More setbacks, less progress

An Overview of Burma in 2019

Dr. Ashley South

Dr. South is an independent writer and consultant, and Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University

Over the past year, there has been little progress and many setbacks in the peace process between the Myanmar government/Tatmadaw*, and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). The Burma Army has arguably prevented Aung San Suu Kyi’s and the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) government from making concessions, causing stagnation in the peace process. This, and the intensification of armed conflict in the north and west of the country, reflect a failure on the part of centralized military and government to meaningfully engage with ethnic stakeholders.

The 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) remains deeply problematic. In October 2018 the two largest signatories, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Karen National Union (KNU) suspended participation in joint elements of the peace process, complaining that the NCA was not working. This means that the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) is not functional, and violations of the ceasefire (mostly by the Burma Army) remain unaddressed.

The leading NCA signatory groups – the KNU, RCSS and New Mon State Party (NMSP) – are demanding reorganization of the JMC, which is presently dominated by the military, to make it more fair to EAOs. Their main demands include greater international participation in ceasefire monitoring and for the government to demonstrate a serious commitment to political dialogue and implementation of federalism. This means the peace process and political dialogue must continue beyond 2020 elections.

Increasingly, the 2020 elections will dominate Myanmar politics, sidelining the peace process and potentially marginalizing EAOs. The EAOs need commitments from the government and military
before rejoining the formal peace process, but they risk losing opportunities to engage as the elections come closer – with no guarantee of continued dialogue after 2020. If the government can
demonstrate sincerity, key EAOs may participate

 in a Union Peace Conference (UPC) in early 2020 – which might contribute to a more credible Union Peace Accord before the elections. The risk for EAOs is that if they rejoin the peace process, they may be pressured into participating in another UPC which does not address key concerns and demands. The government has an incentive to bring NCA signatory EAOs back into the formal peace process, to prove that some elements of the peace process are still on-track in the context of renewed fighting in the north and west, and the ongoing Rohingya crisis. In the meantime, since mid-2018, there has been renewed, sometimes intensive, fighting in northern Shan and Kachin states; civilian communities have suffered, with widespread displacement and serious human rights abuses committed by all sides (particularly the Tatmadaw).

The situation is further complicated by occasional clashes between EAOs vying with each other for territorial control. In Arakan State, the Arakan Army has inflicted significant casualties on the Burma Army; at the same time in the north, attacks by two Northern Alliance members, the Taang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, in Pyin Oo Lwin at the prestigious Military Defence Academy on 15 Aug. 2019 caused significant damage, and 15 Burma Army soldiers were killed. As of Nov. 2019, the Tatmadaw has not engaged in serious ceasefire talks with the Northern Alliance groups, which also include the Kachin Independence Army and Arakan Army.

Although ceasefires with the KNU, NMSP and RCSS are mostly still holding on the ground, the Burma Army acts aggressively, for example, pushing new military supply roads into previously inaccessible areas, despite local protests. Until the government and the Burma Army show that they are willing to engage seriously with ethnic concerns and demands, it is unlikely the situation will improve.

* Tatmadaw refers to Burma’s armed forces

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