Sustainable ceasefire uncertain in Myanmar’s Shan State as government monitors rebels amid report of fighting, lingering mistrust

ShanStateMap1On June 10, the ethnically Han Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), led by Peng Jiasheng, called for a unilateral ceasefire with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar‘s military and an end to the nearly four-month conflict in the restive Kokang Region of Shan State. The call reportedly came amidst pressure from Beijing to restore stability in Shan State, on the Myanmar-China border. The MNDAA also said it wanted to stability in the region, the November parliamentary elections to go ahead, and for the democratization process in Myanmar to be furthered. Notwithstanding the MNDAA declaration, Zaw Htay, the director ofMyanmar’s President’s Office, said that Myanmar has yet to decide on accepting the MNDAA’s offer. He added that the government is waiting to see if the MNDAA acts on their ceasefire declarations, while depending on the movement and activities of MNDAA forces in Shan State. The insurgent faction said it has the right to fightback against any government attacks.
The MNDAA has signed multiple ceasefires with the central government since breaking away from the Communist Party of Burma in 1989, the most recent lasting until 2009 when the Tatmadaw attempted to regain control of the Kokang region.
The call for a ceasefire comes after a number of tactical defeats in recent months dealt to MNDAA by the Tatmadaw. A number of MNDAA positions have been taken, including allegedly their last mountain top fortification along the Chinese border, several weeks ago. In early February, the MNDAA had the Tatmadaw on the defensive as it launched an offensive to take the regional capital, Laukai. Government troops soon regrouped and have been largely on the offensive ever since.
The fighting in the border region with China has seen the death of hundreds of soldiers and militants. Tens of thousands of locals were forced to flee, with many entering China’s Yunnan Province. After the MNDAA’s announcement, China has since called on the combatants in Myanmar to hold their fire and come to an understanding, in order to restore stability to the border area. On the other hand, unconfirmed reports from June 12 indicated that government forces attacked MNDAA forces, near Border Post 111 in Laukai Township.
The security situation in the Kokang Region of Shan State is likely to remain tenuous for at least the coming weeks. Moreover, tensions in the region are likely to be elevated, following months of hostilities since February. In addition and as was highlighted by the unconfirmed fighting on June 12, the longer the time without a formal agreement, the greater the risk of further, more serious hostilities. More broadly, the level of mistrust amongst the government and ethnic factions in Myanmar is extensive and this is particularly the case in Kokang. This reality is also noteworthy when examining the government’s official reasoning, mentioned above, for holding fast on agreeing to a ceasefire with the MNDAA.
The MNDAA launched this year’s offensive in order to retake territory in Kokang, lost to government troops and local rivals in 2009. Hesitation on behalf of the government implies that it still perceives the MNDAA as aspiring to reclaim territory. Therefore, the government is wary to agree to a ceasefire, only to allow the MNDAA to move its forces to more advantageous positions, regroup, rearm and renew offensive operations at a time of their choosing. But despite the government’s concerns, it remains highly questionable if the MNDAA is in a position to violate a ceasefire and launch such an offensive anytime soon. The group failed to take and hold territory in February, and it is far weaker now after suffering numerous military setbacks. It does, nevertheless, retain the ability to harass government forces and present itself as an insurgent force that could undermine security conditions in the region. This is surely still a source of concern for the government, thus furthering its skepticism.
But the MNDAA call does place the government in a difficult position. Efforts to achieve a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) are ongoing. For months, the government has cited ongoing hostilities with the MNDAA and its allies, as reasoning to avoid recognizing those groups’ participation in the NCA negotiations. Indeed, this stance has increasingly complicated the talks; furthering tensions and mistrust amongst all parties involved. Now, with the MNDAA ceasefire call in mind, larger ethnic factions pushing for the inclusion of the aforementioned groups could point to the government’s hesitancy to formally agree to a ceasefire, over time, as insincerity towards actually making peace. On the other hand, the government has long stated that a NCA is a primary objective; wanting to achieve an agreement prior to parliamentary elections. It is with this diplomatic nexus in mind, that the government could find itself agreeing to a ceasefire sooner than it wanted.
Likewise, the insistence of China for a formal agreement is noteworthy. Relations between the two countries have become more complicated since fighting erupted. Elements in Myanmar have accused China or elements within, of supporting the MNDAA. This is mainly due to ethnic kinship. For China, the government has had to deal with several cross-border security incidents from Myanmar, including an airstrike that killed several Chinese in Yunnan. Neither Myanmar nor China has shown an interest in escalating tensions with the other, and in fact, shared economic interests in Shan State and elsewhere in northern Myanmar have been a consistent motivating factor for containing the conflict. Aside from nationalist elements rallying for stronger stances against the other, both sides have, until now, controlled the situation diplomatically
If a ceasefire is codified, whether in the coming days or weeks, the state of stability in the region will continue to remain volatile. The nature of the ethnic-government relations in Myanmar’s periphery often leads to instances of fighting. Oftentimes, these erupt over very local issues, mainly economic. Like other groups across Myanmar, the MNDAA is allegedly involved in local criminal activities in addition to normal business interests. The same is also believed to hold true for elements within the Tatmadaw. In that context, fighting may flare not only from a calculated decision by either party, but also due to local access to land and resources. Also, a main cause of the MNDAA-government conflict stems from internal Kokang divisions. These are unlikely to be removed in the near future and still pose a threat to stability. Likewise, some points of any ceasefire agreement may be ambiguous. Such points can include the ability of either side to move forces, supplies, and carry arms if the context of the MNDAA. As a general rule, skirmishes emanating from misunderstandings and existing tensions are not uncommon following a formal cessation of hostilities.

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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