Fresh, Hard-Hitting Attacks on Military Hinder Myanmar Peace Process

By Moe Myint 16 August 2019

YANGON—Attacks by allied rebel groups on a Myanmar military defense academy and several police security outposts in and around Mandalay’s Pyin Oo Lwin Township and Shan State’s Naung Cho Township took the lives of 15 security officers and two civilians on Thursday.

Northern Alliance (NA) members the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) claimed responsibility for the attacks, describing them as “necessary new counteroffensives against the military … in order to reduce military pressure in our regions.”

Pyin Oo Lwin is popular among local and international holidaymakers, but it also hosts several  military facilities, including the attacked Defense Service Technological Academy (DSTA), a military hospital, the Electrical and General Engineering Corps and several infantry battalions.

The attacks in Pyin Oo Lwin began around 5 a.m. Thursday, before rebel groups retreated to Naung Cho Township, where they destroyed the Goke Twin Bridge and killed three police officers, seven military troops and a civilian in an attack on a police post. Not a single rebel was apprehended.

The military elite offered strong criticism of the attacks on Facebook. Ex-general U Ohn Myint likened the DSTA attack to attacks on government broadcasting stations before the 88 pro-democracy uprising, before asking, “Well, what is the army going to do?”

Former information minister U Ye Htut wrote, “Pyin Oo Lwin seems like just the beginning. Will not be surprised if it happens in Mandalay, Yangon and Napyitaw.”

But Yangon-based ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe had a different view. He said that, if the military is unable to fully deploy troops in the mountains surrounding Pyin Oo Lwin, rebels could easily target military structures with rockets from the nearest hillside there at any time.

Threats between the lines

Two days prior to the attacks, the three allied rebel groups released a statement saying they had been trying, with the help of the Chinese government, to negotiate a bilateral ceasefire with the Myanmar military, but that the latter could not be negotiated with. Talks between the Union government’s peace-seeking body and rebel groups have also been delayed. Meanwhile, since the beginning of the year, fighting between the AA and the military has displaced more than 60,000 mostly in the northern portion of western Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

The statement also said military offensives in Rakhine State and in TNLA- and MNDAA-controlled areas in northern Shan State were growing more aggressive by the day, with howitzer shells and highly explosive mortars being fired at rebel training fields and posts. The TNLA alone clashed with Myanmar military troops more than 10 times in the first week of August.

Without a decrease in armed ground attacks from the military, the statement said, mutual trust between the Myanmar military and NA members “continues to deteriorate.”

The group demanded the military “stop all offensive attacks against us in northern Myanmar and Arakan,” warning that, if it continues, “the Myanmar military will bear the consequences.”

In response, the Myanmar military released a statement Wednesday urging ceasefire non-signatories to join talks “without delay for eternal peace” with the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC), led by de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as with a military negotiation team. The statement urged rebel groups not to use “any time-wasting tactics” while the military’s unilaterally-declared nationwide ceasefire is in effect, on its second extension, from July 1 to Aug. 31.

Then, the following morning, rebel forces struck five locations in Mandalay Region and Shan State.

Satallite imagery shows garrisons in Pyin Oo Lwin and neighboring Naung Cho Townships.

Peace is backsliding 

In an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA), Ye Htut dubbed the attacks “the most challenging attack on the army ever.”

Citing the harm the attacks have done to the military’s reputation, U Ye Htut concluded that the military will take effective actions on rebel groups. Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun has told media that the military will take every possible action against criminal organizations in accordance with military procedure.

Multiple calls to Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun went unanswered on Friday.

U Ye Htut also speculated that ongoing fighting in ethnic regions would derail the ultimate peace goal of the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-chaired 21st Panglong Conference.

Despite such strong proclamations of military retribution, National League for Democracy (NLD) Executive Committee member Dr. Myo Nyut told the Irrawaddy that solving the conflict with arms will only grow mistrust, and that he believes holding political dialogue is the only option for rebuilding trust with ethnic groups.

U Maung Maung Soe said the peace process involves about 10 signatories made up of the Karen National Union and several smaller groups while the seven strongest armed groups, including NA members, have left the table—and even the peace talks between those ten signatories and the government have not significantly improved, he said.

“I would say peace is backsliding now,” U Maung Maung Soe said.

Dr. Myo Nyunt disagreed with the idea that the situation is getting worse.

“In terms of security, our government has limited power, but we will do the best we can,” he said.

Newly recruited Arakan Army rebels in Laiza, in Kachin State, in 2017. / Supplied

Elusive peace  

Peace negotiations between the military and NA members are at an impasse over territorial claims. The army demanded each group withdraw to their points of origin—to Laiza for the AA, where the Kachin Independence Army is headquartered, near the Chinese border; to Namsan for the TNLA; and to Hong Ai, in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone in northern Shan State, for the MNDAA—claims AA spokesperson U Khine Thukha called unacceptable.

“That’s against the will of the Arakanese public too. We are struggling to take full responsibility for our people in Rakhine State and we will keep doing it,” he said.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy Burmese, U Khine Thukha said his leader, Major General Tun Myat Naing, has already stated its ultimate goal is “confederation status” to the Myanmar military and government.

“The Arakanese are now trying to drive the Burmese government and the military out of Rakhine lands,” he said.

Dr. Myo Nyunt declined to say whether the NLD government has its own, differing view of the AA from that of the military, but said the NLD acts as a facilitator, negotiating the perspectives of both sides.

“By revealing our own stance, I don’t see any potential positive impact that can improve the relationship between our government and the military,” he said.

Tensions between the AA and the Tatmadaw are intensifying in Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U and Ann Townships in Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township in neighboring Chin State as the military reinforces the region with more troops. AA officials say they expect the military to conduct large-scale operations against them in Ann Township.

Those rising tensions may be mirrored in Shan State, where the TNLA’s Brig-Gen Tar Phone Kyaw described Thursday’s attacks as “just the beginning,” saying there are “more joint attacks to come.”

He said if the army increases more offensives in rebel controlled areas, the TNLA will launch an even bigger offensive.

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