(This article is part of our special package on Myanmar. Read more articles here.)
The first night she heard the gun shots, Mar Lar (not her real name) was not afraid, the popping of guns sounded like it was coming from far away. Two days later, the sounds drew nearer and gunfire became more frequent. After the military burned down nearby sugarcane fields to drive out ‘enemy’ fighters, leaving the house became too dangerous and the fighting was so intense that sleeping had become impossible.
“We stayed after most people had left because we thought it would be over soon,” said Mar Lar. But the conflict continued and after days of hiding in silence for fear of being found, Mar Lar and her family decided to leave the bullet-ridden town of Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang Special Region in the northeastern Shan State, near the Myanmar-China border. Fighting intensified as Myanmar’s armed forces launched airstrikes against the Kokang, an ethnic Chinese minority, in February 2015. This was in response to the renewed offensive by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang Army), which had been ousted from the area by the government forces, the Tatmadaw, in 2009. Little did Mar Lar know that she had fled from a conflict that military analysts of the security risk advisory group IHS Jane would later call “the largest war since Myanmar’s independence”.
The conflict which lasted till June 2015 displaced an estimated 80,000 Kokang residents, as well as thousands of Myanmar migrant workers employed in the sugarcane fields. Mar Lar narrowly escaped death as the convoy transporting her family to safety came under attack, fatally injuring one Red Cross volunteer who helped facilitate their escape. Mar Lar made it safely to a monastery outside the conflict zone.
The fighting in Kokang exposed the precarity of the peace process under the Thein Sein government which, when concluded, excluded many of the country’s myriad armed ethnic groups. The exclusionary nature of that agreement has come back to challenge the peace process itself, and will cast its shadow on the initiative of the new government in Naypyidaw.
A divisive legacy
After assuming office in March 2011, Thein Sein started a push for a ‘nationwide ceasefire agreement’, stalling discussions on political demands of the ethnic armed groups until after the ceasefire accord. Between 2011 and November 2012, when the accord was signed, several ethnic armed groups participated. However, the Kokang forces were not invited to any of the talks. The military refused to enter into negotiations with the group, saying its 2015 attacks had been against the peace process and the country’s transition to democracy. Two of the Kokang forces’ allies – the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army – were also not invited, despite them expressing an interest. The military demanded that these three groups disarm before they joined the peace agreement, a condition they find unacceptable.
The arbitrary nature of who was invited to the talks is evident from the fact that the Kokang conflict took place even as the government held bilateral talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) though it was engaged in hostilities with the Kachin forces. A 17-year ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army had broken in June 2011, ending a period of relative peace for the predominantly Christian ethnic minority in the country’s north.
In November 2014, the Tatmadaw drew the ire of ethnic armed groups when it bombed a military academy near the Kachin army’s headquarters in Laiza, killing 23 cadets. Most of them were trainees from the group’s allies and the attack left a mark on the peace process that was already hampered by a lack of trust in the military’s commitment to a ceasefire. However, the Kachin leadership remained committed to bilateral talks with the government despite criticism from some Kachin groups that the November attack had shown the military could not be trusted. Kachin political leaders reiterated the need to pressure the government “in many different ways”, in parliament, through talks, and on the battlefield. The Kachin Independence Organisation – the political wing of the Kachin army – became a powerful voice in the nationwide ceasefire talks as it demanded an end to hostilities before any agreement was signed. They did not sign the October 2015 nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Since 2011, over 100,000 people have been displaced in Kachin State and many remain unable to return home as the conflict continues. Many of the refugees live in areas that are beyond government control, often out of reach of international aid organisations. According to the United Nation’s 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan for Myanmar:
Approximately half of the displaced population live in areas beyond government control, where local and national NGOs have access but most international organizations do not. While many of the displaced are living in camps that are being managed by national NGOs, others still live in crowded conditions in temporary accommodation that was not designed to house people for a protracted period of time.
In the Mai Na internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp just outside of the Kachin capital Myitkyina in government-controlled territory many women and children live in make-shift shelters on the two square metre assigned to each family in the camp. Refugees described how, after years of fighting, their hopes of returning home were fading. Most men have left the camp to look for jobs in one of Myanmar’s larger cities, in nearby jade mines or overseas as jobs are scarce in the area.
Fractured peace accord
Set on achieving an accord before the November 2015 election, the Thein Sein government had pushed ahead with the ‘nationwide ceasefire accord’ that it said would be the first step toward ending the protracted civil war. Pressure on armed groups mounted from inside and outside of the country to sign the agreement. And, just before the end of his term, Thein Sein got the legacy he wanted.
On 15 October 2015, of the ethnic armed groups invited, eight signed the ceasefire, despite the exclusion of the three armed organisations fighting in Kokang and the refusal of seven other groups to sign a ceasefire that was not all-inclusive and did not provide safeguards for excluded armies. Though championed by the international community and the government’s EU-funded Myanmar Peace Center, which had brokered the agreement, the ceasefire soon divided ethnic armed alliances and more conflict followed.
“The problem is that because of the failed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), various fields have emerged and there are now more tensions between the various groups,” said Tom Kramer, a researcher with the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. He said that there now seem to be three main ‘blocks’ that have powerful positions within the ceasefire talks, namely the groups that signed the ceasefire, the ethnic umbrella organisation the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) – of which the Kachin Independence Army is a member – and the United Wa State Army.
After the signing ceremony, the UNFC expelled ethnic armed groups who signed the ceasefire and continued to negotiate on behalf of its remaining nine members outside of the accord, focussing mainly on its demands that the government end fighting with allied armed groups and hold all-inclusive talks. The alliance said the ceasefire fitted perfectly into the Tatmadaw’s well-known divide-and-rule tactics that it has used against the ethnic armed groups for decades.
“We see that the current government and Tatmadaw are using the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement as a military and political weapon. We strongly condemn the current government and Tatmadaw’s acts of causing racial hatred among the ethnic nationalities, with the military-political strategy of divide-and-conquer,” the UNFC said in a February statement. At that time, Thein Sein was still in office, though newly elected MPs had already assumed their seats in the legislative.
A direct consequence of the ceasefire accord, according to Kramer, is the current conflict in Shan State between two ethnic armed groups from different power blocs. The Restoration Council of Shan State (a signatory to the NCA) has, with help of the Tatmadaw, reinforced its troops in the area and, as a consequence, fighting has erupted with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (supported by the KIO). Fierce clashes erupted in February – though skirmishes had been reported earlier – displacing thousands of civilians in a matter of weeks.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 3900 people fled their homes in May 2016 alone. More than 11,000 people have been displaced so far in 2016 of which only 7500 have been able to return home. Interventions by representatives from the now-defunct Myanmar Peace Center and other ethnic armed groups have thus far failed to cool tensions. “Right now, the RCSS/SSA is still coming into our territory and, every time they come in, there will be fighting,” said Mai Aik Kyaw, a spokesperson of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). This conflict persists even as TNLA’s ally, the Arakan Army, has clashed anew with government troops in its home state of Rakhine. Fighting intensified in April and the conflict has displaced more than 1000 civilians.
Since the NCA, direct clashes between the Tatmadaw and the KIO have also intensified. The KIO has accused the military of reinforcing its existing troops in Kachin State. “The conflict is still going on today. Since the ceasefire the military has moved in more troops and increased their strength more and more,” said Dau Kha, a spokesperson for the KIO. Fighting has been particularly intense recently around the jade-rich area of Hpakant.
Since the new government took the initiative to start talks, the UNFC has engaged with negotiators and has welcomed an announcement made by State Counsellor and leader of the ruling National League for Democracy party, Aung San Suu Kyi, in which she committed to work towards a democratic and federal state.
The third negotiating force is the powerful United Wa State Army, based near the Chinese border in Myanmar’s Shan State. It has an estimated 25,000 troops and has occasionally attended talks with the previous government’s peace brokers. And though it signed the bilateral ceasefire agreement, it has not signed the NCA.
The Wa, which have the largest ethnic army in the country and do not belong to any ethnic alliance, invited non-signatories to its remote base in Pangkham for talks in 2015 and again late March 2016 to discuss its strategy during the peace process. Two groups that operate in areas near to the Wa territory, the Ta’ang and Kokang armed groups, have recently requested to withdraw their membership from the UNFC. Whether they plan to form an alliance with the Wa is not known.
What the two non-signatory factions have in common – UNFC and the United Wa State Army – is their distrust of the NLD’s position on the peace process, mainly because the country’s de facto leader has remained silent on attacks and abuses committed by the military, despite her commitment to peace and federalism “Both groups see the NLD as being too close to the military,” said Paul Keenan, an independent researcher and analyst on Myanmar. Keenan also adds that “For non-signatories, the current situation is unstable due to differing factions trying to take control of the peace process, primarily the KIO/UNFC and the UWSA.
21st century Panglong
Disturbing reports continue to appear almost daily from the frontlines of the various conflict zones in Myanmar, where people continue to be displaced as they flee from the clashes and dangers that come with the fighting, including landmines, forced conscription or portering, rape and indiscriminate killings.
On 1 June 2016, the Shan Human Rights Foundation issued a statement condemning the alleged torture, killing and the use of civilians as human shields by the Tatmadaw in areas where it is fighting the non-signatory group, the Shan State Army (north). “Grave human rights violations by the Burma Army during this offensive include the use of 43 villagers, including women, as human shields; severe torture of five villagers; and extrajudicial killing of at least 3 civilians, with 5 other bodies yet to be identified,” the statement read. Since fighting broke out between ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State, these groups have also accused each other of human-rights violations.
Against this backdrop, it is now up to Suu Kyi to negotiate a truce that would end the world’s longest-running civil war. As a first step, she has proposed organising a new Panglong Conference, mirroring the one organised by her father and independence hero General Aung San in 1947, who concluded an agreement with some ethnic minority representatives just before Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948.
Panglong, the name of the market town where the meeting was held, has remained a magical term to people in Myanmar and enchants many hoping for peace. But not all are convinced that it would be enough. Some observers have warned against that the results of this “21st century Panglong” are likely to differ significantly from those achieved in 1947. At that time, Myanmar had not yet achieved independence and was drafting a constitution, in which the accord was eventually immersed. During a military coup in 1962, however, the constitution was abolished and the agreement was never honoured. Today, the country is ruled under the 2008 constitution, drafted by a military regime to safeguards its position. Its reservation of 25 percent of the seats in the legislature and three key ministries for itself ensures an effective veto on constitutional amendments. While the 1947 Panglong granted administrative autonomy to the frontier areas and the right of secession from the Union after 10 years to Shan and Karenni states, this time, the military has made clear it will maintain unity of the country above all else.
Moreover, the 1947 agreement was signed by a limited number of ethnic groups including the Shan, Chin and Kachin peoples. Other ethnic groups, including the Karen, Karenni and Mon, did not sign the agreement – they too will be looking for a seat on the table and a slice of the development pie.
Ethnic armed groups are divided over what a 21st century Panglong Conference could actually achieve, especially since the NLD-led government is deemed to have close to no influence over the Tatmadaw. According to Keenan, while the military appears conciliatory, it will likely take control over all aspects of security which will limit the outcome of the talks. “The NLD government needs to see at least some limited success in relation to ethnic issues… The [first] Panglong served some, not all, of the ethnic groups well, this one is likely to do the same,” he added.
Various ethnic armed groups, which haven’t signed up for the nationwide ceasefire, have laid down demands for talks with the peace body that is led by Suu Kyi herself, with her personal doctor and long-time trustee Dr Tin Myo Win as the chief negotiator. The KIO, for instance, has demanded that the new government address fighting between armed groups before holding any further talks about a ceasefire or peace. The United Wa State Army, the third major power bloc, on the other hand, demands the involvement of China and the UN in these talks. While the spokesperson for the TNLA, Mai Aik Kyaw, has said that while the group was willing to participate in the Panglong Conference, they had not been invited as of 1 June. TNLA, he added, wanted to move away from just talking about a ceasefire and instead focus on peace and democracy in the talks.
The government has said that it wants the Panglong Conference to be inclusive and that it is reaching out to these armed groups. However, though the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has said he would support the peace meeting, it is unclear whether the military will support the participation of the groups excluded from talks by the previous government.
“While the NLD may be able to influence it [the military] in some areas, there are some issues that the military consider to be off-limits. This is especially true in relation to the [Arakan Army] AA and MNDAA [the Kokang Army]. The former primarily due to the fact that the Tatmadaw has suffered serious losses in Rakhine State and that the AA were seen as a KIO created proxy. The latter due to their defeat in 2009 and subsequent resurrection by the KIO,” Keenan said. What will be equally challenging is the role of the Tatmadaw-supported militias and the role of Myanmar’s substantial illicit drug economy in the conflict.
The leader of the Kokang forces, Peng Jiasheng, is a former commander of the military wing of the Communist Party of Burma and had a ceasefire deal with the army for about two decades, until he withdrew in 2009, after Tatmadaw attacks led by the now Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. A Wikileaks cable from the US embassy in Yangon, dated 1 September 2009, stated Jiasheng was heavily involved in the drug trade. “Peng Jiasheng has been identified by the US Drug Enforcement Agency as a major trafficker since approximately 1975. Once a source of opium, the Kokang’s Special Region Number One more recently has been documented as a source of high-quality methamphetamine, to include methamphetamine ICE,” it reads.
An important issue that will need to be addressed in the negotiations between the government and ethnic armed groups is how to reduce the trade in illicit drugs. While last year’s nationwide ceasefire agreement includes a line on the cooperation for the “eradication of illicit drugs”, it provides no details.
A number of armed groups have been implicated in the drug trade and the production of illicit narcotics is highest in the country’s border areas. About 90 percent of the 55,000 hectares of opium cultivated in Myanmar in 2015 was produced in Shan State – where many of the non-signatories to the ceasefire are based. Farmers also grow opium in Kachin, Karenni and Chin states. “There is a very close relationship between peace and illicit narcotics in Myanmar. On the one hand, conflict fuels illicit drugs and on the other hand illicit drugs fuels conflict.” said Troels Vester, country manager of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Myanmar is the second-largest producer of raw opium and ranks increasingly high on the list of countries for the production of methamphetamines. While drugs are produced in various ethnic states, the problem is largest in Kachin and Shan states, where fighting is the heaviest. Some armed groups levy taxes on opium farmers, whereas others traffic it across the border mainly to China, one of the largest markets for illicit drugs from Myanmar.
Most ethnic armed groups claim to have eradicated opium production in the areas under their control, including the KIA and the Wa army, though the latter is often accused of producing and trafficking illicit drugs. But the most heavily implicated in the trade of illicit narcotics are the country’s Tatmadaw-backed militias whose involvement in the drug trade is reportedly condoned by the military as a trade-off for their help in fighting the country’s ethnic armed groups. Because they do not receive funding from the government, they use profits from the drug trade to sustain their armies.
The formation of the militias is constitutional and the military “has the authority to administer the participation of the entire people in the Security and Defence of the Union”, Article 340 of the constitution states. Though there are calls to include the militias, who are under the control of the military, they are not yet involved as a separate stakeholder in the peace process.
Myanmar’s most notorious drug king-pins Lo Hsing Han and Khun Sa were leaders of Tatmadaw-backed militias that went underground in 1973, after defying a military order to disarm. Lo Hsing Han died in 2013 leaving behind a business empire that is now run by his son, Steven Law, who is targeted by US sanctions. Khun Sa controlled about 70 percent of the country’s heroin trade in the 1980s, according to the New York Times. He passed away in 2007.
“To destroy all opium fields and factories, the government, all armed groups and the people need to cooperate,” said Reverend Samson Hkalam, general secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention. He said solving the problem was urgent, as research from 2012-2013 showed 65 percent of all people living in Kachin State were addicted to drugs.
While the military may see no reason to include the militias in the negotiations, since they fall officially under the direct command of the army, observers hope that the new government will recognise the importance of at least including the issue of the militias. The main question remains what power the NLD-led negotiating team has over the military to convince its highest generals to participate in an inclusive dialogue and adhere to its outcomes, said Kramer.
“Can the NLD control or convince the military? Only time will tell,” he adds.
~ Yola Verbruggen is a print and radio journalist. She has been based in Myanmar since 2012.
~This article is part of our special package on Myanmar. Read more articles here.