Guest Column

Can A New President Pull Myanmar Out of the Quagmire of Conflict?

By Joe Kumbun 29 March 2018

U Win Myint — a former Speaker of the House of Representatives — will become Myanmar’s 10th president, succeeding U Htin Kyaw, who resigned from his position after less than two years in office.

On Wednesday, Parliament voted unanimously to make U Win Myint president. A series of lingering challenges including a stagnant economy, the civil war, the Rohingya crisis and amending the Constitution are waiting to be addressed by the new president.

Yet the question “How can we end the civil war and build peace in Myanmar?” might be the main challenge facing incoming President U Win Myint.

His two immediate predecessors, U Htin Kyaw and U Thein Sein, managed to get 10 ethnic armed groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) — eight groups in 2015 under U Thein Sein and two groups during U Htin Kyaw’s tenure. The 10 groups are: the Karen National Union (KNU), the Pa-O National Liberation Army, the Chin National Front (CNF), the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (Peace Council) (KNU/KNLA PC), the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the New Mon State Party and the Lahu Democratic Union.

However, the most powerful groups have refrained from signing the NCA. These comprise the seven groups that make up the Federal Political Negotiation Council Consultative Commission (FPNCC), namely the United Wa State Army, Kachin Indepedence Organization, National Democratic Alliance Army, Shan State Progress Party, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army, and two groups from the United Nationalities Federal Council, namely the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Arakan National Council.

While the government and ethnic armed groups negotiate over signing the NCA, the lingering conflicts have become a major obstacle for all parties. These conflicts include both signatories and non-signatories of the NCA.

NCA Signatories

The Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), the armed wing of the New Mon State Party, has clashed with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, twice recently. On Feb. 14, I wrote an article, “The UNFC: Reasons Behind Signing and Not Signing the NCA,” warning of a potential clash between these two groups. I clearly stated in the article that the expansion of the KNU’s territory toward Yay Phyu, Kawkareik and Kyainseikgyi along the Karen and Mon state borders threatened to cause a major conflict.

More than a week later on Feb. 24, a clash between these two NCA signatories broke out in Yay Phyu, with both sides reporting injuries. Even as the two sides were discussing how to solve the dispute, clashes erupted again on March 4. The lack of a clear demarcation of territory between these two groups makes it hard to prevent clashes. The Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) has been unable to prevent hostilities despite both sides being signatories of the NCA.

NCA Signatory and Non-signatory

The Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) — an NCA signatory — and the TNLA— a non-signatory — have consistently clashed in northern Shan State. The RCSS signed the NCA on Oct. 15, 2015. Fighting between the two groups erupted on Nov. 27, 2015, due to the RCSS’s territorial expansion toward the TNLA-controlled areas such as Kyaukme, Nansang, Mongton and Namkhan.

The TNLA believes the RCSS has been allowed to gain a dominant position by the Tatmadaw due to its having signed the NCA — a charge the Tatmadaw denies. Clashes have erupted several times, resulting in both combatant and civilian casualties. The clashes have also displaced many people, fostering resentment between the ethnic Shan and Ta’ang (Palaung) people.

Tatmadaw and NCA Signatories

Surprisingly, clashes between the Tatmadaw and NCA signatories have erupted several times. The recent fighting between the Tatmadaw and the KNU highlights the weakness of the NCA.

Fighting broke out between the Tatmadaw and the KNLA’s 5th Brigade due to the Tatmadaw’s alleged deployment of security patrols to facilitate the rebuilding of an old road in Lel Mu Palaw on March 5. The clash not only displaced about 2,000 people, but also negatively affected the ongoing peace process.

On March 19, hundreds of Karen people staged a protest to demand the Tatmadaw withdraw its forces, alleging they had been deployed to expand territorial control. The KNU met with the Tatmadaw to try to solve the recent tension on March 30, but it seems further talks will be required to stabilize the region.

The Tatmadaw has fought not only with the KNU, but also with the RCSS. The Tatmadaw and the RCSS clashed in July 2017. General Yawd Serk, a leader of the RCSS/SSA, accused the Tatmadaw of not abiding by the terms of the NCA after the Myanmar military attaché in Bangkok blocked a July meeting of the Committee for Shan State Unity in Chiang Mai, Thailand last year.

Furthermore, tensions between the Tatmadaw and the Karen State Border Guard Force (BGF) recently flared after Tatmadaw forces and police seized hundreds of cars without licenses owned by the BGF. Clashes between the Tatmadaw and NCA signatories seem mostly to stem from the ignoring of terms of the agreement, such as the requirement to inform the other side prior to crossing an area under its control.

The clashes between the Tatmdaw and NCA signatories highlight the flawed nature of the NCA and only make non-NCA signatories more wary about signing the deal.

Tatmadaw and Non-NCA Signatories

The clashes between the Tatmadaw and non-NCA signatories have become intractable, particularly with the KIO.

Fighting resumed in 2011 between the Tatmadaw and the KIO, and continues despite the two sides having met in Dali, in China’s Yunnan province, in February in an attempt to cease the escalation. The KIO’s 14th Battalion recently abandoned a base in its amber-rich area due to a Tatmadaw clearance operation. The KIO has lost several outposts, including those of its 6th Battalion and 8th Brigade, as well as its Hkaya Bum, Gidon and Hpun-pyen Bum posts.

The fighting has also produced tens of thousands of displaced people who are now sheltering on the Sino-Myanmar border in Myitkyina, Bhamo, Tanai Township and elsewhere.

The Tatmadaw has also fought against other armed groups such as the TNLA, AA, MNDAA, SSPP and KNPP. The Tatmadaw’s clashes with the TNLA and MNDAA have produced thousands more displaced people and constantly disrupted the major trade route between Muse and Mandalay.

The recent territorial dispute between the Tatmadaw and the UWSA has made potential talks between the government and the FPNCC more difficult.

The clock is ticking for the third session of the 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference, which has been canceled several times and is due to be held in May. Yet it is unclear whether the government will invite the non-NCA signatories to the conference. They were excluded from the second session.

All ethnic groups, both NCA signatories and non-signatories, share a common vision to build a federal Union. However, according to KIO chair General N’Ban La, Lieutenant-General Tun Tun Naung, commander of the Bureau of Special Operations-1, insisted that the Tatmadaw would not accept “a federal union.” The message from the Tatmadaw to all ethnic minorities is that building a genuine federal Union is a forlorn hope.

No one knows how long the federalism path will take, but many people, particularly ethnic minorities, have put concerted efforts into speeding up the process. Yet, stopping the fighting between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups ought to be prioritized before further causalities among combatants and civilians occur, as all are Myanmar citizens.

Thus, ethnic people are hoping the new president will order the military to stop fighting against the ethnic armed groups, as former President Thein Sein did in December 2011, though the Tatmadaw failed to comply. If President U Win Myint can pull Myanmar out of this quagmire of conflict, his efforts will be seen as historic and will shape Myanmar’s future for the better.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based analyst.