Ongoing hostilities, new ethnic rebel demands place further strain upon Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement effort in Myanmar

TNLA rebels (Irrawaddy.org)

TNLA rebels (Irrawaddy.org)

On March 31, a draft agreement of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed by the government’s Union Peace Making Work Committee (UPWC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), a coalition which represents armed ethnic factions. A step forward, but reports from May 7 stated that representatives of 12 armed ethnic factions of the NCCT involved in a six-day summit sponsored by the influential ethnic United Wa State Army (UWSA) to discuss the NCA issued a directive consisting of 12 demands for the government to fulfill before an agreement could be signed.

They announced the need to end Myanmar’s ongoing civil wars through negotiations, whereby dialogue will be held between all armed ethnic factions and the government. The groups’ also demanded amendments to the constitution that would allow a federal union in Myanmar with full equality for ethnic groups. More specifically, they called on the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, to halt its operations currently taking place against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic Chinese faction, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) in the northern Shan State region. They also pressed for the inclusion of these factions in the final NCA. Although they are part of the ethnic negotiating team, NCCT, the government has refused to recognize them in negotiations. The rebel umbrella group then stated it would cease efforts to ratify the NCA draft agreement if these factions were not included.

This came as the government reportedly floated the idea of signing an agreement on the NCA with the remaining groups of the NCCT, and then negotiating with the aforementioned three on a separate basis. The offer was reportedly rejected, with the NCCT fearing this would propel the Myanmar military to intensify offensives against those factions, rather than negotiate. Nonetheless, the NCCT said it would, if possible, offer assistance to end the fighting in Shan State. On the other hand, the government has earlier this year reportedly rejected a ceasefire offer from the MNDAA. Conversely, Aung Thein Lin, of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said offers by the government for talks with the said three militias had gone unanswered.

Meanwhile, the TNLA reportedly claimed on May 14 that the Myanmar military had launched a fresh offensive against their forces close to the Chinese border in Kokang, Shan State. The TNLA claim that the Myanmar military suffered heavy casualties and that at least two artillery shells fired by Burmese troops landed on the Chinese side of the border. Myanmar refuted the allegations, saying its forces were only protecting the Kokang regional capital, Laukai. Additionally, Myanmar state media reported that a military offensive against the MNDAA resulted in the deaths of seven MNDAA troops. Once again, further government reports also state that the Myanmar military was successful in capturing three more strategic hilltops in the region.  In February, the MNDAA launched an offensive to take Laukai, which failed. Since then, its forces have since largely been on the defensive.

Again, unconfirmed reports from May 15 indicated that TNLA forces attacked Burmese troops in Shan State’s Kutkai 4 Township, leading to a firefight that lasted for roughly half an hour. Casualty counts are unknown at this time. Additionally, on May 14, Myanmar President Thein Sein asked parliament to extend martial law in the Kokang Region by another three months. Military rule there was enacted days after fighting erupted in mid February.

Since Myanmar began transitioning away from military rule via a civilian-military government several years ago, its negotiators and the NCCT have made marked progress in regards to advancing negotiations towards the NCA. Notwithstanding mistrust from decades of conflict, President Thein Sein’s reform policies have indeed served to bolster confidence amongst Myanmar’s many ethnic factions that the government, in their eyes, is more serious in pursuing an end to Myanmar’s civil wars. In conjunction with promised reforms in all facets of Burmese society, the government, with hopes of opening the country, both diplomatically and economically to the international community, likely believes that an end to its internal conflicts will show good will and indeed help secure these goals. Most rebel factions are increasingly perceived to have come to the realization that their interests will be far better suited with peace than war. Individual factions, over a dozen, have independently signed ceasefires, of various degrees, with the Myanmar government and military. This does not mean that violence has completely stopped, as ceasefire violations and subsequent violence do periodically occur throughout the country. But these ceasefires have served to allow rebel groups to form the NCCT and continue negotiating with the government as a unified bloc, at least nominally.

While negotiating as a bloc does have its problems, due to individual interests, rivalries and mistrust amongst the different sectarian factions, it has bolstered the bargaining position of the ethnic groups. Speaking to the overall momentum of negotiations, they have persisted through numerous trials and frequent escalations, including at present, while the government has seemingly, for the most part, backed away from its long-held practice or preference to negotiate with rival factions on a bilateral basis. Highlighting this is their dialogue with the NCCT. Yet this practice is not entirely void; underscored by Myanmar’s refusal to recognize the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA within the current negotiating process. With fighting against these groups ongoing, the government and military are likely of the opinion that agreeing to their role in the NCCT will be tantamount to capitulation.  Moreover, another sign of compromise has been the ethnic groups having negotiated despite their initial inclination to see a political agreement prior to a NCA. The government has long wanted the opposite.

Despite the overall progress in regards to negotiations, the said fighting involving these factions, along with several skirmishes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State, have indeed shaken optimism. There are concerns that hostilities could proliferate to other regions, beyond Shan State, and involve other factions. To this point, the military has in the past reportedly targeted groups, seemingly preemptively, which are perceived as assisting belligerent factions or aiming to take advantage of the military’s battlefield commitments further afield. Until now, however, much of the fighting has remained localized to Shan State, near the Chinese border. Nonetheless, statements from within the NCCT point to concerns with regards to the military’s motives. There are likely worries that the military or government seeks to systematically defeat or destroy the MNDAA and the other groups currently operating outside an agreed upon ceasefire with the government; ultimately to either undermine peace talks or negotiate from a position of increased strength. The NCCT is also likely insecure with negotiating peace as fellow members, the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA remain engaged with government forces. Although difficult to ascertain the exact nature of hostilities on the ground due to the Kokang region’s remoteness and limited reporting, it is apparent that the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, is continuing with offensive operations, including against retreating MNDAA fighters. This likely serves to support, in their viewpoint, the rebels’ assumptions. This is reiterated in the recurrent calls by rebel factions for an end to government operations against these groups, along with their inclusion in the NCA negotiation process. Although hostilities are ongoing, it is not assessed that the government aims to undermine negotiations, even if a decisive victory is sought, given President Thein Sein’s overall geopolitical ambitions in Myanmar.

But given the nature of the civilian-military relationship in Myanmar, combined with the military’s deep-rooted interests, there are questions as to the level of civilian or government control over the military units currently operating in northeast Shan State. It is certainly possible that commanders are conducting operations on their own initiative and beyond official oversight, either to settle scores or secure local interests. Bolstering this assessment is the said interests of the military, which include those relating to the economy. In Myanmar’s peripheral ethnic regions, fighting often erupts over control of infrastructure, access to land, resources, and drugs. Therefore, frontline commanders may have vested interests that are worth protecting through hostilities. But in regards to the ongoing Kokang conflict, it is more likely that any such personal initiative is only being taken on the tactical level, rather than strategically. President Thein Sein’s goal to see the continuation of martial law in Kokang, opposition statements showing support for the military’s operations against the militants, along with avoiding including them in negotiations at this time, do lend credence to a general consensus of pursuing strong military action against the aforementioned three belligerent factions. In this regard, fighting in Shan State is liable to continue for sometime.

In this context, along with the new rebel demands mentioned above, have already served to further complicate an already very difficult negotiating process. The longer the process, the greater the likelihood of splintering within the NCCT, as factions become more disgruntled, harden their positions, issue more threats, and possibly abandon the process altogether. The same also holds true for the government, which is likely becoming increasingly frustrated with the NCCT’s support for the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA. Beyond the demands for the inclusion of the said groups and a halt to government operations against them, there are also several fundamental issues that remain unresolved. These arguably remain the most important hurdles towards a comprehensive agreement, and are largely irrespective of fighting in Shan State. They include the debate over a federal army, disarmament, the constitution, equality for ethnic factions, land and resource rights, and extent of autonomy

However, despite the threat to end negotiations if the NCCT’s demands are not met, talks are set to continue and they likely will to some degree. An overall agreement seems less likely at this time under current conditions, yet there is room for more understandings. These will most likely be aimed at keeping the negotiating process alive, in addition to forwarding more goodwill and confidence building measures. Although President Thein Sein aims, officially, to secure the NCA prior to elections later this year, it remains unlikely that he will significantly alter the state’s negotiating principles just to see this happen. Therefore, that status quo is liable to persist, with sides more or less remaining tolerant of ongoing talks, as opposed to no talks and the risk of a more widespread conflict.

About Daniel Brode

Senior Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm in Israel. Articles have been published in The New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Al-Arabiya, and Hurriyet. Matriculated at the Virginia Military Institute; completed US Army Airborne School and an exchange program at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces Hamburg. Studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before receiving a B.A. from Duquesne University in History and a Minor in German. Graduated with a M.A. in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University. Interned as a research analyst for the Institute for National Security Studies in the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and represented Tel Aviv University in the Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition. Completed mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
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