No End in Sight to Myanmar Military, Northern Alliance Fighting

By The Irrawaddy 7 September 2019

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the ongoing clashes in northern Shan State. I’m The Irrawaddy chief reporter Kyaw Kha, and I’m joined by ethnic affairs analysts U Than Soe Naing and U Maung Maung Soe.

The ongoing clashes have become more and more worrying. Clashes have escalated since the Northern Alliance launched military operations on Aug. 15, and civilians have been hit. U Than Soe Naing, what is your view on it?

Than Soe Naing: It is quite surprising that this has happened. The Tatmadaw had declared a  ceasefire there for eight months, and it was desperately trying to hold peace talks. Clashes took place under such circumstances. The fighting is not just a normal engagement. [The Northern Alliance] deliberately attacked the Defense Services Technological University as their first target. The fighting started at the border of Mandalay Region. And their attack on Goke Twin [Bridge] resulted in heavy casualties. Around 15 people [soldiers, police and civilians] were killed. So, we were quite concerned about the fighting. But then the fighting didn’t just end in a couple of days.  Military operations are still ongoing. Previously, fighting was limited to the two sides, but now we need to think about [why the rebel groups] also target civilians apart from attacking military targets. Though talks were held [between the military and rebel groups], gunshots continue until today, and this has become fairly shocking for people inside the country. I will discuss details later.

KK: What is your view, U Maung Maung Soe?

MMS: One of the factors that caused clashes, I think, is ethnic armed groups’ declining trust in the peace process. The process started in 2011 and the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] was signed in 2015. Despite the peace process having been going for so long, no tangible results have been seen in terms of equality, self-determination or self-administration, which ethnic people demand. With their trust declining in the peace process, they might be feeling more stronger that they must take up arms for their rights. This is one of the factors. Secondly, although those three groups of the Northern Alliance participated in the peace process after 2011, they were rejected from taking part in the signing of the NCA on Oct. 15, 2015. They were asked to give up their arms [in order to take part in the peace process, and they didn’t], so they were not recognized. They started to be recognized only around the end of 2018. [The government] said bilateral [ceasefire] agreements will be signed. But then, they are in the very first stage of building understanding. Under the circumstances, they have started to fight for their political recognition. This is the political reason. And as to the military reason, though the Tatmadaw has declared ceasefires in the areas of two of the groups, it has not declared a ceasefire in Rakhine State, the area of the AA [Arakan Army]. Fierce clashes are ongoing there. At the same time, in northern Shan State, [there are operations that] the military will call regional security measures, but ethnic armed groups will call [those operations] offensives into their territories. These led to between 30 and 50 skirmishes during the ceasefire period. Militarily, they [the rebel groups] launched those attacks to assist the AA and draw the Tatmadaw’s attention away from Rakhine State.

KK: Ethnic armed groups said political problems should be solved through political means, but now it appears that they are resorting to military means. Civilians said if they want to fight, they should fight in places away from civilians and not harm civilians. Why do you think they launched attacks in urban areas?

MMS: Whether it is global or local, wars only take place in places where there are people. I think there are barely wars that take place in uninhabited areas. Clashes have displaced over 60,000 people in Rakhine State and possibly more than 100,000 acres are farmland could not be cultivated there. The trade route has been shut down in the northern area, imposing hardships on people who rely on it for their livelihoods. It is said that what disappears first when war erupts is truth. It is not possible for any army to fight in places far from the people. Battlegrounds only form in places where people exist. If a war can’t averted, it will only take place in places where people exist.

KK: The government and the Northern Alliance held talks recently in Keng Tung in order to sign truces. It is said that the meeting was nominal and only made to happen by pressure from China, and no tangible result was achieved at the meeting. Do you agree that the meeting was just for show, and why do you think that happened?

TSN: They held talks on Aug. 31. There were shootings on the Union Highway as the talks took place, and five civilians died. Though the talks were held, fighting didn’t cease. They [the ethnic armed groups] attempted to block the Union Highway and the Tatmadaw tried to keep the road in service. Inevitably, civilians became the targets. This is the unusual development in Myanmar’s civil wars. Since they continued fighting while holding talks, it is not wrong to assess that the meeting was just for show. Again, regarding pressure from China, I think it is a factor at play though the meeting was held not solely because of China’s pressure, because China has signed [with the Myanmar government] an MOU on construction of the Kunming-Kyaukphyu railroad as part of the OBOR [one belt and one road] initiative, and the [draft] map [of the railroad] has already been made. To implement those projects, there must be stability in the area. [Chinese envoy] Sun Guoxiang summoned the three Northern Alliance members and met in China. Though it is officially called a meeting, it is in fact [a chance to] put pressure on them, I think. Ethnic armed organizations think they need to accelerate their military operations today. They think it is a must for them even with the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire and China’s pressure. The talks happened at a time when they are trying to increase military pressure [on the Tatmadaw]. So it is clear that it happened due to pressures from China. No commitment was made at the talks for a ceasefire. They have only talked about holding bilateral talks and negotiating at the talks. It had already been planned to hold talks with the NRPC [National Reconciliation and Peace Center] on the 16, 17 [of September], but the NRPC doesn’t represent the Tatmadaw, and there is a need for another round of talks with the Tatmadaw [after talks with the NRPC]. So, I don’t think [problems over signing bilateral truces] can be solved easily, and clashes are unlikely to cease.

KK: So the talks were just for show. The Tatmadaw extended its unilateral ceasefire after the talks. Previously, it extended it by two months, but this time it only extended it for three weeks. It said the extension covers the next scheduled talks. Why was the extension reduced from two months to three weeks? What is your view?

MMS: Looking at the dates of the talks, a round of talks was held on April 30, the day the Tatmadaw’s first unilateral ceasefire ended after 130 days. The second round of talks was held in Mongla on June 30, the day the Tatmadaw’s two-month ceasefire extension ended. And the third round of talks in Keng Tung was held on Aug. 3, the day the second two-month ceasefire extension ended. Though the ceasefire has been extended for another 21 days now, they set the next round of talks for September 16 to 17, but it may be postponed if there are disagreements over the venue. The time gap between the talks were shortened because the two sides have presented their proposals to each other. The three members of the Northern Alliance have presented their proposal regarding bilateral ceasefire agreements and troop deployments. The Tatmadaw has also presented its proposal. The main disagreement they still can’t resolve today is [territorial]. The Tatamdaw says [ethnic] troops must stay within their designated areas—for example, the AA must stay in [Kachin State’s] Laiza, and the Kokang Group must stay in Kokang, the TNLA must stay in the Palaung Self-administered zone. This is what the military has proposed. What the three members of the Northern Alliance proposed is that, even after a ceasefire, [their] troops may remain in the places where they are currently deployed. So there is a big gap between these two proposals. There is no way to negotiate it. The NRPC at the Keng Tung talks said that [ethnic] troops must withdraw [to their original places] after the ceasefire. Under such circumstances, it is quite difficult to work out an agreement. If the Tatmadaw insists that Rakhine State is a white area and it can’t allow the existence of ethnic armed groups there, it is unlikely that thousands of AA troops who have already been in Rakhine State will return to Laiza, so it’s unlikely that a ceasefire agreement will be reached at the next round of talks. The rainy season will end in October and offensives are likely in not only Rakhine State but also northern Shan State. Given the current situation, just guarding by the roadside is no longer enough to ensure the security of roads and bridges. They need to go longer and deeper into the areas along the roads and both sides must be cleared. To clear it, [the Tatmadaw] must launch offensives, and when the rainy season ends, both air support and artillery support can be used, and offensives are likely then. A ceasefire is unlikely to be achieved in the near future, and clashes will continue for some time, I think.

KK: The rainy season ends by the time Tatmadaw’s extended ceasefire of three more weeks ends. Do you think clashes are likely to intensify then?

MMS: Yes, clashes will further escalate then, but I don’t see this as disappointing. Clashes erupted with the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] in 2011. Negotiations started after the clashes, but fighting continued as negotiations were ongoing. They fought before, during and after negotiations. They fought with the KIA uninterruptedly until it came to a halt for about one year, from the middle of 2018 to 2019. They failed to reach any agreement between them. Therefore, fighting with the three members of the Northern Alliance is likely to be heavier, but what we should be aware of is that a bilateral ceasefire agreement may be signed between them after a certain period of time if the door for peace is open. Even if no one can defeat the other, every armed organization—including the Tatmadaw as well as the three members of the Northern Alliance—is trying to get an upper hand. I think there is a possibility for peace if the door for negotiation is open while they are trying to get an upper hand and no one can eliminate anyone. However, we need to wait a certain amount of time.

KK: U Maung Maung Soe pointed out the deadlocks that cannot be overcome on both sides. To overcome such deadlocks, what do you think should be done to place the negotiations on the peace track?

TSN: I don’t think it is the right time to push the negotiations on the right peace track.

KK: Why not?

TSN: Because, as Ko Maung Maung Soe just pointed out, by offering 21 days of a unilateral ceasefire, the Tatmadaw may be suggesting that they will launch operations into the inner areas controlled by the EAOs (ethnic armed organizations) if the negotiations fail and the latter comes out of their territories to attack Tatmadaw positions. Even now we hear that the Tatmadaw has sent two infantry divisions to Kutkai. In addition, there are three local battalions there. Despite engaging in talks, they are not actually negotiating for an end to fighting. The talks are just to convince the public that both sides are trying to negotiate. Actually, they are preparing for more fighting. It is accepted internationally that peace talks are just intervals between battles. The situation in our country is also this case. Therefore, we need to point out many factors to overcome the deadlocks. And it is also impossible, and Ko Maung Maung Soe has already pointed out the reasons why. It is impossible to negotiate with the Tatmadaw over the deployment of troops. As for the Northern Alliance, it is a guerilla war. They said they were forced to come out of their controlled areas as the Tatmadaw had invaded their territories. It may be true or not. This means that both sides are trying to accelerate fighting. At such a time, holding talks is ineffective. Neither side intends to stop the war. It is said that the Tatmadaw has announced unilateral ceasefires three times. However, I can’t say whether they were actually implemented or not on the ground. The Northern Alliance responded to the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire by saying that the latter is still carrying out military activities in their controlled areas. Therefore, if they launch attacks outside their territories, the Tatmadaw will launch offensives into the areas controlled by the Northern Alliance for the security of the Union Highway. So we guess that, although bilateral talks are possible, there is no possibility during the negotiations with the Tatmadaw of reaching an agreement to end the war. That is why the Tatmadaw has offered 21 days of unilateral ceasefire. Previously, the Tatmadaw offered three months, two months, but this time it has allowed only 21 days. The determining factor is the negotiation with the Tatmadaw. If the negotiations fail, the Tatmadaw will launch major offensives into their territories, and if they do so, the ethnic areas will suffer enormous damage. When (the BCP, the Communist Party of Burma) was surrounded by the Tatmadaw in the Bago Mountain Range, 14 villages on the mountains were relocated to plains regions. Now I think the Tatmadaw will launch major operations in the mountainous regions of the Palaung and other places through a four-cut doctrine (cutting funds, food, intelligence, and recruits). I think this will cause a lot of damage to the public. In my opinion, therefore, there is no possibility of ending the war. There may be bilateral ceasefire agreements in 15 or 16 days but neither side is in a position to stop the war. I think both sides are locked into a strong rivalry.

KK: All armed organizations say they are fighting for their national causes, the public and the country. However, they shoot randomly at the public during fighting. They station themselves in villages. When we travelled to conflict zones like Kutkai to cover news, we learned that the public has suffered a lot. In addition to disrupting the trade route, fighting in villages caught villagers in the crossfire and they had difficulty finding food. Some villages ran out of food. As heavy weapon shots hit the villages, innocent villagers, most of whom were daily wage earners, faced a lot of difficulties. Although all of them say they are fighting for the people and the country, they have neglected the troubles of the people. What do you think of that? Please explain briefly?

TSN: Last year, a photo of an Arab migrant child went viral. The international community was shocked. Now, a whole family from Kutkai, including a 1-year-old, was killed by a heavy weapon. Our public was shocked. The family has nothing to do with the fighting. Even a child was killed. Fighting is no new thing in Myanmar, where civil war has been waged for many years. However, armed organizations, including the Tatmadaw, have never targeted civilians in the past. They blew up bridges in order to launch attacks on bridge security posts and to prevent reinforcement. Now they are launching attacks on civilian vehicles with the excuse of disrupting routes in addition to the destruction of roads and bridges. On Aug. 31, during the negotiations, four vehicles were set on fire. These are people’s belongings. Why did they do such things? When accountability for such incidents was discussed, the Tatmadaw said it was not accountable for the attack, and so did the ethnic armed organizations.

KK: No side claimed responsibility?

TSN: Yes, no side claimed responsibility. It is not unusual in a war but both sides should be accountable for targeting civilians. They should say they are wrong and what they will do to compensate for civilian losses. Neither side has expressed such attitudes. It does not matter how fierce the battle is as long as only troops are involved. However, we can’t accept the targeting civilians and their property. When asked about such things, a Ta’ang (EAO) leader said that the people there are their own people and they would never shoot at their own people. He means that they will never shoot at the Palaung. But that can be interpreted as they don’t care if the house of a Bamar was hit and destroyed. We think such attitudes should not be maintained.

KK: What is your opinion?

MMS: In my opinion, whenever fighting breaks out, the first casualty is the truth. When civilians suffer losses, they [militaries] make various excuses. Some take accountability and others do not. During the World War II, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed when the US, which says it upholds human rights and democracy, bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, they had their own excuses and said the war ended quickly and casualties could be reduced significantly because of the bombings. The loss of civilian lives and property will persist as long as there is war. The only solution for us is to prevent war. It is also impossible to say who is right or wrong because the first casualty of war is the truth. Therefore, we should focus on how to prevent or stop war.

KK: My last question is: people think China plays a very important role in the armed conflicts. Some people even said that China is manipulating the Northern Alliance. Could you please analyze the role of China in the conflicts?

TSN: All armed activities along the border have something to do with China, according to history, so it is not unusual that China has influence on these armed organizations. We must accept this, but the involvement of China has increased much more than is necessary. However, the reason behind it is that we cannot solve our own issues of national disunity among us. During the three rounds of the 21st Century Panglong Conferences, all armed groups were invited but no one took responsibility for the groups participating in the conference. China took responsibility for bringing all members of the Northern Alliance to the Panglong Conference. However, they just had to attend dinner and go back without being allowed to take part in political negotiations. Under the excuse that there is no negotiation without signing the NCA, they cannot open the door for political negotiations but the door for war is wide open. Under such circumstances, China will promote its own interests. It is necessary to restore peace in the region to implement its projects under OBOR. As usual, China wants to maintain stability in its border areas.

Therefore, it invited and negotiated with armed organizations over which it has influence. Although China held talks with the armed organizations, the main issue is the disunity among us. During the ceasefire of the past two months, nothing was achieved during the first month and a half because stakeholders could not agree on a venue. It was just a waste of time. What I would like to say here is that the increasing involvement of China is caused by the failure of us to create an environment for resolving our own issue among ourselves. It will go from bad to worse if we cannot maintain the present situation. I would like to request that the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organizations, including the Northern Alliance, to try to resolve our own issues among ourselves.

KK : What is your opinion about the role of China?

MMS: I have no objection to Saya Than Soe Naing when he said China has great influence in northeastern Myanmar. However, the route is very important for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. We need to think about whether China asked the Northern Alliance to launch attacks on the Tamadaw. On the other hand, we need to consider if the Northern Alliance launched the attacks to show their importance along the route both to China and the Tatmadaw. The current fighting is taking place very far away from the Chinese border. Even Kutkai is two hours drive to China. As for the stability of border regions, fighting is taking place far away from the Chinese border, so it is likely they launched the attacks to show their importance along the route both to China and the Tatmadaw. We need to continue to study to the role of China. More importantly, we should avoid pushing our own ethnic armed organizations under the influence of China and keep them in our circle. We should bear this in mind.

KK: Thanks you for your contributions.