With the latest Union Peace Conference (which is held every six months as part of Myanmar’s peace process) coming in late January, Myanmar’s government faces the serious problem that the event would be vulnerable to an offensive by those ethnic armed groups who reject the government’s controversial National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as the basis for a viable national peace agreement.
Resolving Myanmar’s protracted civil wars with its ethnic minorities, which have raged since independence in 1948, is the country’s defining challenge in the 21st century. But reconciling the demands of a dizzying range of ethnic armies with the centralizing vision of the powerful Myanmar armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw) has proven challenging, although a number of non-signatories to the NCA did attend the previous peace conference in the summer of 2017. This coalition of dissident groups came to the last Union Peace Conference (UPC) after Chinese pressure to attend, though China also supports an unofficial alternative peace process proposed by the newly formed Federal Political Negotiating and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) — a northern alliance of Chinese-backed rebels — as well.
Unfortunately the official peace process has remained stalled since the last UPC, and a slide toward renewed civil war is feared, as frustration on the ground at the lack of real change since the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government becomes harder to ignore. Under fire for her perceived indifference toward the Tatmadaw’s brutal ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s northwest, Suu Kyi has even been forced to embrace the influence of China, the same power that supported the military junta that kept her under house arrest for 15 years. Thus a weakened civilian federal government is perceived by the rebels as unable to speak for the Tatmadaw or its commander-in-chief, senior general Min Aung Hlaing. Meanwhile China keeps a foot in both camps so as to protect its investments in Myanmar, openly selling arms to the Tatmadaw and keeping up close ties diplomatically (Beijing has protected Myanmar against at the UN over the Rohingya issue, for example).
Such uncertainty makes Myanmar’s security situation volatile, particularly in the country’s northeastern Shan state, where a coalition of dissident groups are jockeying with the Tatmadaw and each other for position, and in strife-torn northern Kachin state, where the conflict was renewed between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 2011. In Kachin state, the KIA rebels say they are anticipating a winter offensive by the Tatmadaw and complain bitterly about the double standards shown by the international community toward their conflict and the Rohingya issue in Rakhine state. But the situation in Shan state is perhaps more critical, since there are many more armed factions there, including the KIA, and events are conspiring to undermine the semblance of control exercised by the Tatmadaw in the region. A major security incident in Shan state would guarantee military retaliation and probably see the end of any participation in the UPC by dissident rebel groups outside of the NCA as a result.
Tatmadaw rule in Shan state (particularly the north) operates as a garrison state whose control outside of the main towns and cities rests heavily on a combination of controlling the area’s few major highways, divide-and-rule tactics, plus a patchwork of colonial style “native” garrisons in the rural hinterlands’ few township centers using dubious local people’s militia forces (PMFs). The PMFs are basically paramilitary collaborators with the Tatmadaw, whose major activities include drug trafficking and illegal gambling. Unsurprisingly they are also frequently accused of major human rights abuses, including forced recruitment, and appear locally as the untrustworthy face of the authoritarian Myanmar state.
The Tatmadaw sees the NCA as a defining legal step toward disarming rebel groups (a view not shared by rebel armies themselves) and has been exerting pressure on non-signatories to join a ceasefire, which is rejected by many groups in Shan state as an unsatisfactory starting point for serious negotiations.
Inside Shan state, the Tatmadaw is also widely seen as having failed to live up to its own commitments under the NCA, whilst hypocritically seeking to enforce its terms on the rebels. Thus a brittle but brutal local power structure is being asked to tolerate considerable stress and political ambiguity, while at a national level talks have stalled even between the NCA signatories and the NLD civilian government. Moreover some NCA signatories have publicly aligned themselves with prominent dissident armies like the China-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA itself is the linchpin a powerful bloc of different armed ethnic armies in Shan state that together reject the NCA and only attended the most recent UPC under Chinese pressure. Though the situation is ever-fluid and different ethnic rebel groups have fought one another in past, at present the UWSA has built up other dissident rebel factions with weaponry, training, logistical backing, and occasionally manpower. The FPNCC demands that the government of Myanmar recognize this umbrella group of northern rebels as single, united bloc in peace negotiations.
The Tatmadaw appears to hope that China can be persuaded to exert its influence over the UWSA and its ethnic allies to join the NCA, and then attend the upcoming January UPC as more than mere observers. If not, it will probably fall back on the tried and trusted method of trying to pressure the rebels into compliance with artillery strikes and low level skirmishing. The danger is that the rebel alliance will take the opportunity to respond by launching a coordinated counter-offensive to repel the Tatmadaw, as happened in November 2016. This would embarrass the Tatmadaw just as the Union Peace Conference scheduled for late January begins with a celebration of the NCA, and would probably deal this round of talks a deathblow — not to mention the idea of the NCA as a still-viable basis for national peace negotiations. In short, there is a real possibility that Myanmar’s unhappy rebels could cause the collapse of the NLD’s signature policy for peace in 2018, with untold effects on the authority of the federal civilian government.
Sadly, the formation of a new civilian-led government in Myanmar has not led to permanent improvements in the general human rights situation there, in part because the junta that controlled Myanmar beforehand rammed through a constitution to hamstring the independence of any future NLD government. This is essentially what has happened since 2015, and the Tatmadaw retains significant political power independent of any civilian oversight, and control of key security ministries (and with an allocated 25 percent of seats in Myanmar’s parliament, it also has a formal veto over constitutional changes that might challenge this state of affairs). A collapse of the peace process would therefore damage the Tatmadaw’s chief civilian opponents in Naypyidaw, but the armed forces might conceivably emerge strengthened from any crisis, at least in the short term.
For this reason, it is to be hoped that the upcoming UPC is not boycotted by factions associated by the FPNCC. The NLD must also take more steps to move away from the NCA as the sole basis of negotiations, however; that ceasefire was a policy of the previous military-backed administration and is irrevocably tainted by its association with the armed forces in the minds of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. The NLD should take this opportunity to open the agenda of the upcoming conference up to listen to the objections of the dissidents who have remained outside of the NCA (provided the northern rebels themselves all observe a unilateral ceasefire for the peace talks until an agreed upon deadline — and this should include the KIA). In this way the NLD can put a clear political space between itself and the Tatmadaw and renew faith in the administration of Suu Kyi as one that is open to hearing the grievances of all of Myanmar’s many peoples, not just the Burman majority that has dominated the country for so long since independence from Britain.
Neil Thompson is a Contributing Analyst at geostrategic analysis and business consultancy Wikistrat and a blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the International Security Network, the Independent, and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and is presently based in London.