By Elliot Brennan —
Myanmar’s peace process is at a critical juncture, a year since the signing of the nationwide ceasefire agreement and two months after the much anticipated 21st century Panglong Conference. Limited but persistent conflict continues in the country’s north and a host of challenges threaten to disrupt the momentum of the peace process.
In spite of recent progress in the peace process, the past year has witnessed frequent, mostly low-intensity conflict in the north and northeast as well as in western Rakhine State. Of the country’s 21 recognized ethnic armed groups (EAGs), six were actively fighting in the first half of 2016.
From January to June the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) was engaged in 81 clashes with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 28, and the Arakan Army in 16. The Shan State Army/Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), a ceasefire signatory, and the TNLA were engaged in an additional 36 clashes. Further clashes are likely as the monsoon season ends and the new “fighting season” begins.
In Kachin State, in the far north, a “limited” war is ongoing between the Tatmadaw and the KIA. Clashes in August and September were more frequent than during the first six months of 2016 combined. The Tatmadaw has targeted some KIA positions that the military accuses of being “launching pads” responsible for attacks from improvised explosive devices and ambushes. Casualties, however, have been lower than in fighting following the 2011 ceasefire breakdown, according to security sources.
In a serious development in October, militants claiming they wanted to promote better treatment for Rohingya Muslims killed nine police officers in a series of raids on police stations in northern Rakhine State. The attack triggered a flood of internally displaced persons, raised inter-religious tensions to the highest point since 2012, and prompted the deployment of Tatmadaw troops. If insecurity and rumors persists in Rakhine, ethnic nationalism among the state’s Buddhists will likely be increased and the area could become a fertile ground for armed actors, prompting increased communal tensions.
In an under reported incident in early October, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) forcibly seized three military outposts from its closest military ally the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA). The move demonstrated military tensions between the two nominal allies. The UWSA is worried that the NDAA might abandon the alliance by sign onto the ceasefire agreement. The UWSA, the largest and best equipped EAG which has maintained a workable if imperfect bilateral ceasefire with the government since 1989, remains a pivotal player in the country’s peace process, with its ties and influence over other actors.
In recent months, the UWSA has supplied thousands of Chinese-made M22 assault rifles to another group, the TNLA. Aside from the worrying inter-ethnic conflicts that have emerged, the changing positions of the UWSA has thrown the Myanmar-China border area into a new state of flux.
Compounding this complex situation are the raft of militia groups, whose total strength is unknown but may reach 180,000 members. Most are aligned with the Tatmadaw in some form, while others support their local communities and some operate with proceeds from illicit activities such as narcotics and smuggling. Militias, and some active EAGs, are implicated in the increased trade in narcotics in the country. The production and use of amphetamines has increased significantly in recent years and there have been several record size seizures of amphetamines in various parts of the country.
It is within this volatile environment that the current government and other armed and non-armed actors have embarked on political dialogue in an effort to achieve peace.
The curse of unintended consequences
Much needed reforms are often a double-edged sword. The resolution of one problem throws up a dozen new issues to resolve. For example, changes to mining license regulations in August, aimed at regulating unsafe and deadly jade and other mines, coincided with a significant increase in clashes between the KIA and the Tatmadaw. The closure of these mines will likely push thousands of men, many suffering from drug addiction developed while working in the mines, back into local communities and possibly into the ranks of EAOs. Many of these migrant workers are from Rakhine state and their return could exacerbate tensions there.
Political dialogue between the government and the ethnic groups has reignited inter-ethnic disagreements. Since the previous government began the peace process, six new groups have armed or re-armed as they have vied for a seat at the negotiating table. This often has deadly or highly disruptive effects. In August and September, fighting between the government and one of these groups, a splinter of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army that signed the ceasefire, led to the displacement of thousands of villagers in Hlaingbwe Township.
The upcoming congress of the Karen National Union (KNU), the largest ceasefire signatory, will elect the group’s future leadership. That election will have a significant impact on the peace process, either acting as an endorsement of the progress made by the current KNU leadership toward peace or a far less happy alternative.
Above all, the influence of foreign actors on the EAGs continues to cause concern. One notable example is China-based Yucheng International Holdings Group, which some reports suggest, has been involved in laundering money through territory held by the UWSA and supporting five other EAGs operating along the China-Myanmar border. Illegal logging and mining conducted by Chinese companies in Kachin State has become a major driver of clashes.
Alternative futures for the peace process
The slow pace of the peace process, coupled with unrealistically high expectations on the new government and impatience among some actors, is creating an increasingly fragile environment for more negotiations. Many groups, armed and non-armed, continue to hedge against a successful peace process. Similarly, the role of some international organizations in supporting separate activities outside and running counter to the main peace process has been counterproductive in a process endorsed by the democratically elected government. In the peace architecture launched by the ceasefire agreement, only the joint ceasefire monitoring committee has funding and the capacity to press ahead with the ceasefire implementation, yet even this capacity has been hindered by the slow and limited release of pledged funds from international donors.
Maintaining positive momentum after the conclusion of the Panglong Conference remains one of the biggest challenges. The peace process can now enter one of three realities:
- Reality 1: Most groups join the ceasefire and political dialogue, the “road to riches” scenario.
- Reality 2: Only the ceasefire signatories continue in the ceasefire process and political dialogue, a “two-track peace” scenario and one that will likely see an ever widening, and potentially irreconcilable, gap between EAGs.
- Reality 3: Some signatories withdraw from the process, the peace process halts, and a new, likely far more entrenched and deadly escalation ensues.
At this juncture in Myanmar’s peace process, doubling down on the important progress already made is essential for achieving the peace that all stakeholders desire.
Mr. Elliot Brennan is an independent consultant based in Myanmar. Follow him on twitter @elliotbrennan.