Despite widespread reporting surrounding the ongoing Rohingya conflict in Rakhine state, Myanmar is also home to 21 lesser known Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) opposing the central government and its armed forces – the Tatmadaw – for various reasons. Some of these conflicts have timelines stretching back to Burma’s independence from the British in 1948, and have caused the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, particularly in the northern states of Shan and Kachin. In this piece, we examine the wider inter-ethnic conflict taking place across the nation, and the dramatic reform needed to bring true peace.


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In a month where a Tatmadaw offensive has driven the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) from its mining operations near Tanai township and the UN has released a damning report on human rights in Myanmar, this Sunday will mark three years since the pseudo-civilian government of then-president Thein Sein concluded drafting the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement

Intended as a starting point for a broader effort towards settling the country’s multitude of internal conflicts, the NCA was touted by some as a landmark agreement on the road to peace, with its signing gaining the support of Beijing and a number of Western nations. However despite Thein Sein’s claim that the agreement was “a historic gift from us to our generations of the future,” it received only reserved praise from some quarters for its failure to include many of the country’s dissenting groups, which found the NCA’s conditions untenable. In truth, the NCA was little more than a token effort by the former-general-cum-president to produce something in return for the millions of dollars poured in to support the peace process from abroad. With the signing coming just ahead of elections in November, the initial agreement had the support of only eight relatively minor members of the 15 EAOs invited to the talks, with several prominent insurgent groups not even offered a seat at the negotiating table. Although Thein Sein would lose that election to the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, rather than start afresh, the NCA remains the precondition for national reconciliation despite it’s rejection by the majority of EAOs.

The last three years have not been completely bereft of progress, however. Optimists for Myanmar’s future can point to January this year, when two more EAOs, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), agreed to sign the NCA, doing so in Naypyitaw on 13th February. While seen as a positive step in the peace process, neither group had engaged in significant armed conflict against the government in recent years, and so their signatures are unlikely to bring any meaningful change on the ground. There are also reports that the rather than signing voluntarily, the NMSP was coerced into the agreement by Tatmadaw incursions into territory long-held by the NMSP and despite a well-established bilateral ceasefire. Indeed, it is ironic that even being a signatory of the NCA does not necessarily mean an end for conflict with the Tatmadaw, as their clashes between the signatory Shan State Army–South (SSA-S) continue to demonstrate.

Such actions by the military highlight the biggest impediment to any progress in negotiations – the total lack of trust many EAOs have in the Tatmadaw and the inability of the NDL government to control it. Despite democratic window dressing and lofty promises for democracy and justice, it is the military that continues to wield power in Myanmar through the military-imposed constitution of 2008. This lack of democratic accountability allows the Tatmadaw to pursue its own ends independent of the government in Naypyidaw. From the beginning the Tatmadaw has been unwilling to engage in talks with some EAOs, while the latest Union Peace Conference (UPC) session – a conference designed to bring all parties together for further negotiations every six months – has been delayed yet again until early May due to Tatmadaw interference in the local political dialogues of EAOs. Furthermore, the Tatmadaw’s insistence on the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of all EAOs as a precondition to peace talks is unlikely to be agreed to by any self-respecting insurgent group, particularly given the Tatmadaw’s record of brutality.

The Economy of Peace

Money also plays a significant part in Myanmar’s insurgencies. Wealthy deposits of jade, gold and amber in areas like Kachin state, as well as hardwoods, narcotics and other natural resources, provide funding for EAOs and are a tempting target for Tatmadaw commanders. Indeed, the Tatmadaw’s ongoing campaign against the KIA, which it restarted in 2011 after several years of a quid pro quo ceasefire, bears more resemblance to a resource war over Kachin’s mineral deposits than a counterinsurgency. Whatever the grievances or ideologies espoused by the different actors, vested economic interests on all sides make settlements even more difficult, as Tatmadaw commanders, rebel leaders and foreign investors all seek to protect their own sources of wealth.

The China Influence

Of all the players with a stake in the Myanmar peace process, China is not to be ignored. While Western countries have poured money into Myanmar’s cynically titled “peace industrial complex” in the hopes of promoting democracy and human rights, Beijing has been playing a far more effective game of strategic hard ball. China has significant economic interests in Myanmar, many of which come as part of its broader “Belt and Road Initiative” (BARI), from mineral extraction and energy pipelines to the stalled Myitsone Hydroelectric Dam project and the deep water port in Rakhine state. China has skilfully maintained relations on both sides, standing up for Naypyidaw on the international stage and selling arms to the Tatmadaw whilst simultaneously increasing its influence through its patronage of certain EAOs. In northern Shan state, bordering Yunnan province, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the armed wing of the United Wa State Party (UWSP), is the best organised and equipped of all EAOs, with Chinese-made APCs, anti-air missiles and artillery. While not exactly a puppet, the UWSP does act as a fulcrum that allows Beijing to exercise leverage on Naypyidaw in pursuit of its broader strategic aims and protect its economic interests. Thanks to Chinese patronage, the UWSP was able to form an umbrella group of seven NCA non-signatory groups, including the KIA, into the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) in April 2017. The USWP leads this organisation and has built up its members with arms and training, made demands of the central government for recognition, and put forward its own proposals for a ceasefire and renewed peace protest to be mediated by China and the UN. In a clear nod to its benefactor, the UWSP has voiced its support for the BARI and given guarantees for the security of Chinese projects within the FPNCC’s territory.

In her scathing report into human rights in Myanmar, the UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee – who has been barred from entry to the country – mildly states that “the peace process appears to be losing its momentum.” More accurately, due to a combination of vested interests, weak government and worsening human rights, the peace process in Myanmar, if one can even claim that there still is one, could be described as dead in the water. Far from being a first step, the NCA remains a stumbling block for national reconciliation. For there to be a hope of a renewed effort, the civilian government must build-up its credibility by delivering on some of its many promises to reform the legal and judicial system in the hopes that it can ultimately become a functioning and accountable government able to bring the Tatmadaw under control. Unlikely as this seems, it is hard to envisage a future peace process working so long as the military is free to run amok.

Ultimately Myanmar will need a revised constitution that wrests control of policy making away from the Tatmadaw and places it in civilian hands. In negotiations with the EAOs, both the government and the military will have to recognize that many groups function as de facto regional governments, controlling territory and providing services, and that therefore a willingness to look into a federal solution that grants a degree of regional autonomy may be necessary. Furthermore, unrealistic demands such as the DDR must be abandoned to allow EAOs to negotiate from a position of strength relatively free from coercion.

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Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defense affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s MA War Studies programme and has spent several years based in the Asia Pacific region.

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Photo credit: John Owens (VOA)

 

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