Positive news came at the end of the year with the military’s announcement of a temporary ceasefire effective in conflict areas in the north and northeast of Myanmar which prompted notes of welcome from some ethnic leaders and observers. The unprecedented move has been hailed as a constructive gesture but is also met with cautious optimism prompting further questions among ethnic groups. Kachin, Karen and Karenni groups have welcomed the news but have collectively called for a nationwide ceasefire.
The ceasefire order covers the Northern Command in Kachin State, the Northeastern, Eastern and Central Eastern commands and the Triangle Command in Shan State. Despite recent outbreaks of fighting between the Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army (AA) in northern Rakhine State, the ceasefire order does not cover Rakhine State, home of the Rohingya crisis and where the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) are said to operate. This decision upsets the AA leaders. However, the military leaders’ strategic thinking is to deter ARSA and threat of migration along the border with Bangladesh.
Over the past few months, the government and military held a number of informal talks with three armed groups in Kunming, China including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army. These three are part of a four-member military coalition, the Northern Alliance. The talks have had their ups and downs, but in recent months some progress has been made.
It was reported that at a Dec. 12 meeting held in China with members of the government’s Peace Commission, three groups—the MNDAA, the TNLA and the AA—pledged to lay down their arms and seek political resolutions to conflicts.
Following this gesture, the military-backed down on its six-point policy, saying that all ethnic armed organizations need only to comply with four of them: “to respect the agreements, not to exploit the peace agreements, not to burden local residents and to abide by the existing laws.”
The two policy points omitted are “to have a keen desire to reach eternal peace” and “to march towards a democratic country in accord with the 2008 Constitution.”
This change of stance will no doubt allow for more open and constructive dialogue at the discussion table—but not at the frontline.
The Arakan Army remains to be the concern. The AA was established in northern Myanmar but has now moved to northern Rakhine territory and is actively recruiting more soldiers on the ground there. AA members are estimated to be around 5,000 in number and the group claims to receive overseas funding from the diaspora, tax and black market trade. In fact, powerful Wa leaders are behind the AA and China has a certain influence over both the Wa and AA.
The United League for Arakan is the political wing of the AA and aims to implement “Rakhita,” meaning to build an independent Rakhine State and achieve self-determination.
There have been clashes between the Myanmar Army and the AA in recent weeks in northern Rakhine State. The military is accused of employing helicopter gunships and fighting is likely to intensify in the area in spite of the ceasefire in the north.
The real concern is that some top army generals suspect the AA is in contact with ARSA and it is believed that both are involved in the lucrative drug trafficking trade.
During talks between the government and the AA, questions on the latter’s stance on ARSA has been raised. The generals in Naypyitaw want to see the AA taking a tough stance against ARSA and helping to deter their threat. “If the AA genuinely wanted to protect its Rakhine kingdom,” as a senior officer put it, “they must not communicate with ARSA.”
Political observers familiar with the situation on the ground said the leaders of the AA will not take any soft stance on ARSA and they will not tolerate their existence.
ARSA is regarded as a terrorist armed group in Myanmar and the army is determined to continue to hunt down ARSA members in northern Rakhine State.
In July and August 2017, ARSA insurgents killed several dozen civilians and village headmen in northern Rakhine State and on August 25, they launched attacks on police and security outposts.
The army sent out about 2,000 reinforcement troops and launched a clearance operation across the northern part of the state, driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in that area to the Bangladesh border.
In August this year, a damning UN report accused the military of genocide against the Rohingya and accusing the army of war crimes and crimes against humanity and against minorities across the country.
It called for Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague for the crackdown that drove over 800,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh and for the alleged crimes committed by security forces in other ethnic areas.
In an effort to reduce mounting international pressure, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing called the temporary ceasefire in the north, earning himself some praise.
But he probably doesn’t lose sleep over it. At his recent meeting with members of the Myanmar Press Council, the commander-in-chief showed who is the real boss: he is media savvy and up to date with current affairs—he impressed the press corps and treated them with respect. The irony remains, however, that in the recent past the army was behind the detention and charging of several reporters and journalists.
Suspicion lingers over his motives, however. Some ethnic leaders believe the army is buying time to recharge itself before it strikes again after the ceasefire period is over. And it will. Often when the monsoon season rains ease off, the military launches offensives in ethnic regions, but this time they called a truce. Top ranking generals said that ethnic leaders would appreciate this gesture, but many ethnic leaders remain wary and some are hoping to reopen peace talks.
Leaders of ethnic armed groups also have a continued frustration with government heads, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the peace commission team. They complain that the government doesn’t understand the grievances of the ethnic struggle and accuse them of not being proactive and of condescension. They found the previous government led by former president U Thein Sein and the previous peace team more receptive.
It is likely that after the four-month ceasefire, the military will take a tougher stance towards the remaining armed groups who refuse to enter ceasefire talks and have shown no real interest in reaching a ceasefire before 2020.
China has also been a key player in recent ceasefire talks with several meetings held in Kunming, Yunnan Province which borders Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states.
In November, Song Tao, minister of the international department of the Communist Party of China had a meeting with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw and the meeting produced some positive outcomes according to inside sources: a top-ranking general remarked “relations are much better.”
Indeed, China holds a key to Myanmar’s peace process. In recent meetings, China pushed the members of the Northern Alliance to be more pragmatic with the Myanmar government and military.
Chinese special envoy to Myanmar Sun Guoxiang also reportedly warned Arakan Army leaders not to have any links with ARSA. China suspected that ARSA members reached out to Uighurs, a Muslim minority mostly based in Xinjiang, northwest China. Some radical Uighurs have carried out terrorist attacks in recent years and in 2009, ethnic riots resulted in hundreds of deaths in the region. China is greatly concerned by the threat of Uighur separatism and extremism and has long feared that Uighurs will attempt to establish their own national homeland in Xinjiang.
With growing challenges and impending international intervention in northern Rakhine, it is no surprise that China and Myanmar leaders are seeing eye to eye in order to maintain some stability in the state.
Whatever the case, in the next four months, if talks are going to be successful, bilateral ceasefires with some ethnic groups in the north are necessary. The ongoing talks with Wa leaders have been seen to produce some good outcomes so far.
But there has been uncertainty with leaders of Kachin ethnic armed groups. Top Myanmar military leaders claim to have solid proof that there are foreign elements playing a role behind the scenes to disrupt the peace process but they haven’t named any names. They also suspect that the same group recently approached Karen and Shan insurgents in the south to stir up more tension and misunderstanding between them. However, both the military and government leaders are hoping that Kachin leaders will be pragmatic as they signed a ceasefire in 1994 under the previous military government. The Kachin were one of the earliest ethnic armed groups to sign a ceasefire agreement and participated in the national convention at which military representative’s army and ethnic groups drafted the 2008 Constitution.
Peace won’t be easy to achieve in Myanmar and the military’s latest gesture shouldn’t be taken lightly.