Guest Column

In ‘Pacified’ Eastern Myanmar, the Military Is Free to Pursue Its Agenda

By David Scott Mathieson 26 February 2020

Armed conflict between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, has sharply escalated in recent weeks over a controversial road expansion project. The road, linking Kyaukkyi in Bago Region through Hpapun Township (Mutraw District, controlled by the KNLA’s Brigade 5) of Karen State has been a flashpoint for tensions since work on it resumed in early 2018, and some 2,400 civilians were displaced by Tatmadaw troop reinforcements. In late January, a Tatmadaw colonel leading the security operations for the project was killed by an anti-vehicle mine on the road, and firefights erupted between KNLA and Tatmadaw units at other points of the road construction.

The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) has estimated that in the last several days, some 2,137 people, or 253 families including 417 children aged under 5, have been displaced by the fighting. As well as troop movements in support of the road project, local community organizations claim that Tatmadaw units expended 126 artillery rounds aimed at civilian settlements to interdict movement and livelihoods of local civilians between Jan. 29 and Feb. 11 alone.

For many of the villagers in the area, the rising tensions of the last few years over the road project are eroding what little faith there is in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of the KNLA, signed in October 2015. The situation is also redolent of the intense fighting and large-scale civilian displacement in the northern Karen State offensive between late 2005 and 2008. That offensive featured all the hallmarks of the Tatmadaw’s scorched earth approach to “clearance operations”. This brutal counter-insurgency methodology, forged largely in Karen State over decades, was in high gear against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in 2017, driving some 700,000 people into Bangladesh, and has been on almost daily display in operations against Arakan Army (AA) rebels over the past several years, fighting that has internally displaced by some accounts nearly 100,000 civilians.

The Tatmadaw attempted a similar road augmentation strategy in Karen State starting in late 2005, deploying large numbers of troops to bulldoze a direct route to the Thailand-Myanmar border. In over two years of a rolling operation that uncharacteristically continued through the heavy monsoon season, the Tatmadaw struggled to establish a series of bases in strongly held KNU/KNLA territory. The operations displaced an estimated 60,000 people, many of whom sought sanctuary in some of the nine refugee camps along the border.

The abuses perpetrated in the campaign were exhaustively documented by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), civil society organizations and the then border-based Myanmar media. Yet it failed to excite much international attention. There are three probable explanations for this. The first is that the long-running Karen revolution and its massive human toll was perceived as a tired news story; a pathology that has echoes today. This is callous disregard, and serves to obscure unresolved conflicts little understood in the drive for modern development. The second was the major news story of 2007, the popular protests in Yangon led by Buddhist monks that ended in a violent crackdown and escalated international pressure against the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to speed up its political reforms. The third was the devastating Cyclone Nargis of May 2008, which killed over 130,000 people and ruptured what residual credibility the military may have thought it enjoyed through its brutally hapless response to the natural disaster.

The 2005-2008 northern Karen State offensive has been lamentably obscured, but it should resonate louder than it does given how glaringly unreconstructed the Tatmadaw is. An investigation by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Clinic, begun soon after the offensive and belatedly released in 2014 at the height of international optimism over former President U Thein Sein’s reforms, found major violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) had been perpetrated. Amongst the war crimes and crimes against humanity documented by the report were murder, torture, forcible transfer of a population, attacking and displacing civilians and pillage, many allegedly carried out by the Tatmadaw’s 66th Light Infantry Division (LID). The report evinced little more than a shrug from the West.

In the middle of the 2005-2008 offensive, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released an extremely rare public statement that said “repeated abuses” against detainees (prisoners) and civilians “violate many provisions of international humanitarian law” and concluded the “behavior and actions of the armed forces have helped create a climate of constant fear among the population and have forced thousands of people to join the ranks of the internally displaced or flee abroad.” The ICRC also drew attention to the persistent use of convict portersregular criminal prisoners forced to carry supplies in support of frontline operations before being executed or left for dead—a practice that for years resulted in hundreds, and likely thousands, of potential casualties.

The road project has been a source of contention between the Tatmadaw and the KNU for years now. Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing makes routine promises to senior KNU officials that the project won’t be disruptive, but the reality on the ground is the opposite. Both the Tatmadaw and the Union government prioritize development over peace, and see road building as a delivery vehicle for pacification. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said on Monday in nearby Kawkareik, “Kayin [Karen] State seriously suffered the consequences of civil war for many years. However, the local people have realized the essence of peace after ceasefire, comparing with the situations while the area was ravaged by armed conflicts.”

This demonstrates the preposterous notion—put forward collectively by the military, the government and foreign donors and investors—that Karen State is a “post-conflict environment.”

The World Bank is planning a lamentably misnamed project called “Peaceful and Prosperous Communities”, funded by a US$200 million (288.6-billion-kyat) loan to the Myanmar government. Already, Kayin civil society groups have criticized the planned project, claiming it will “fuel conflict.” The bank retorted that 60 consultations were held with 1,000 people, but still fails to comprehend how dangerous its largesse could be.

For the Western peace-industrial complex there are also questions over the increasingly anemic promise of “interim arrangements”, those provisions within the NCA that cover broad sectors to pursue projects while waiting for political dialogue, including health, education, socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation of culture, and receiving aid from donors for regional development.

The area where the current road is projected to penetrate is one of the strongest of the KNU’s “parallel” service administrations, and advances in “arrangements” on health, education and cultural preservation have already been made by Karen communities and the KNU for decades, —to which the launch of the Salween Peace Park testifies (showcased in the current Yangon Photography Exhibition in Maha Bandoola Park). In their avarice, the loan sharks and peace-industrialists threaten to join with the military in development-focused pacification and reverse the gains of Karen communities.

Foreign peace insiders are fond of blaming “recalcitrant” EAO leaders as the main stumbling block to achieving peace, and the KNU’s Brigade 5 area, the fiefdom of General Baw Kyaw Heh, and the adjacent Brigade 3 area, are seen as “spoilers” for their skepticism over the NCA. The fighting also reveals the see-saw nature of NCA politics: over a year ago the KNU were perceived as rational team players, now they are derided as hardliners and all the peace-industrialists have lined up to genuflect to Chairman Yawd Serk of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) as the emergent leader of the NCA group, as laid bare in the recent celebrations at their headquarters in Loi Tai Leng

But the real spoiler in all of this is the failure of the lavishly Western-funded Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) to solve these disputes. There is no greater demonstrable failure of the JMC than the current conflict in Hpapun.

To remember the violence of the northern Karen State offensive, in light of recent aggression, is also a rebuke to guarded optimism over the Tatmadaw’s promises to investigate abuses in Rakhine State, in the wake of the risible Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) report. The military knows full well the playbook for impunity, and its central features are the short-term and highly selective memory of the international community, and their greed for development.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues

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