War in Burma’s Ethnic States: Is military solution the way to peace and reconciliation?

As the peace movement gains momentum the war in ethnic states are also intensifying threatening to push the country back to square one and put an end to the peace negotiation process that has been in stagnation despite the fact that the National League for Democracy (NLD) regime has made it the cornerstone of its policy.

 

Present conflict situation with Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs)

The latest overall armed conflict situation in the country could be seen as follows.

The recent Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), armed wing of the Karen National union (KNU), and Burma Army or Tatmadaw armed conflict, from March to early May and both parties still on war-footing, in Papun (Mudraw) area is due to area demarcation problem, or to be precise the latter’s encroachment into the KNLA Brigade 5 controlled area with the pretext of infrastructure development engaging in road construction.

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Tatmadaw has been engaging in on and off armed conflict, starting from the end of last year and the latter now heightening the offensive, giving harder military pressure, with the aim to achieve territorial gain and military edge over the former.

The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) latest attack on Muse, is said to be designed to hurt and inflict loss of the Sino-Burmese Pansay People’s Militia Force economic interest operating along the Myanmar-China border.

And the five months lull of firefights, which stopped since last year December, between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw reignited again in early May added up another conflict scenario recently in Chin and Arakan States.

 

Brewing all-out war with the KNU

Clashes broke out between the KNLA and the Myanmar Army from March 4 to 8 in Papun (Mudraw) Township, Karen State, forcing some 2000 Karen villagers to flee, due to the Tatmadaw’s road building in the area.

There has never been a serious firefight between the KNLA and Tatmadaw, since the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) by both parties on October 15, 2015. But the recent March armed engagements continued on and off until today.

The Tatmadaw rebutted the KNU accusation, of breaching the NCA by reinforcing its troops and encroaching in KNU controlled areas. In its announcement it said that its intention was to upgrade the 15 miles long old road from the village of Kay Bu to Ler Mu Plaw for the benefit of the local people and as well make the administrative undertaking easier, which it has informed the KNLA 11 times and started the road construction on May 4.

The Tatmadaw rebuttal said the misunderstood and worried KNLA attacked the Tatmadaw 53 times, which killed four of its soldiers and injured 29. Besides, 20 demining undertakings uncovering 42 landmines; and 13 stepping on landmines have occurred. Even then, it has not retaliated but only taken security measures for the roadwork and machinery, according to the Tatmadaw’s statement.

While the war-footing situation on both sides still remains, unofficial meeting between the KNU leaders and the Commander-in-Chief on May 17, in Naypyitaw outcome was that the controversial road building in KNLA Brigade 5 area will be halted for the time being and also the withdrawal of the Tatmadaw’s troops would follow.

 

Tatmadaw conflict with the KIA 

The Tatmadaw bent on pressuring the KIA to sign the NCA has been employing massive military onslaught since the end of last year and there is no sign of deescalation.

A recent editorial report of May 15, in Kachinland News, “The Militarization of Kachin State” summed up the deployment of the Tatmadaw wrote: “From a mere 15 infantry battalions stationed in major towns in Kachin State before 1990, a staggering 100 plus battalions are currently deployed in Kachin State.”

The report documented the number of clashes between the KIA and the Myanmar Army, June 2011 – April 2018 as follows:

  • There were 663 encounters that included artillery and landmine attacks between the KIA and the BA in 2011, 879 encounters in 2012, 224 encounters in 2013, and 155 encounters in 2014.
  • Fighting between the KIA and the BA escalated after the NLD was elected as government in 2015. In 2015, there were 634 encounters, 740 encounters in 2016, and 361 encounters in 2017. There have been 148 encounters between from January to April 2018.

 

TNLA attacked casino in Muse

“On 12 May 2018 at 5:00 am till 7:00 am, the Ta’ang Liberation Army (TNLA) traded fire with the Myanmar military when the TNLA launched its clearance operation into a casino owned by Pansay Militia in Muse Township near Nam Paw Pang Kham Bridge of Muse-Namkham Highway,” according to the TNLA press release of May 13.

The press release said that this Pansay Militia’s casino on the outskirt of Muse about 300 yards from Namkham Highway, near Nam Paw – Pang Kham bridge, is backed up by a Tatmadaw outpost.

According to the Myanmar State Counselor’s Office Director General Zaw Htay, 15 civilians, a police captain and three government-backed militia members were killed during the fighting while 20 local people, three policemen and six militia members were wounded.

The press release of TNLA wrote: “Chinese authorities in Ruili city are having difficulties implementing Chinese law to prevent Chinese citizens from gambling in the Myanmar military owned Pansay casino due to the lack of cooperation from the Myanmar government. Within the period of 2016, 2017 and 2018, hundreds of Mainland-Chinese citizens have been kidnapped, they became victims to fraudulent gambling, they lost their lives as they were unable to pay the Myanmar authorities’ demands for money.”

It further stressed: “Inside that casino, nearly a hundred Chinese visitors were killed by the management team and the whereabouts of the bodies of the deceased are still unknown to their loved ones back in China.”

Reportedly, following the TNLA’s Muse attack, the Tatmadaw has been actively engaging the four-member military alliance, National Alliance -Burma (NA-B), which TNLA is also a member, along the China-Myanmar border. The other three members are Myamar National Defense Alliance Army (MNDAA) or Kokang, AA and KIA.

 

Armed engagement with the AA

Meanwhile, the AA ambushed a patrol party of the Burma Army near boundary pillar number 10 inside Myanmar on Wednesday, May 9, according to the report in The Telegraph.

The AA claimed that three or four Burma Army personnel had been gunned down in the ambush, while at least four of its troopers were injured when the Myanmar Army retaliated with rocket-propelled grenades.

The four critically injured militants were being treated at a hospital in Aizawl since last week, according to the Mizoram police sources.

The ambush was seen as a payback on the Burma Army, which launched a crackdown on the militant group camping inside the Chin state bordering southern Mizoram’s Lawngtlai district during the last part of November last year.

AA website and NA-B Facebook published battle news that the AA clashed with the Tatmadaw on May 3, 9 and 14, both in Chin and Arakan States, killing at least 8 Tatmadaw soldiers and capturing some military equipment. The two haven’t been engaged in firefight since nearly five months starting from last year December 10 but reignited again on May 3.

 

Different political positions among stakeholders

Given such a backdrop, the spread of conflict spectrum could be said to include, Arakan, Chin, Kachin and Shan States, involving all the military front NA-B members, besides two NCA signatory EAOs, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the KNU. Other than that armed clashes happened on and off with the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), non-signatory of the NCA and a member of the seven-member political alliance Federal Peace Negotiation and Consultation Committee (FPNCC) that includes all NA-B members.

Generally speaking, the FPNCC is the northern alliance, while all the ten NCA signatory EAOs could be termed as southern alliance.

The Tatmadaw military strategy is to exclude the three NA-B members – MNDAA, TNLA and AA – unless they surrender first in order to take part in the peace process. But the alliance member KIA, as an old resistance ethnic army unlike the excluded three, is accepted as negotiation partner, even though it is militarily pressuring it to sign up the NCA. In all, the NA-B is under intense military offensive by the Tatmadaw with sort of “do or die” ultimatum imposition.

The southern alliance also faced military and political pressures from the Tatmadaw, even though it is not quite clear if the NLD endorses such policy implementation by the Tatmadaw.

The military pressure came in from of provoked firefights against 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 area encroachment in the KNU controlled territories leading to armed clashes like in the case of road building in KNLA Brigade 5 area, even though both parties are NCA signatories and participants of the 21st Century Panglong – Union Peace Conference (21CP-UPC), designed to find nationwide political settlement and reconciliation.

Politically, the Tatmadaw’s blocking and disruption of the national-level political dialogue or public consultation meetings of the ethnic nationalities like in Shan, Mon and Arakan States, seems to be aimed to derail the NCA-based peace process negotiation or to bully the EAOs into accepting its preconceived idea of military supremacy in political arena. The result has been the delay of planned third 21CP-UPC for more than a year now, which is supposed to be held every six months.

Against all these constantly changing political scenarios, the Chinese pressure on the EAOs, especially the northern alliance, and the equally the Tatmadaw including the NLD government, isn’t progressing much, due to the different prospective outcome aspirations of the adversaries, or rather stakeholders.

The mediator/facilitator China is also not without aspirations, as its intervention is profit oriented, so to speak.

In a nutshell, China is interested to have Burma within its economic orbit as a whole to realize its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) if not its regional political leadership. And as such, it will neither side with the EAOs nor the government completely, but would urge both camps to compromise politically.

And this task of political compromise, which exactly means the power-sharing and resources-sharing, is the hardest nut to crack.

The Tatmadaw is keen to uphold its self-drafted 2008 Constitution with unitary system in tact, aside from employing disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) and determined to hold on to its “standard army” rhetoric with ethnic Bamar domination in tact as has always been, where security adjustment question is concerned.

The NLD government on the other hand hasn’t spelled out its political positions, especially where federal union system of governance is envisaged. It just hide behind the facade of 21CP-UPC outcome, saying that the results will be applied accordingly. Even then, seen from State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and her top functionaries statements and its government’s repeated heavy-handedness in state-central relationship, it is fair to conclude that the NLD envisaged federalism is only a unitary system with minimum devolution of political power for the ethnic states, perhaps with some federalism trappings.

The northern alliance political posture is confederacy, with more power at state-level, less power at the central federal-level and not even federalism, with creation of a federal army along security sector reform (SSR) line.

The southern alliance is for an acceptable federal union system of governance, implementation of SSR that will pave the way for a federal army, where ethnic armed forces will protect their own territories and contribute their quotas to the national federal army for protection of the country, in case of foreign aggression.

 

Challenges

And given such differences on political issues from upholding military-drafted constitution; minimum devolution within unitary system; confederacy system of governance; to federal union with equal power-sharing between states and union government; political negotiation won’t be a walk in the park.

But first of all, the first hurdle of all-inclusiveness, which all the EAOs and as well China, including the majority of the public, see it as most crucial to the peace negotiation process will have to be overcome.

To this end, on May 18 the FPNCC just met with the Chinese authorities, in Kunming, where the former was asked by Special Envoy on Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang to attend the 21st Century Panglong – Union Peace Conference, if invited by the government.

Earlier on May 13, Chinese embassy in Myanmar in a statement and again on May 18, the China’s defense ministry called on all the warring parties in northern Myanmar, including the Tatmadaw, to show restraint and declare an immediate ceasefire after conflicts in the region killed three Chinese citizens.

Three rockets and some stray bullets landed in Chinese territory as a result of the fighting, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement and said it was paying close attention to the matter and had strengthened patrols and security measures, including to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, along the China-Myanmar border.

 

Perspective

As it is, nobody actually knows on how the peace negotiation process could proceed. The 21st Century Panglong Conference is now again been postponed, which has been unable to be held since a year ago, when actually it must be convened twice a year.

But the precarious situation could turn out to be hopeful, if the Tatmadaw would make some accommodation by halting the offensives, declare nationwide ceasefire and accept all-inclusiveness participation of all the EAOs, as time and again being urged by many good willed people, including the influential regional power China, which is also a veto wielding power in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that has shielded Myanmar from having to answer to the International Criminal Court (ICC) likely accusations concerning human rights violations in Arakan State against the Rohingya population.

The exodus of some 700,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh and the atrocities committed against them by the Myanmar security forces were depicted as “ethnic cleansing” by the international community, including the United Nations.

It is now up to the Tatmadaw to make a profound decision on whether to carry out with its zero-sum game of military victory over all the EAOs and push the country down into deeper abyss or opt for a negotiated settlement and eventually try to build trust and national reconciliation.

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