Myanmar’s Post-Panglong Problems (Part 1)
By Bobby Anderson 29 August 2017
Myanmar’s history is defined by violence between a relatively stable lowland Bamar core and a fragile non-Bamar highland periphery. The country hosts numerous ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) including the world’s longest-running separatist insurgency. Since independence in 1948, Myanmar has never met Weber’s minimalist definition of a state as the holder of the monopoly of the use of physical force within a given territory. Beginning from a low point in 1948, when Karen separatists were assembled on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar’s army or Tatmadaw grew over the years into a formidable military force as it asserted central control over all lowland areas, pushing insurgents year-by-year into more inhospitable and state-resistant terrain.
The country’s Panglong Peace Process, which seeks to end 70 years of insurgency in the country’s borderlands, has been subjected to significant criticism, not least from the participants themselves. Of the 17 EAOs who have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), in July 2017, eight formed a “Peace Process Steering Team” to evaluate the current NCA, referring to it as a “deviation from the path they had envisioned.” Other EAOs excluded from signing by the Tatmadaw, and still others who declined to participate, have come together under a bloc, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), led by the most powerful EAO in the country, the United Wa State Party, but the government refuses to negotiate with them collectively.
Another bloc, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), has, for all intents and purposes, fallen apart. Apparent from the process is the disconnect between the EAOs and the Tatmadaw in regard to sequencing: for example, EAOs want a political dialogue about the parameters of a federal state followed by security sector and constitutional reform, after which disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants (DDR) shall occur. Conversely, the Tatmadaw want DDR immediately, pressing for a disarmament prior to political negotiations. Each side has its own understanding of federalism that is, so far, incompatible with the other.
Let’s assume, however, that the Panglong process continues: that the Tatmadaw and the EAOs eventually demonstrate realism and flexibility, and that an agreement on federalism leads to security sector and constitutional reforms that will serve as guarantors of future peace between the lowland Bamar state and its borderlands.
Far from being the closing of a chapter, such a success signifies the beginning of a more arduous and insecure process that will likely stretch across generations. It is only after federalism is agreed upon and peace agreements are signed that the process of DDR will likely begin amongst EAOs and other militias. This process is codified by the United Nations in the Operational Guide to the Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Standards, based on an accumulation of complex and not-always-successful DDR experiences across the 1990s and early 2000s. DDR now stands as a fundamental part of modern peace processes it seeks to address “the post-conflict security problem that arises when ex-combatants are left without livelihoods or support networks, other than their former comrades, during the vital transition period from conflict to peace and development.”
Combatants are disarmed, demobilized from armed structures, and are supported in their transition to roles in a licit peacetime economy through grants, job training, education, and so on. This process is important so that insurgents, stripped of their ideological justification for existence but still with their illicit funding streams, don’t simply become another organized criminal gang for lack of alternatives. Many— and in some contexts, the majority— of ex-combatants reintegrate spontaneously: the concern is those who do not.
In Myanmar, this reintegration process will involve: the disarming of people across economically and infrastructurally undeveloped and geographically remote areas of the state whose livelihood is fighting; the dismantling (or more likely, conversion) of numerous insurgent command structures and the ending of revenues generated by extra-legal taxation and other means; and, the absorption of inappropriately-skilled combatants into local economies, much of them subsistence, which are also making the transition from illicit to licit. Overall, this is the altering of structures of non-state actor government and governance across areas of the Union of Myanmar, and the imposition of the state, where the Union government has held no sway for generations, if at all.
An unknown number of insurgents exist in Myanmar. According to the Myanmar Peace Monitor, the largest EAO, the United Wa State Party, has around 30,000 fighters and an additional 30,000 reservists; the Kachin Independence organization has between 10,000 and 12,000, with other estimates as high as 20,000. The Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army South has 8,000 fighters; the Shan State Progress Party/ Shan State Army North, 8,000; the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, 6,000; the Karen National Liberation Army/ KNU, between 5,000 and 7,000; the National Democratic Alliance Army (Mongla), 3,000; the Arakan Army, 3,000; the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang), 3,000, and so on. Numerous smaller insurgents, Karenni, Lahu, Mon, and Naga, exist. And then there are the Border Guard Forces (BGFs) – EAOs folded into the Tatmadaw command, of which the Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army, with 5,000 fighters, may be the largest.
Other former EAOs that have converted to BGFs include the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, which broke away from the above mentioned MNDAA to become a BGF. John Buchanan, in Militias in Myanmar, characterizes BGFs as a category of militia, of which there are hundreds—maybe thousands— of such groups, most allied with the Tatmadaw, although a few are allied to the KNU and KIA. That publication notes that Major General Maung Maung Ohn, then head of the Directorate of People’s Militias and Territorial Forces, reportedly estimated that the total strength of the militias, as of 2010, was over 80,000. The highest estimate thus far, from Min Zaw Oo, claims 180,000 militia members in 5,023 groups.
Combining the conservative estimates from Myanmar Peace Monitor which total roughly 85,000 fighters in the largest 20 or so groups, with the conservative figure of 80,000 militia members, gives us a minimum of 165,000 persons who make their living with guns and through such practices as extra legal taxation. This, of course, is an oversimplification; many will be part-time fighters, and may trade or farm, and many have family providing remittances from Thailand and further abroad. Many may also work within operations/logistics and administration in the more complex EAOs, UWSP in particular. But even such applied nuance will still leave a significant number of fighters with inapplicable skills to earn acceptable incomes, and engage in meaningful livelihoods, in peacetime.
Continued Absorption of EAOs into BGFs / Tatmadaw
We can anticipate that a minority of these fighters will continue to be relatively “demobilized” from their existing command structure and absorbed into Tatmadaw-affiliated border guard forces— groups that the Tatmadaw actually pays and equips (unlike Tatmadaw-affiliated militias who are allowed to raise their own funds, and who will become a law and order issue in any future peace). The BGF initiative is very much found within the tenets of DDR: the primary reason it doesn’t emerge in many other contexts, however, is that the military cannot afford the cost of maintaining such forces.
The Tatmadaw, however, is able to maintain its border guard forces as part of its “deep state” structure, and the further conversion of EAOs into BGFs will, to both it and the civilian government, be viewed as another pillar of support to the consolidated peace that may emerge from Panglong 21. But the KNU, KIA and UWSP will likely object, and given their sizes and territories, special accommodations may be reached for some type of “national guard” formation in their respective areas. A second, less plausible option would be to absorb these forces within new “Karen Rifles” and “Kachin Rifles” divisions of the Tatmadaw: something politically untenable for both the EAOs and the Tatmadaw.
At present, it is unlikely that the Tatmadaw would accept any large number of insurgent fighters into the mainstream military, much less the officer class. They cannot do so and retain what to its leadership must be its defining Theravada Buddhist and Bamar characteristics, which many a Karen or Kachin or Wa likely refusing to accept a thoroughly Bamar officer class. With these challenges in mind, the most likely outcome is that a significant number of EAO fighters will need to undergo DDR processes if the promise of Panglong is to be met.
Part Two of the series will explore the manner in which Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration strategies will unfold, especially within the context of Myanmar’s under-developed and illicit borderland economies.
Bobby Anderson ([email protected]) is a Myanmar-based Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.