum’. So why was there such a contest over who fills the delegate positions at the conference?

I have been reading some ideas recently from Michael Saward, from University of Warwick, who talks about ‘representative claim’ and the challenges this presents to the way we think about democracy.

At the heart of the tensions around the current conference have been struggles over who represents and why. Saward argues that, contrary to popular democratic theory, being a political representative is not something that just flows simplistically out of being successful in elections.

Democratic representation is far more complex, and therefore a site of struggle.

Representatives – whether elected MPs, military leaders, non-state armed group leaders, civil society organisations, women, youth or political parties - are constantly making claims as to why they should have a seat at the table. Why should they be representatives?

All are trying to position themselves, but this is done in different ways.

Members of parliament might of course argue that they were successful in the elections. But they might also highlight that they were previously political prisoners, or that they demonstrated commitment to the cause in other ways, and therefore they should be able to represent citizens.

Armed group leaders might argue that they have been flying the flag of ethnic rights, risking their lives (and also carrying weapons). Therefore they should be able to represent particular minority groups.

Civil society leaders might make different kinds of claims - that they have special experience or knowledge about particular communities and issues ‘on the ground’, that they are independent of ‘political’ interests, and therefore they should be representatives.

Finally, networks like the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process make other kinds of claims about representation. Amongst a range of other things, they might argue that women and girls are half of the population, therefore there should be more female representatives at the negotiating table.

Underlying many of the frustrations leading up to the peace conference have been struggles over who has a genuine ‘representative claim’.

So what does this mean, not just for the 21st century Panglong conference, but for Myanmar’s democracy itself. This struggle will almost certainly be a recurring theme as Myanmar deals with all kinds of other peace and development issues.

At one level, surely success in the elections is a legitimate claim to being a representative. But, as Saward suggests, it is not the only one. The leaders of the NLD need to accept that they don’t have a monopoly over legitimate representative claims.

The challenging part will be sifting through other claims and deciding which ones are legitimate, and which are not.

It could be tempting to see all of struggles in the lead up to 21st century Panglong as deeply concerning for Myanmar.

But Saward is more upbeat about this kind of contest over representative claims. He thinks that these kinds of struggles are actually enlivening for democracy.

What we are seeing might be the very kinds of struggles that make democracy. Perhaps it is when they disappear that we need to worry.

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