On the Armed Conflict in Northern Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 24 August 2019

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we talk about the recent attacks of the military coalition the Northern Alliance (NA). I’m Irrawaddy Burmese Chief Reporter Kyaw Kha and I’m joined by former military officer and political columnist Dr. Aung Myo and political analyst Ko Zan.

We’ll discuss the recent joint attacks by the TNLA (Ta’ang National Liberation), the AA (Arakan Army) and the MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance) in Pyin Oo Lwin and northern Shan State. They attacked police stations and a military academy. Not only soldiers and police but also civilians were killed. The Union Highway, the major route for China-Myanmar trade, was damaged by bomb attacks, and trade was halted as a result. How do you think the Tatmadaw views the attacks?

Aung Myo: At first those three groups were like subordinates. Both the TNLA and the AA were fostered by the KIA (Kachin Independence Army), and the MNDAA was raised by the Wa group, the UWSA (United Wa State Army). They are very unhappy with their brand image. In 1987, 1988, we found a Ta’ang general’s hat left in a forest, and we laughed [about such a small group having the rank of general]. At the time the group was regarded as unimportant. They were not happy with that. They are a large force, but the size of their territory is very limited, so they have always wanted to show off their strength. As to the AA, everyone knows about them, so they want to display their capabilities and build their brand. They want to belittle the military and the government. And Pyin Oo Lwin is a perfect location to extort protection money, so they launched the attacks with that intention, I think. I am sure they extort protection money [from locals] from Naung Cho to Kyaukme. There are a lot more businesspeople and rich people in Pyin Oo Lwin [to extort money from], so they launched attacks there to declare their existence.

KK: Isn’t it possible, as they’ve said, that they launched the attacks to counter increasing military pressure in their own areas of control?

AM: It is not possible. There are a lot of pressures for the AA in Rakhine State. The AA already said that it would [retaliate] if military pressure is not reduced in Rakhine State. [The attacks were carried out] mainly because of pressure on the AA in Rakhine State as its attempts to build a stronghold in Rakhine are increasingly threatened. 

KK: Ko Zan, ethnic armed groups said that all the existing problems stem from political issues, which must be addressed politically. But now they are addressing the political problems through military means. Why do you think they did so?

Ko Zan: To put it simply, yes, they are political problems and they want to solve those political problems politically. But recent developments are an indicator that the approach to solve political problems through political means has failed to deliver desired effects. No matter how much [the government and the military] are vocal about their plans to solve the problems through political means, unless and until there is a setting and environment that is favorable for solving the problems through political means, the attempt to solve the problems through military means will continue. 

KK: With the trade route damaged by bomb attacks, China-Myanmar trade flows have come to a halt. Do you think the Tatmadaw will be able to retake control of the route in a short period of time? For the time being, it can’t control it adequately. Cargo truck drivers have concerns for their safety when traveling on that route. Do you think the Tatmadaw will be able to retake it before the situation gets worse?

AM: NLD [National League for Democracy] spokesperson Dr. Myo Nyunt remarked that fighting is not good for either side. What are soldiers fighting for? Aren’t they fighting for a government led by the [popularly elected] ruling party and the people? They have to fight to get the road back into commission. So, his remark suggests that [the decision] to fight or not to fight is left to the discretion of the Tatmadaw. In fact, the political leadership must support the Tatmadaw. If there is support, it will fight for it. In 1987, 1988, I was assigned to the very area where clashes are currently taking place. There were also clashes then. The situation was even worse then. We had to travel in convoys along with armored vehicles. The roads were quite bumpy at the time, but we managed to open the route. The same can be done now. But one thing is, as to the intelligence gathering necessary for regional security, the command must be given to the military. If concerned authorities, including general administration departments and police along the route, are given command, the route will be open, but then shooting may continue. 

KK: Ko Zan, though the armed groups targeted the Tatmadaw, they also killed innocent civilians like cargo truck drivers, and they damaged the Muse-China trade route, on which the livelihoods of many people rely. Didn’t they consider the negative implications before they launched attacks?

KZ: Military operations are being carried out by both sides right now. As clashes intensify, any (armed) organization … as far as I’ve seen, [rebel groups] are committing war crimes. To achieve their political ambitions, they need the support of not only local people in their areas, but also people in the rest of the country. If there are increased acts of war crimes in their armed struggle, the support of the people in the rest of Myanmar will decline over time, and the support from their local populations may also decline. After this incident [on Aug. 15], I’ve barely seen any anti-war campaigns or ‘Stop War’ slogans [though there have been many recently]. On social media I’ve seen posts that allusively call for war [against rebel groups]. They have changed from ‘Stop War’ to ‘Start War.’ Hatred has grown between ethnic groups in Myanmar society. There is a need to take this into consideration. In pursuing political ambitions through armed struggle, there is a need to exercise considerable caution to avoid creating bad blood. 

KK: According to the latest reports, more than 3,500 displaced people had arrived in Lashio alone on Monday evening. It appears that the Tatmadaw will not tolerate the attacks. At the government’s press conference [on rebel attacks], President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay said that the door for peace talks is still being kept open despite the attacks, but Tatmadaw spokesperson Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun said the NA will suffer the consequences, so it is likely that clashes will further intensify, and the number of displaced persons is increasing. Do you think clashes will escalate?

AM: I don’t think the Tatmadaw will use excessive forces. As far as I know, every soldier has to follow rules of engagement like the US Army. 

KK: So, do you think clashes will intensify?

AM: Yes, they will.  

 KK: Who will be able stop the ongoing clashes? China?

AM: Of course, China. The rebel groups also want to put pressures on China—I don’t mean the Beijing government, but the Kunming government of Yunnan. Myanmar is very important to the Kunming government. But for the entirety of China, Myanmar is just trivial. The Chinese ambassador said that the value of Myanmar’s trade with China is quite small, but Myanmar is important for Yunnan. By carrying out attacks, [rebel groups] intend to show off their military capability so that they may obtain bargaining chip in negotiations with the government in Yunnan.

KK: All armed groups say they fight for the people, but then people who have nothing to do with the clashes are killed by them. In the latest attacks, drivers and manual laborers were killed—some by immolation. Such acts are unacceptable to people. I don’t understand why they did this?

AM: As Gorbachev said of perestroika and glasnost near the collapse of Soviet Union, this concept was inculcated in the Soviet Army. Similarly, in our case, Tatmadaw soldiers have heard a lot about democracy and are also exposed to it. But the fighters of ethnic armed organizations are not. Those armed organizations are ruled by one-party military dictatorships. Civilians have to serve for them if they are called up, and if they can’t they have to pay money, so one-party military dictatorship is practiced by those armed organizations. They have no democratic or human rights norms. Only their leadership, who are educated, make up things in order to cover up their [insincere] acts for the press and the people. If you keep track of all of their actions, you will see that all those [organizations] are one-party military dictatorships. 

KK: Ko Zan, the government and the NA have been holding talks to sign bilateral ceasefire agreements. The talks however have reached a stalemate due to disagreement over meeting venue. Do you think there is any hope for talks after what has happened?

KZ: They will find a solution, but the clashes will continue for some time. The government’s tone is moderate, but the military’s tone is quite harsh. Soon after this incident took place, the army chief went to Russia. Some made fun of this on social media. The army chief is the most responsible person, but he didn’t change his schedule. The Russia trip is strategically important for him. So, it appears that [the Tatmadaw] will go to extremes in cold blood [to fight the rebels]. But at the same time, it appears that [the Tatmadaw] has had to seek the help of China to stabilize the situation. The Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry said China condemns the rebel attacks. Looking at the actions of the army chief, it appears that he will go to extremes. If he does so, the political negotiations are very likely to collapse. At the press conference of the President’s Office, the government said as usual that the door to peace is kept open, but it is just its usual statement.

KK: You might have seen social media posts suggesting that ethnic armed groups based along the China-Myanmar border, including the NA, are under China’s thumb. How do you assess this?

AM: Many people allege that and there are reasons to do so. Chinese-made weapons and missiles [were used in attacks by rebels]. But I don’t think it’s so. In the past, all the armed groups, including the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) sought to acquire weapons through Thailand, but now they need not to seek weapons in Thailand. With open door economic policies in practice, there have emerged things in China that are beyond the control of the Chinese government. The [ruling party] is no longer the pure communist party it was in the time of Mao Zedong. Under such circumstances, we can’t blame the Chinese government alone. Again, regarding the demography of Yunnan, the Kachin population there is twice as big as it is in Myanmar. The same is true for the Shan population. Because there are ethnic groups there and because it’s in a remote part [of China], successive Chinese governments have given a large degree of autonomy to Yunnan. The role of the Yunnan government and bureaucratic officials at the border are factors at play. Again, many of the 107 mm rockets did not explode when they were fired at the Defense Services Technological Academy [in Pyin Oo Lwin] because they are not brand new rockets. 

KK: They weren’t shot or they didn’t explode?

AM: They didn’t explode. It is easy to fire them. They were all set and just needed to be detonated. They didn’t explode because they are old. 

KK: It is said that those rockets are Chinese-made. Is that true?

AM: I learned that not only Chinese-made rockets but also USWA-made rockets were found, so we can’t point a finger [just] at China. Chinese weapons manufacturer Norinco is no longer under the control of the Chinese army. There are [weapons] transactions and we can’t blame China. I don’t think China is happy to see instability in the areas that surround it. I believe completely that China will not give trouble to Myanmar in the ideological arena like it did during the time of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). China only played by the rules at the border, even with the existence of the CPB, before the China-Myanmar riots in 1968 [in Myanmar] and the Cultural Revolution [in China]. Since China appears to be playing by the rules now, I want people not to make remarks that would harm the friendship of the two countries. But I acknowledge that China has influence [on ethnic armed groups in Myanmar], but it has no direct responsibility. Those who are responsible are those [bureaucrats] at the border and the Kunming government. I heard that when U Thein Sein’s administration raised issue with the Chinese central government [about rebel military actions], the rebel groups stopped when Chinese government asked them to. 

KK: Thank you for your contributions!