By Angshuman Choudhury*
2018 has been a violent year in Myanmar. Besides the crisis in the northern Rakhine State concerning the Rohingyas, the country has been engulfed by incessant fighting between the Tatmadaw (the military) and various Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) from almost all sides.
The third iteration of Myanmar’s flagship biennial Union Peace Conference/21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC)—previously scheduled for May 2018—was postponed for the fourth time, and is now rescheduled to June 2018. The 21CPC brings together representatives of the government, military, and ethnic (civilians and armed groups) for peace talks in Naypyitaw. The previous iteration took place in May 2017.
Meanwhile, developments in the January-May 2018 period point to emerging trends in the nature of armed conflict in the post October-2015 landscape in Myanmar. Overall, there were 17 broad instances and at least 60 micro incidents of violence between January-May 2018, and only eight visible instances of dialogue (albeit without settlement) between core negotiating parties. The pattern—some emergent and others a continuation of the past—reflect the complex escalation dynamics in Myanmar’s protracted civil war.
Of all broad instances of violence, the most prominent and destabilising has been the protracted war between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) (a non-signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement/NCA) in Kachin and Shan states. The raging war in its current form began in 2015 and has since continued in the form of annual winter offensives and counter-offensives by the military and the KIA respectively.
In 2018, intense clashes internally displaced over 5000 civilians and inflicted significant strategic losses on the KIA. Save for the relatively higher levels of violence this year, the still-open Kachin front reflects continuity in a long-term conflict trend. In another continuing trend, the northern front also witnessed clashes between the Tatmadaw and three other non-signatory EAOs–Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Arakan Army (AA)–who, along with the KIA, are part of the hostile Northern Alliance.
The Arakan Dilemma
May 2018 saw intense clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Rakhine-based AA in Chin state, inflicting heavy casualties on both sides and displacing nearly 1200 civilians into India’s Mizoram state. For the first time in years, a conflict inside Myanmar could directly threaten India’s overseas interests: a connectivity project node in Chin’s Paletwa township falls in the main conflict zone and could be at risk of sabotage.
Although clashes have subsided for now, the potential for intensification remains high. Since the killing of seven ethnic Rakhine protesters by the police in Mrauk U in January, the AA has only drawn milk from the public anger against the ‘Bamar-dominated’ union government. Even prominent Rakhine politicians have expressed sympathies for an armed struggle against the government.
This puts Naypyitaw in a delicate spot. Currently, the government’s Peace Commission is engaged in mandated talks with the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), which is the only NCA signatory and legitimate dialogue partner in the state. However, the AA’s rising stature creates conditions for a bitter power struggle within the Rakhine ethnic setup, which threatens to further destabilise the already precarious situation.
The Karen Standoff
In March 2018, there were fierce clashes between the Tatmadaw and the NCA signatory Karen National Union (KNU) in Karen State’s Hpapun district. Since 2017, the KNU and the Karen civil society have accused the Tatmadaw of illegally expanding its presence in Karen in violation of the NCA, and of shooting a local humanitarian worker dead. This created an escalation dynamic despite the existence of a ceasefire arrangement between the two parties, ultimately peaking in violent clashes. Finally, both sides held talks and the military decided to pull back from KNU territory.
The KNU is the most powerful and influential of all NCA signatories, and therefore a crucial dialogue partner for Naypyitaw. A fallout with the group would reverse all positive gains painstakingly accrued over the past five years in this sensitive ethnic state and more importantly, damage the NCA’s credibility as an instrument of reconciliation.
Attacks on Non-combatants
There were three instances of violence against civilian or quasi-civilian targets between February and May 2018: an unclaimed bomb blast at Yoma Bank in Lashio, Shan State, (2 civilians killed); an unclaimed triple bomb blast in Sittwe, Rakhine State (no deaths reported); and a coordinated TNLA attack against security outposts and a casino (at least 15 civilians killed).
EAO attacks on non-combatant targets have been rare, with infrequent exceptions mostly in the north where illicit financial interests often trigger inter-EAO turf wars. The last rebel attack on non-combatants was in March 2017 when the MNDAA launched an assault in Laukkai, Shan State, killing 30 people. However, with the growing intensity of military offensives, more non-ceasefire EAOs seem to be resorting to attack soft targets in urban areas with an objective of bridging the tactical asymmetry in the conflict as well as increasing the Tatmadaw’s costs for attacking rebel positions in the jungles.
Need for Stronger Ceasefire Monitoring
Besides military-rebel clashes, there were several low-grade skirmishes between various EAOs–both signatories and non-signatories–most which erupted over contested territorial blocs.
These low-intensity skirmishes, unlike military-rebel clashes, can be tackled at the ground level by strengthening the ceasefire-monitoring regime spearheaded by the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC). This would entail further disaggregation of the existing JMC framework to the ground level by instituting more JMC-Locals involving community-level organisations, thereby allowing JMC-Union and JMC-States to process and respond to ground level complaints quicker.