Following clashes in August involving the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) and Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, hostilities between the parties once again erupted on October 6. For several hours, some 300 government soldiers from the Eastern Command in Taunggyi clashed with ethnic rebels around one of their posts securing a supply line to the rebels’ headquarters in Wan Hai.
The hostilities come after the SSA-N, the armed wing of the Shan State Progressive Party, opted out of joining the much debated Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The government has pushed to have that deal signed by October 15, just weeks before Myanmar holds parliamentary elections. However, just seven of the more than 15 armed ethnic groups taking part in negotiations have said they will sign. Most of those committing to sign have not been involved in recent hostilities. The others have cited this year’s hostilities to avoid signing.
For its part, the SSA-N indicated that its decision spawned the violence on October 6. According to them, the government was punishing the group or forcing it to change its decision. On their other hand, another regional faction that engaged government forces in August and September, Shan State Army-South and its political wing, the Restoration Council of Shan State, are believed to be inching towards signing the NCA.
Determining the exact cause of hostilities in Myanmar’s peripheral regions is difficult. Such violence can easily be pinned to a broader political dispute, like the NCA, but it is also very important to remember that hostilities in ethnic areas regularly stem from very localized disputes. The description of the government’s attack though, if valid, does point to significant assault, beyond simply battling over access to resources. Moreover, the fighting on October 6 comes as numerous rebel groups have accused the government’s military of launching attacks to both coerce factions to sign the NCA, or conversely, undermine the negotiations and the upcoming voting process in certain ethnic areas. The two diverging accusations are testament to the muddled nature of government-ethnic relations, along with lingering rivalries between the military elites and central government. For example, it can be opaque whether the Tatmadaw is acting upon government orders, the interests of local commanders, or the military elite. Ethnic groups also remain players in this game, and competitors among themselves. Therefore, and though their interests are often overlooked by regular media, it should not be ruled out that hostilities may be initiated by ethnic fighters to undermine the NCA or the voting process, if specific interests are at stake.
Regardless of whose to blame, intermittent fighting should be expected to continue in both Shan and Kachin states over the coming weeks. The volatility exhibited in both states has already posed a fundamental challenge to the NCA, seriously degrading the impact of any agreement given the many factions opting out. Notwithstanding the current government’s ambition to portray itself as reformist, the upcoming elections could also suffer. The international community may find it hard to reach optimism with Myanmar’s political transition if populations of whole regions are deprived of their ability to vote because of ongoing violence. In the end though, this may be what the military ultimately seeks.