Circle Of Violence In Myanmar: Ethnic Rebel Groups Versus Army – Analysis

By Obja Borah Hazarika*

The National League for Democracy which came to power in Myanmar in April 2016 has the daunting task of tackling several critical issues pertaining to ensuring peace, promoting rights of ethnic groups, preventing sectarian violence, ensuring economic development and constitutional amendments, among others.

Struggles for rights by ethnic groups have been a marked feature of Myanmar’s recent history. Such struggles have led to insurgencies committed by various ethnic groups against the regime in power. Such struggles and offensives by these groups have led to the destabilisation of various regions as well as displacement of the masses due to the retaliation by the army.

With a view to resolving these ethnic demands, the government of President U Htin Kyaw held the first Union Peace Conference in Nay Pyi Taw from August 31 to September 3, 2016. This conference allowed various ethnic groups which had been rebelling against the government to present their demands in an open forum. However, the conference did not yield any substantive resolutions and more importantly, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Arakan Army (AA), which are three of the fiercest ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar, were not part of the ‘21st Century Panglong Conference’ thus diminishing the success of the conference.

Even after the coming into power of the NLD-led government and in the aftermath of peace efforts like the ‘21st Century Panglong Conference’, Myanmar continues to face sectarian clashes in Rakhine state where about 145,000 people have been displaced by violence since 2012. On October 9, 2016 three Border Guard Police posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships were attacked and 62 weapons and over 10,000 rounds of ammunition were stolen. The attack also left nine policemen dead. The International Crisis Group claimed that the perpetrators of this attack were linked to the Harakah al-Yaqin — a group having connections with the Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both have alleged ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and sexual violence and the burning of as many as 1,500 buildings in the region.

Apart from violence in Rakhine, intense fighting continues in Kachin between the Myanmar army and ethnic rebel groups of Kachin state. Conflict is also currently underway in the Shan states between the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the TNLA. On November 20, 2016, the Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B) — a newly-formed alliance comprising of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) — attacked police stations and military targets close to Muse, a town on the border with China. This attack was viewed as a sign of frustration with the NLD-led government for not acquiescing to the demands of federalism and autonomy of these groups. Failure to accommodate demands of these rebel groups has kept most of the powerful groups away from national reconciliation which has rendered the peace process of the NLD rather tenuous and precarious. Several rebel groups were outliers to the peace process and had refused to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a peace deal between Myanmar’s previous quasi-civilian government and eight rebels groups in October 2015.

Despite the steps taken in the Panglong Conference to ensure peace, the situation in Myanmar with regard to insurgency continues to dominate the socio-political landscape of the country at great humanitarian costs. These conflicts which are mainly concentrated in Northern Myanmar, along a region which borders China, have led to people being internally displaced as well as mass scale flight of people into China. According to the United Nations, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to these conflicts stands at 218,000, including 87,000 in Kachin state and 11,000 in Shan state. Nearly 80 percent of those displaced are women and children, some of whom have suffered displacement multiple times.

The National Ceasefire Agreement which was signed in 2015 between the government and some of the rebel groups has all but collapsed especially with the military offensives in Kachin and Shan. The transition to democracy of the country has come into question due to the gross violations of human rights as is prevailing in Myanmar at the moment.

Thus, the government is saddled with sectarian problems in Rakhine and violence due to rebel ethnic groups in Kachin and Shan states. Aung San Suu Kyi, First State Counsellor and Leader of the National League for Democracy, has been criticised for not doing enough to prevent such unrest and violence. In the latest of such criticisms was an open letter to the United Nations signed by 12 Nobel Prize winners condemning Suu Kyi for her lack of resolve to solve the situation in Rakhine. The letter observed that Rakhine had the makings of a humanitarian tragedy similar to Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Suu Kyi’s government has faced international flak from Human Rights Watch for not ensuring human rights in violence-ridden areas. It has been reported that abuses on civilians, including extra-judicial killings, torture, destruction of property, have been carried out by the military without being held accountable. Attempts to reform laws relating to the powers of the military or to ensure human rights have also not been undertaken by the NLD-led government. The NLD-led government is accused of following the framework of the previous Thein Sein-led government which insisted that rebel groups wanting to join the peace process should first disarm, a clause which was not acceptable to many of the rebel outfits.

With regard to the ethnic insurgency, Suu Kyi’s government has been criticised for treading too cautiously and appeasing the army. The cautiousness behind the approach of the NLD-led government with regard to the issue of fulfilling the demands of the rebel groups can be understood to be a result of the Suu Kyi-led government being limited by the 2008 Constitution which does not allow for the accommodation of the demands of the ethnic groups as any amendment to it requires the acquiescence of the army.

The question of insurgency in Myanmar is related to a number of complex issues including the role of the army and its staunch ‘six point policy’ on peace which consist of a keen desire to reach eternal peace, to keep promises agreed to in peace deals, to avoid capitalising on the peace agreement, to avoid placing a heavy burden on the local people, to strictly abide by the existing laws, and to march towards a democratic nation in accordance with the 2008 constitution. Such an insistence on the six point policy is problematic for resolving the issue of ethnic insurgency — for instance, the Constitution of 2008 does not allow meaningful self-rule or self-autonomy and only mentions self-administrative zones, which does not meet the demands of the groups.

India too is keen on the success of the national reconciliation process as it is expected that with the entry of rebel outliers in the formal political process of Myanmar they would stop cooperating and aiding insurgents operating in the Northeast of India. Ethnic outfits in Myanmar have been reinforcing the insurgent groups of India with training, arms and other wherewithal with the help of which the latter has been carrying out its subterfuges against the State. For instance, the ULFA received training from Myanmar’s Kachin Liberation Army, which has not yet signed the NCA. An end to the ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar would thus prevent such aid from being given to their counterparts in India thereby effectively preventing them from engaging in violent activities.

It is also hoped that the end of insurgency in Myanmar would alleviate the refugee issue in India. India, although not a party to the Refugee Convention of 1951, does have a presence of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees which states that India is home to a sizeable number of documented and undocumented refugees from Myanmar. It estimates that out of 28,000 refugees registered with it in India, around 16,341 are from Myanmar. The refugees are mainly either Rohingya Muslims who have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982 or members of the Chin community who have also been targeted with multiple human rights violations and/or are political refugees. The conditions in which they live in India are quite pitiable and in need of immediate redress.

Apart from ensuring that basic needs of the Rohingya are ensured, India is keen on Myanmar solving the issue of Rohingya domestically so that they come to be recognised as political entities, which will enable a repatriation of these refugees to be worked out which in turn would greatly alleviate the hardships faced by members of the community residing in India. The other groups are the Chins who have been seeking refuge in Delhi and the northeast states of India. Most of them are facing difficulties and have been demanding basic rights. Although the Chin National Front (CNF) which was the rebel outfit of the Chins signed a bilateral ceasefire on January 6, 2012 and is also a signatory to the NCA, without the reconciliation process being complete a repatriation of the Chin refugees in Delhi will remain elusive.

A holistic approach is required in order to tackle the issue of ethnic insurgency which should include mitigating illicit drug trade, ensuring federal arrangement of powers, involvement of all stakeholders, changes in the constitution, fair representation to all ethnic groups, preventing of depletion of natural resources and ensuring that decisions with regard to development of resources are made with the involvement of ethnic groups.

Without the military relinquishing its veto powers over constitutional amendments, it is but certain that the NLD-led government will not be in a position to effect political reform which will lead to the persistence of offensives by rebel groups which will yield further crackdowns by the army and the circle of violence will lamentably continue.

*Obja Borah Hazarika
is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dibrugarh University, Assam. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]

South Asia Monitor

South Asia Monitor

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