MYANMAR’S ETHNIC CONFLICT: Military playing hardball to derail peace negotiation process?

During the Water Festival – Sarngkyan in Shan, Thingyan in Burmese, and Songkran in Thai – quite a lot has happened. The war in Kachin State intensified; the International Criminal Court (ICC) tried to cover its jurisdiction over Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State even though the country is not a signatory of the Rome Statue; the UN Secretary-General named Myanmar Army or Tatmadaw as being party in the act of sexual violence; and lately, the presidential amnesty for thousands of prisoners, including political prisoners.

While most are bad news, except for the last one, from all the unpleasant ones, the intensified war in Kachin State, with extension into the northern Shan State, is the most crucial issue that needs to be tackled, if the country is to achieve peace, reconciliation and eventual progress and development.

Thus, the question arises as to why the concerned parties haven’t been able to stop the armed conflict or even de-escalate the situation, so that peace negotiation process can be given a chance.

Let us first look at the present situation in war-torn Kachin State.

Armed confrontation in Kachin State

With the end of the 17 years ceasefire coming to an end between  the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA) and the Myanmar Army, Military or better known as Tatmadaw, in 2011, as the latter demanded  that all ethnic armies must disarm, including the KIA, due to the fact that the constitution requires only one army in Myanmar. However, it was rejected and since then, the war has been going on and off,  while deliberation to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) has been also ongoing with only partial success.

8 Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) signed the NCA in October 2015, followed by another two in February this year. But the signatories ethnic fighting force is estimated to be only 20%, while the remaining 80% are non-signatory EAOs, with a large portion of the ethnic armies in active conflict with the Tatmadaw, notably in Shan and Kachin States.

The recent flare up and escalation of the conflict prompting the Tatmadaw to launch offensives in four different places are said to be: Laiza area and – KIA headquarters Laiza area in Momauk township; Brigade 2 and its areas – it is in the area around Awng Lawt village, east of Danai town, in Danai township; Battalion 11 – in Mogaung township and Myitkyina township (current battles rage between Namti and Kamaing are in Mogaung township); and Battalion 14 – in Danai township.

Determined to take over the Danai (also spell Tanai) to deprive the KIO from its financial sources, the Tatmadaw declared the area to be cleared distributing leaflets by helicopters in June 2017. Heavy fighting followed on and off until the end of the year, when the Tatmadaw launched its first large scale offensive in January 2018, capturing sizable territories from the KIA.

On  February 1, Tatmadaw representative Lt-General  Tun Tun Naung and delegation met KIO/KIA Chairman General N’Ban La in China’s Yunan Province, arranged by the good office of Chinese representative Sun Guoxiang, in order to de-escalate the armed conflict in Kachin State. But the meeting came to naught as the Tatmadaw demanded that the KIA to withdraw many of its Battalions, including the Danai-based Battalion 14, which the Kachin rejected.

Reportedly, in which was said to be a stormy meeting, the Tatmadaw asked the KIA to withdraw at least three battalions, including Battalion 14, which was in the Danai area, and Battalion 12 and Battalion 27 in the Mansi Township area or faced military offensives.

In March, the KIA withdrew from Danai area due to the heavy bombardment of the Tatmadaw using artillery and air power. This was followed by the KIA announcement of April 5 that all people residing in Danai area to leave the place not later than April 10, as it would launch guerrilla warfare to retake the area.

But even before deadline, on April 6, the KIA raided Tatmadaw  base in Hpakant Township killing 6 and wounding a dozen or so. It seems like in retaliation the Tatmadaw has launched massive military offensives in four places  simultaneously against the KIA.

As of this writing, a humanitarian catastrophe is in the making due to the ongoing armed conflict, “more than 2000 civilians from Tanai Township, Awng Lawt, Sut Ring Yang and Sut Ra Yang villages are now trapped in the jungle for 7 days. Security, food, rain coats and shelter are urgent need and there is no road access for any humanitarian organisations,” according to the appeal letter, on April 14, by Christian Churches Council, Tanai and Humanitarian Assistant Organisations to Chief Minister.

 

Conflict and latent conflict with other ethnic nationalities

Apart from the Tatmadaw’s massive offensives and counter-offensives, in guerrilla warfare mode, conducted by the KIA in Kachin State, with the extension of the adjacent northern Shan State, where the KIA also operates together with other EAOs under the Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B), the armed conflict in Karen State with the Karen national Union (KNU), a signatory of the NCA, is also in the making.

It all started out as the Tatmadaw carried out the upgrading of the unused dirt road of 15 miles between Kay Bu and Ler Mu Palaw villages in Papun township. While the Tatmadaw said this has to do with development of the area’s infrastructure for the benefit of the local people, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), armed wing of the KNU, is convinced that it is much to do with the Tatmadaw’s scheme to control  and encroach in the KNU’s area. Not surprisingly, armed conflict flared up as the KNLA tried to defend what its considered to be its turf that falls with the administrative area of its Brigade 5.

No serious firefight has been reported between the two adversaries since March when a number of skirmishes have been reported. According to Karen sources, some 800 Tatmadaw troopers are said to be camping within the Karen’s Brigade 5 area. An attempt to iron out the conflict earlier   was canceled by the Tatmadaw, as the Brigade 5 commander was not attending the meeting supposed to be held in Kyauk Kyi Township. The KNU, however, explained that the said commander is not part of the committee member that handles ceasefire-related matters for the whole KNLA, but a representative from Brigade 5 is also included in the committee.

And to complicate the matter more,  Saw O Moo, 42, an indigenous community leader working in environmental preservation, providing support to recently displaced people in his community, was shot dead late in the afternoon of April 5, while giving a lift to a KNLA soldier as he made his way home on his motorcycle, according to The Irrawadddy report. However, the Tatmadaw maintained that he was a KNLA soldier and was on a mission to carry out sabotage act against it.

On top of all these problems, the Tatmadaw regularly clashed with the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), also a signatory of the NCA. Last March, according to the RCSS, starting from the time of NCA signing in October 15, 2015, there were more than 25 armed conflicts, with 5 of them serious and furious battles. And as recently as January 3,  Tatmadaw’s two battalions from Namhsan Township attacked RCSS outpost manned by 4 troopers, where one was killed.

Besides military confrontation with the NCA signatories, political misunderstanding and friction were also rife, as the Tatmadaw has been blocking the national-level political dialogue (NPD), popularly known as public consultation of the ethnic nationalities, starting with the Shan people. This has led to the postponement of the third 21st Century Panglong and hasn’t been able to convene it until now. Still the Tatmadaw is committed to block also the other ethnic nationalities ‘ public consultation meetings, such as the Mon and the Rakine or Arakanese.

 

Outlook

Coming back to the proposition why the stakeholders, or better the adversaries, couldn’t come to terms to roll back the animosity and start a dialogue, much depends on the mindset of each stakeholders.

It is fair to conclude that the EAOs are mostly for negotiated settlement, within the all-inclusiveness mold, and that was why the majority enthusiastically participated in the drafting of the NCA. This, however, was hijacked by the Thein Sein regime and pushed through by the 8 EAOs in October 2015, achieving just a partial ceasefire arrangement, rather than a real nationwide ceasefire. And since then the remaining EAOs that made up 80% of the ethnic fighting force have been negotiating on how to go about with the talks, while the war goes on in Kachin and Shan States.

In contrast, the Tatmadaw is from the outset against all-inclusiveness and sought to sideline the the three NA-B members from the peace process. Other than that, it has been actively conducting military offensives on and off in the Kachin and Shan States, with the pretext to uphold sovereignty, territorial integrity and protecting the ethnic population and their natural resources. But in fact, these are issues that need to be ironed out at the negotiation table, as they are political grievances that boils down to the ethnic demand of “shared-sovereignty” instead of sole ownership of the Bamar-dominated government; and “natural resources-sharing” in place of the government sole monopoly.

And now if one takes into account of the Tatmadaw’s heightened military offensives on the EAOs; refusal to accommodate the wish of the ethnic nationalities to conduct public consultation, so that they will have actual inputs from their people to table them at the 21st Panglong Conference; not to mention its hard-line posture to amend its self-drawn, 2008 Constitution, to maintain its political edge on nationwide scale; it is quite clear that it is heading for confrontation, military solution and zero-sum game of win-lose, and not a negotiated settlement that all are keen to see it happening.

Perhaps, it is high time that the Tatmadaw abandons its zero-sum, total annihilation, game plan and opt for solving political problems through political means, which is reasonable, civilize and more in tune with the changing world.

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