It’s time to admit it: Myanmar’s bumpy journey towards peace and reconciliation with its many ethnic groups hasn’t merely fallen off track; it’s completely derailed. Over the years, conflict and displacement has marred both sides of Myanmar’s borders and other areas—from the currently high-profile Rohingya crisis to the ongoing conflicts in places like Kachin State. In recent months, it’s only getting worse.
The Union Peace Conference—a venue for the government, military and many of the ethnic armed organisations to talk about the country’s progress towards peace—was supposed to happen every six months. After being delayed at least three times (the last sitting took place over a year ago) the third session will happen from 11–16 July in the capital city of Naypyidaw.
Under the country’s2008 Constitution, it’s the army’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who steers the direction of the peace process and many other matters of national importance. Even though Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in the 2015 election, her government doesn’t control the military.
The Constitution allows the army, also known as the Tatmadaw, to appoint leading officials for key ministries—Home, Defence, and Border—and control 25% of the parliamentary seats. As the Constitution can’t be amended without the consent of over 75% of parliamentarians and over 50% of votes at a national referendum, it’s impossible to make changes that fall outside of the Tatmadaw’s interests.
Despite a stated desire to move towards peace, the Tatmadaw is still locked in violent conflict or repression in various parts of the country.
Even though Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in the 2015 election, her government doesn’t control the military
Most high-profile, of course, is the brutal clampdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine State on the country’s western coast. About 713,000 Rohingya—seen by many as Bengali interlopers, even though they have lived in the country for generations—have been expelled or pushed out of Rakhine State; they remain in squalid camps in Bangladesh during the monsoon season.
In Kachin State in the north of the country, the Tatmadaw has been pummeling the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in resource-rich Tanai Township with fighter jets and assault helicopters bought from Russia and China, according to KIA personnel on the ground. KIA soldiers have reported that drones were sent in to sniff out their mountain locations before the jets were sent in. With many gold and amber mines, the area is an important source of revenue for both the military and the KIA.
Over 100,000 Kachin civilians have remained displaced from fighting that first started in 2011. About 10,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting in recent months; many are still trapped inside the conflict zone. The Tatmadaw initially refused a rescue mission, but relented after Kachin groups lobbied the state government. Over a thousand people, many of them internally displaced persons (IDPs) caught in the jungle, were rescued.
Fighting between the state military and various ethnic armed groups is ongoing in northern Shan State, southern Chin State and northern Rakhine State. Villagers were recently also displaced in Karen State as the Tatmadaw locked horns with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) after entering its area to upgrade a military road abandoned since the 2012 ceasefire.
Attempts at peace
After the previous quasi-civilian government initiated a series of sweeping democratic reforms beginning in 2011, many of the country’s ethnic armed groups signed ceasefire agreements with the government and military. The hope was that such ceasefires would provide the opportunity for long-desired political dialogue with the Tatmadaw and the government.
It didn’t happen. Instead, leaders were offered business concessions such as licenses to import car parts. It was a move that appeared intended to distract from calls for dialogue on more autonomy by the groups and the development of a federalist Union. In some cases, it worked.
A few years later, the civilian government under President Thein Sein came up with yet another “peace-making” scheme: the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). But because there were limitations on which groups could join—some groups, such as the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army were excluded—the NCA was perceived as a way to divide and rule, breaking up loose alliances among the ethnic armed groups.
Before coming to power, Suu Kyi told the ethnic armed groups that there was no urgency to the agreement; she urged them to take as much time as they needed to consider the NCA before signing it. Once the NLD won the election, though, she began to press the groups into joining.
“On gaining power, Aung San Suu Kyi talked peace as a priority andthenfailed to articulate a credible plan”
David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst based in Yangon, says Suu Kyi was never really sincere in taking the necessary steps to building peace:“Suu Kyi, in opposition, pretended to be a genuine peace builder, which is why she urged the [ethnic armed organisations] not to sign until she had installed a more democratic government.”
“But on gaining power, she talked peace as a priority andthenfailed to articulate a credible plan, barely met with ethnic leaders or their counties, and very soon her approach to peace was one in synchronicity with the military: capitulate and sign, with no negotiation or concessions. That isn’t durable peace, its a recipe for division, and has resulted in expanding conflict.”
Only eight out of the 15 groups invited signed the NCA in 2015. (Two other groups became signatories this year.) Most of these signatories are fairly minor players in the numerous conflicts—apart from the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) and the Karen National Union (KNU), most of the signatories only maintain small armies, if any all. In contrast, more powerful groups like the United Wa State Army and the KIA that were invited have chosen not to be included in the agreement.
Playing one side against the other?
Suspicions that the Tatmadaw might be striking alliances with some groups over others has also proven to be an obstacle to peace- and trust-building. Less than two months after the NCA signing ceremony fighting broke out between signatory RCSS/SSA and non-signatory Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) as the former sent troops from its southern base to areas close to TNLA positions.
Although the RCSS/SSA’s chairman denied that the state military had approved its move, he failed to explain how they had managed to deploy several hundred soldiers across a distance of over 300 kilometres along a route with multiple Tatamadaw checkpoints without authorisation or tactical support. During a trip to the frontline in 2016, TNLA leaders have also told this reporter that they have occasionally fought against a combined force of RCSS/SSA and Tatmadaw troops.
But such alliances can also be short-lived amid the complex landscape of shifting allegiances and priorities. If the RCSS/SSA had a cosy relationship with the Tatamadaw, it might be a thing of the past—on top of fighting with the TNLA, the group has started having sporadic clashes with the state military themselves. They were also forced to end a series of public consultations, organised in preparation for the Union Peace Conference, after the Tatmadaw stormed its meetings “fully armed with war weapons as if to seize an enemy stronghold” according to an RCSS/SSA statement.
Money and international interests
Leaders from the KNU’s military arm, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have threatened to boycott peace talks after the government stalled on political negotiations promised under the NCA. It’s unclear at the time of publication if these KNLA leaders will be joining the third sitting of peace talks.
It wouldn’t be the first time political wrangling has come to naught. Control of the land and abundant resources in contested areas has always been the driving force behind the numerous conflicts in Myanmar since (and before) the country’s independence from the British in 1948. Ceasefire agreements between various ethnic armed organisations and the Myanmar government—even when under the previous military regime—have been repeatedly signed and broken as promises of political dialogue gave way to more instant economic gratification; instead of continuing talks, the government sold off land and natural resources to both local and overseas business interests.
Ceasefire agreements between various ethnic armed organisations and the Myanmar government have been repeatedly signed and broken as promises of political dialogue gave way to more instant economic gratification
The jade industry in Kachin State, for instance, is the “significant driver of Myanmar’s most intractable armed conflict”, says a report by international NGO Global Witness. A year-long investigation by the London-based group put the total value of jade mines in Myanmar—most of which are located in Kachin State—at US$31 billion in 2014.
International players, including countries that claim to be supportive of Myanmar’s peace process, have also been implicated. Norway, for example, has invested in the Middle Yeywa dam project in central Shan State. In 2016, the Shan Human Rights Foundation, the Shan Sapawa Environment Organisation and the Shan State Farmers’ Network issued an open letter addressed to Aung San Suu Kyi, urging her to suspend the dam project. The groups criticised a pre-feasibility study done by SN Power, a Norwegian state-owned company.
“The study makes no mention at all of the ongoing conflict in Shan State, and how the project may impact or be impacted by this conflict,” they wrote, adding that “the issue of natural resources is a key driver of the ethnic conflict, with ethnic forces fighting to resist unitary government control over resources in their areas, and with increased Burma Army militarisation around resource extraction projects.”
Jan Cederwall, SN Power’s Myanmar country director, took a different view. “Some people are saying we shouldn’t go to Shan State until there is peace, but the way we see it is that if you let the difference in development between Shan and neighboring States become too great it will only add to the social tension,” he told the Norway Asian Business Review in 2016.
The Middle Yeywa Dam is not the only big-ticket project in Myanmar that has fuelled violence. The Myitsone Dam in Kachin State was a contributing factor that ended a seventeen-year ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the KIA’s political arm, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in 2011. The dam project was suspended later that year after facing widespread opposition across the country. The planned Hatgyi Dam in Karen State—backed by investment from Myanmar, China and Thailand—has also triggered fighting between the Tatmadaw and small Karen armed groups. The clash, which took place in in late 2016, caused the displacement of about 10,000 people, many of whom have still not been able to return home. China is also involved in other projects, such as a special economic zone and deep sea being developed in Kyaukphyu in central Rakhine State.
Stumbling blocks to peace
Sincere reconciliation efforts are necessary to push Myanmar’s reforms forward. Yet the Tatmadaw has demonstrated a consistent disregard for the terms of ceasefire agreements that it itself has signed. By launching offensives against both NCA signatories and non-signatories in areas where large-scale energy projects have been planned, expanding military bases and roads in contested areas and obstructing public consultations, the state military has undermined efforts by its own government to move towards a lasting peace.
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Brennan O’Connor worked for Canada’s leading media publications before dedicating himself full time to cover self-generated under-reported stories in the mainstream press. In 2010, he left his native country to move to Southeast Asia to follow a long-term photo project on Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups. O’Connor’s photography was recently projected at the prestigious Visa Pour l'image in Perpignan and honoured with the 2017 Prix Lucas Dolega Award in January. As part of the award, the series was exhibited in Paris this January. His work has been published in Foreign Policy; Paris Match; L’Obs; Al Jazeera; The National; Burn Magazine; and The Walrus and screened at Angkor Photo Festival and Yangon Photo Festival in 2015 and the Fotograf Vakfı 3rd Documentary Photography Days in 2016.