Angshuman Choudhury analyses the recent bouts of rebel-military violence in Myanmar and assesses their implications for the peace process ahead.
Of all micro conflict cycles, the raging battle between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the country’s north has triggered particularly high levels of displacement amongst local civilians and insecurity amongst stakeholders. The war, in its current form, began in early 2015 and continued through 2016 and 2017 in various phases.
The KIA is still part of the Northern Alliance (NA) and the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), and refuses to sign the NCA. As a heavily armed group with high constituent power amongst its ethnic population and control over critical natural resources (like gold and amber ores), the KIA remains the Tatmadaw’s prime target for now.
The military began its signature ground-and-air winter offensive against the KIA in and around the Kachin town of Tanai in early January, and followed it up with another larger offensive in early March. Contrary to popular expectations, the offensive continued into spring and escalated further when KIA’s Laiza headquarters came under attack on 11 April from both ground and air forces of the military, and then again the group’s Battalion 6 of Brigade 2 in mid May.
The relentless offensives have caused significant damage to KIA’s territorial hold, infrastructure, supply lines, human resources, and in turn, strike capacity. In this, the military with its airpower, enjoys a clear tactical advantage over the KIA.
The Tatmadaw’s heavy offensives over the past two conflict cycles have compelled the KIA to abandon some of its key strategic outposts and pull back from previously-held frontlines. This began with the group losing its critical hold over Gidon Hill in December 2016, and now its bases in Tanai and southern Kachin in the March-April 2018 period. The few bases under KIA control in Tanai, surrounded by gold and amber mines, were particularly targeted by the military in the current cycle as part of its renewed attempt to stake claim over high-value resources under the rebel group’s control. Unsurprisingly, the KIA has often termed these pullbacks as strategic retreats meant for rearming and regrouping, rather than losses.
The Tatmadaw’s choice of Tanai as the central target of its winter offensive and the high number of IDPs trapped in the battle-zone reflect the infamous ‘Four Cuts’ doctrine that the military relies on in high-intensity rebel zones to choke the insurgents’ supply lines and networks of support. Burma analyst, Stella Naw, brought to notice last year the military’s usage of this ruthless strategy in Tanai where the army had been blocking “transport of rice and gas into the township since mid-2016.” This year too, the army blocked off approach routes in to the town during the first phase of the offensive, trapping more than 3,000 civilians in the conflict zone and draining rebel outposts of critical resources.
Notably, the surge in fighting comes right after the KIA appointed a new Chairman, General N Ban La, in early January. General Ban La initially appeared to be tilted towards greater dialogue than armed resistance; but the trajectory following his appointment has been otherwise. Not to mention the fact that the KIA and the Tatmadaw met in China’s Yunnan Province for military-to-military level talks in early February. While this didn’t serve any real purpose to quell the violence, it is a clear indication of the fact that the KIA leadership (for whatever reasons) considers the military, and not the civilian government, the only legitimate point of dialogue.
The military’s ruthless ground-and-air campaign, marked by use of Russian-supplied Mi-35 helicopters and heavy artillery, has caused widespread damage to civilian lives and property and triggered massive internal displacement. Even the KIA’s attempts to cut population centres from Tatmadaw’s approach routes has contributed to the steady emergence of a worrying humanitarian crisis.
So far, the fighting has displaced more than 15,000 civilians in a span of four months and more than 6,800in April itself, with fatality numbers still unknown due to limited access for independent observers, journalists, and humanitarian services. The settlements in and around Tanai have been particularly affected, with thousands of locals (including women and children) trapped in forests with no access to basic services. Locals in Injangyang, Tanai and Hpakant townships have also been severely affected.
Notably, the military stands widely accused of deliberately causing a situation of internal displacement and forcing the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to either remain holed up in dangerous conditions or return to their homes in active conflict zones.
Civil society in Kachin State and elsewhere has responded quickly and affirmatively to the worrying developments. On 30 April, thousands gathered in the streets of the Kachin capital, Myitkyina, to register their dissent against the military and union government for not doing enough to stop the violence and rescue the civilian trapped in remote areas. Similar demonstrations were organised in Yangon and Mandalay on 6 May, following which local police arrested two protesters and sued the organisers.
Notably, on 23 April, 32 Kachin associations in Myanmar and elsewhere issued a letter urging the UN to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the military’s violence against civilians in the north. This is a rare escalation in the civil society narrative against the day’s government, and reflects the frustration, anger, and weariness of the local population.
There seems to be a clear wave of dissatisfaction in Kachin State with the current dispensation in Naypyitaw that relies on mixed political signals and a passive policy towards frontier communities trapped in conflict zones. If left unaddressed, such popular grievances, besides strengthening the KIA further, could directly result in a further widening of the trust deficit between the union government and the Kachin peace bloc. Moreover, a heavy handed response by the state – like arresting peaceful protesters– could directly lead to greater civil support for the KIA and further reduce capacities for reconciliation.
Given the heightened level of violence at the moment, even a piecemeal ceasefire arrangement between the KIA and the Tatmadaw could temporarily but effectively stop the loss of civilian lives and property. However, this would require full compliance of the Tatmadaw to the cessation of hostilities and the ceasefire monitoring regime. So far, it has an unenviable compliance record as far as the NCA is concerned. Hence, a broader settlement with the KIA could take years, and would demand greater investment from a range of actors – including Kachin civil society, independent mediators, the union government, and of course, China.
More importantly, the union government needs to show greater proactivity in engaging with the Kachin population, especially the civil society. In the absence of clear incentives to support peace through due process, the community is bound to regress into alternative means of grievance redressal. For example, the total apathy that the civilian government has shown towards trapped Kachin civilians in the ongoing war could damage prospects for peace even in the longer term by pushing the entire population further into the KIA’s fold.
Notably, earlier in May, the local Kachin community leaders showed exemplary humanitarianism by rescuing hundreds of villagers trapped in forests due to the fighting. This is something that the state government, in collaboration with Naypyitaw, should ideally have done. The blatant inaction is bound to leave a stain in the collective memory of the Kachin community. When it comes to an insurgent bloc negotiating with a larger entity, collective memory can decisively shape the outcomes of dialogues.
The union and state government must immediately engage with Kachin civil society organisations like the Kachin Peace Network (KPN), Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), and the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWA) to ensure smoother and consistent communication between the key stakeholders. These local organisations, owing to their deep understanding of Kachin society and trust-based relationships with civilian blocs, can be effective conduits for dialogue and aid delivery.
The Tatmadaw-AA confrontation has a complex and rather foreboding political context to it.
Since October 2016 when local Rohingya militants staged attacks on security outposts in the north of the state, Rakhine State has witnessed a rapid escalation in violence and instability. The events that followed, including the larger Rohingya insurgent attack on 25 August 2017, the massive refugee outflux into Bangladesh, and the subsequent international outrage against the Myanmar army’s use of excessive force against Rohingya civilians, resulted in increasing polarisation and a general sense of unease across the state. The situation compounded on 16 January 2018 when the state police opened fire on unarmed protesters in the historic Rakhine town of Mrauk U, killing seven civilians. Thereafter, several other demonstrators, including two prominent Rakhine leaders, were arrested.
The killings triggered a massive outrage in the state with local sentiments reaching a fever pitch in opposition to what ethnic Rakhine see as an apathetic and discriminatory Bamar-dominated union government. The situation took a further hit when a senior local administrator who had a role in ordering the heavy-handed police action was found stabbed to death in his car on the Sittwe-Yangon highway two weeks later. Again, almost four weeks hence, a low-grade, still unclaimed triple bomb blast rocked Sittwe.
With little to no medium for open negotiation with the union government, the local tide may steadily shift towards greater support for armed struggle. It is already an open secret that several Rakhine politicians back the AA. In fact, Dr Aye Maung, former chairman of the Arakan National Party (ANP) who was arrested after the Mrauk U demonstrations, was quoted by the Ministry of Information as saying that it “is the right time for [ethnic Rakhines] to take up armed struggle to regain [Rakhine’s] independence” and that the “Arakan Army, led by Twan Mrat Naing, is undertaking an armed struggle to regain Rakhine State and its sovereignty and to free [ethnic Rakhines] from Burmese servitude.”
For the union government, the only legitimate negotiating party in Rakhine State is the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), which has signed the NCA. But, that does not automatically render the AA irrelevant in the eyes of Rakhine’s own political and civil actors, case-in-point Dr Maung’s open support for the group. In fact, a head-on battle for legitimacy between the AA and the ALP is inevitable in the days to come. On the other hand, even the ALP, despite being an NCA signatory, is growing increasingly bitter, thanks to Naypyitaw’s repeated rejection of proposals for a national-level dialogue in Rakhine.
Notably, the union government is poised to repatriate some of the Rohingya displaced after the 25 August 2017 violence – a step that is bound to sharpen local sentiments in Rakhine and only fester more bitterness against Naypyitaw. Paul Keenan, the author of a report released last year by the Euro Burma Office (EBO) said the following in an interview with The Irrawaddy:“The situation in Rakhine State, I think, it is going to get worse next year , but not because of [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army], primarily probably because of the Arakan Army […] Arakan Army for me will be the flashpoint for the peace process next year, because they don’t seem to have legitimacy.”
The union government must realise sooner that the standard template for dialogue wherein the Peace Commission engages with a largely homogeneous ethnic bloc might not work in Rakhine. Recent developments have shown that Naypyitaw is staring at more than one disenfranchised parties in the state within a single ethnic bloc: ALP, ANP, and unaffiliated ethnic Rakhines. Without multi-pronged, context-specific engagement with all actors (including local civil society), Naypyitaw is doomed to face a bigger, more powerful and popular AA.
Combined with the unrest in Northern Rakhine, an open conflict with the group could drag Rakhine into a state of total lawlessness and wholly negate the NCA’s limited gains.
Besides the KNU and the AA, four other EAOs have trained their guns on each other in the past few months: Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)/Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), National Mon State Party (NMSP)/Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP)/Shan State Army-North (SSA-N). Most of these low-grade confrontations have taken place over unclear territorial blocs and sudden troop incursions into each other’s territories.
Intriguingly, three of the five EAOs which have engaged in inter-group clashes are NCA signatories – KNU, RCSS, and NMSP. Strangely even, non-signatories TNLA and SSA-N – which recently engaged inheavy clashesin Shan State’s Namtu township – are both members of the NA and FPNCC, and have conducted joint operations in the past. Furthermore, all the warring EAOs were once members of the ethnic coalition, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).
The above reflect three things: the waning credibility of the NCA, the inefficiencies of the ceasefire monitoring regime, and the precariousness of ethnic alliances in Myanmar.
These low-grade bush wars haven’t caused significant damage to life and property. But, they are hugely detrimental to the overall environment of peace and dialogue. While confrontations between non-ceasefire groups remain beyond the direct mandate of the union government, the skirmishes between the ceasefire groups fly in the face of the NCA’s core intent of maintaining a peaceful status quo and in fact, validate the apprehensions of the anti-NCA bloc who argue that it is an ineffective instrument of dialogue. More importantly, the frequent violence serves well to preserve the traditional fissures between various EAOs, thus preserving openings for bigger conflicts in the future.
Furthermore, these skirmishes reveal that ethnic coalitions cannot be taken at face value. Over the past two years, we have seen existing alliances dissolve rapidly and new ones form out of thin air. As with most other conflict paradigms involving a multiplicity of actors, in Myanmar too, political groupings (like UNFC) have sustained for longer periods than tactical ones (like TNLA-RCSS joint brigades). Those that are a mix of both – for example the FPNCC led by the United Wa State Party (UWSA) – carry even better prospects of survival given their well-rounded nature and higher bargaining power.
Angshuman Choudhury is a Researcher and Coordinator of the South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP) of New Delhi-based think tank, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). He is currently conducting research on Myanmar’s ethnic peace process and has previously written about this subject for his institute. He is also an independent journalist and filmmaker, and has written on political and conflict-related issues in The Diplomat, Asia Times, South Asia Journal, Firstpost, The Huffington Post India, The Citizen, The Quint, etc. Angshuman holds a M.Sc. in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from Durham University (UK).