The euphoria knew no bounds in certain quarters when, on March 31, it was announced that a text had been drafted for a proposed ceasefire agreement between the government and some ethnic resistance armies.
The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss-based peace and reconciliation outfit, hailed it “the most comprehensive ceasefire agreement in Myanmar’s history,” if ratified, which “will set the stage for resolving the longest-running conflict in Southeast Asia.”
Vijay Nambiar, special advisor on Myanmar to the Secretary General of the United Nations, also called the drafting of the proposal “historic” and UNICEF even suggested that it “could be the dawn of a new time of progress for the most disadvantaged children in Myanmar.”
More levelheaded observers pointed out that the event was nothing more than a small step in a long, hard process, and that not all groups are on board.
Nai Hong Sar, an ethnic Mon speaking for the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), emphasized in an interview with Voice of America’s Myanmar-language news site that the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) “can’t be decided by the NCCT” but only after the ethnic leaders’ summit meeting.
Leaders at the summit “might like to alter or make some addition to the agreement,” he said. “And only after deliberation and confirmation, will they be officially ready to sign the agreement.”
Khun Okkar, an ethnic Pa-O NCCT representative, said in an interview with The Irrawaddy that the NCA cannot be signed while there is conflict in Kachin State and the Kokang Special Region.
“[The NCA] can only be signed when [the country] is stable,” he said. “We will be a joke if we sign while fighting is ongoing. And other [ethnic] groups will not be satisfied.”
So much ado about nothing, then.
And while the foreign peacemakers were congratulating themselves in Naypyitaw and Yangon, the reality on the ground remained depressingly familiar. Airstrikes and other attacks were continuing against Kachin and Palaung rebel forces in the north and northeast.
According to a March 29 statement issued by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Palaung State Liberation Front, “Whilst the NCCT and the government’s Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) were holding talks for the NCA draft, the Burma Army launched offensives in northern Shan State and fierce battles continued.”
The Free Burma Rangers reported on April 1 that despite the potential ceasefire agreement, in Kachin State “incidents of aggression by the Burma Army have increased to levels not seen since initial fighting in 2011.”
In Kokang, an area in northeastern Shan State mostly inhabited by ethnic Chinese, heavy fighting also continued with the government launching airstrikes and bombarding suspected rebel positions with 155 mm Howitzers and 122 mm truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers.
The ultimate irony is that Myanmar has seen the heaviest fighting in decades—after the present government came to power in March 2011 and opened its Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in November 2012.
Fighting peaked in late 2012 and early 2013 with a major offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) followed this year by a massive air war in Kokang. Myanmar’s civil war has not been this intense since the government launched offensives against ethnic Karen and communist forces in the late 1980s.
Democratic Voice of Burma reported on April 4 that fighting between government troops and the Kokang rebel group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, had tapered off “for at least a day” after the agreement on the draft NCA.
However, according to sources on the ground, that lull in the fighting had nothing to do with talks in Yangon. “The government’s side is just rearranging the deployment of its forces, and trying to solve logistical problems,” said a source close to the war in Kokang.
Fighting is expected to intensify before the rainy season sets in at the end of May as the Myanmar Army consolidates its positions and works to secure long and potentially vulnerable supply lines from the Myanmar lowlands to the warzones in the mountainous north and northeast.
Insights into the actual situation on the ground have never been the strong suit of the foreign peacemakers. The term “military-industrial complex” is often used to describe a network of defense contracts, flows of money and resources among individuals, institutions and various government agencies in the United States.
Myanmar now, it seems, has its own “peace-industrial complex” with an abundance of foreign NGOs, supported by massive grants from the European Union, the governments of Norway, Switzerland and Canada, and the involvement of representatives of the UN as well as regional and international bodies.
“Peacemaking” has become a lucrative business in Myanmar, with little or no regard for the suffering of ordinary people in the country’s warzones. Many people working for, for instance, the MPC earn in a month what an ordinary Myanmar citizen would make in five years or more.
A foreign human rights activist familiar with the situation in the frontier areas described the foreign-dominated peace industry as “a cabal of carpetbaggers and conmen whose real contribution to the peace process is shrouded in self-laudatory assessments that have no basis in reality.”
Among the many misrepresentations floated by the peace-industrial complex is that the civil war is actually about money and control of business opportunities. This attempt at depoliticizing the conflict may serve to cover up the failure of the foreign peacemakers, but it is also a very dangerous way of looking at the problem.
There has not been an ongoing civil war in Myanmar, virtually since independence in 1948, simply because some people want to control the trade in jade, precious stones or timber.
Naturally, the people living in non-Bamar areas want their fair share of the natural resources in their respective regions once peace and normalcy have been restored. The government is also interested in collecting revenues from any kind of activity in the country. But the essence of the conflict since 1948 has centered on what kind of country Myanmar should be: a unitary nation or a federal union. The issues are political, not based on private business interests.
Even a well-respected news organization like IHS Jane’s issued a report on March 25 headlined “Mining industry fuels Myanmar civil conflict” which went on to claim that “jade has historically been a driver of conflict” between the Myanmar Army and the KIA.
These two forces are supposed to be battling “for control over lucrative mining operations” with both having “historically launched attacks on mining operations in order to reassert control over the strategic resource.”
This is complete balderdash.
No one has attacked “mining operations” which in any case are carried out by private entrepreneurs and contractors, not by the KIA or the government. Taxation on the trade, however, has provided the KIA with an income and the government gets its revenues from those contractors. This can be collected by both or either in cash or in kind. If the latter, raw jade can then be sold to generate income.
The Profits of Peace
Some foreign analysts have also suggested that those opposed to, or critical of, the NCA are holding this position because they are profiting from the war, while a peaceful solution to the conflict would put an end to their money-making activities. This is twisted logic, to say the least.
Local rebel commanders who have entered into ceasefire agreements with the government have invariably got, in return, profitable business opportunities—once they have stopped fighting.
A typical example is Zahkung Ting Ying, who once commanded a local unit of the now defunct Communist Party of Burma in eastern Kachin State. He made peace with the government in 1989, and his group immediately began exporting vast quantities of timber to China.
Today, his group is running a gun factory, capable of producing automatic rifles, pistols, revolvers and shotguns, which are sold mainly to ethnic rebel forces in India’s volatile northeastern region. With all the forest now gone, the people in the area are growing opium poppies and there is also a heroin refinery near Ting Ying’s headquarters at Pangwa.
Zahkung Ting Ying is also the only former communist who is a member of the Upper House of Myanmar’s parliament.
Karen rebel leaders, who entered into ceasefire deals with the government in January 2012, were subsequently granted licenses to import cars from Thailand and to run other businesses in eastern and southeastern Myanmar.
The KIA, when it had a ceasefire agreement with the government from 1994, was also able to run all kinds of businesses. That arrangement ended with the outbreak of hostilities in June 2011, three months after ex-general U Thein Sein became president.
If the KIA’s, or any other ethnic resistance army’s, main interest were to make money, they should sign the NCA today.
What Myanmar really needs is not hordes of foreign peacemakers, or an NCA—which will only freeze the problem, not solve it—but to address the issue of why tens of thousands of people in the non-Bamar areas of the country have resorted to decades-long armed struggle.
That would entail political talks now, not after the signing of an NCA, which many see as a trap. The ruse, or “con,” of the current agreement is that, once signed into law, the ethnic resistance armies will be neutralized.
The military has always insisted that its duty is to defend the 2008 Constitution, and every party—including the armed groups—has to pay allegiance to that charter. Political talks can then be held in the parliament, the argument goes.
With the presence of the peace-industrial complex in the country, the military has been spared from the task of persuading the ethnic resistance armies to surrender, which is what the NCA effectively amounts to.
But if that fails, which seems likely, the foreign peacemakers can always carry on to another conflict zone in the Middle East, Africa or some other place on the globe—and leave a mess behind in Myanmar.
This article originally appeared in the May. 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.