Myanmar’s violent road to ‘peace’

 Angshuman Choudhury analyses the recent bouts of rebel-military violence in Myanmar and assesses their implications for the peace process ahead.

On 21 May 2018, the Myanmar government announced that the third edition of the 21stCentury Panglong Conference (also known as the Union Peace Conference) will be held in mid-June instead of end of May as announced earlier. This is the fourth time Naypyitaw has pushed the dates of the conference – supposed to be organised on a biennial basis – since it was last held in May 2017.

Despite a flurry of activity in the talk rooms of Naypyitaw and Chiang Mai, the stage for peace is largely set by violence rather than an atmosphere of dialogue. In fact, the period between January-May this year has so far been the most violent quarter in years with more than two dozen overt instances of violence and close to 20,000 new Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) reported[1]across the country. May was particularly violent with multiple clashes reported between the Tatmadaw and the non-ceasefire northern groups in Shan and Kachin States almost every single day.

While one could argue that violence and instability were common precursors to all previous editions of the 21CPC, the degree and spread of the fighting is particularly stark this time as evinced by the high displacement figures and longer standoffs with both ceasefire and non- ceasefire ethnic groups. As outlined in the subsequent sections, the overall escalation in violence is rooted in the Tatmadaw’s belligerent approach to reconciliation and disregard for ceasefire norms agreed upon by core negotiating parties within the ambit of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). This is in addition to the union government’s apathy towards civilians in conflict zones, which is visibly spurring greater alienation amongst the frontier populations.

All of this is bound to have serious implications on the NCA regime by reducing capacities for long-term dialogue with ceasefire groups and possibilities for short-term reconciliation with non-ceasefire ones. Unless the government established stronger monitoring systems on the ground and disincentivesthe military from acting offensively against ethnic parties, openings for peace will shut soon.

More fights, less talks

The first five months of 2018 have seen intense fighting erupt in almost all corners of the country. Many of these regions, albeit habitual conflict zones in a broader timeline, had been relatively calm since the first batch of eight Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015. But, this delicate status quo seems to be giving away to a new reality of multi-pronged battles.

Since January this year, there have been 17 distinct instances[2]of armed confrontations and violent offensives, excluding instances in Northern Rakhine State. If individual clashes within a broader conflict cycle[3]are to be counted, as the Myanmar Peace Monitor (MPC) does, then one ends up with an aggregate of 54 incidents of violence/fighting between January-April (MPC hasn’t yet compiled the data for May). The number continues to rise as we move into June.

Compare this to only 8 visible instances of peacemaking, dialogue or reconciliation that took place during the January-May period.

All the armed confrontations and instances of violence during the first quarter of 2018 (excluding in Northern Rakhine State) can be broadly classified into three groups: the long war between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north, the short wars between EAOs (except KIA) and between the Tatmadaw and EAOs (except KIA), and tertiary instances of attacks on soft targets.

The long war in the north

Of all micro conflict cycles, the raging battle between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the country’s north has triggered particularly high levels of displacement amongst local civilians and insecurity amongst stakeholders. The war, in its current form, began in early 2015 and continued through 2016 and 2017 in various phases.

The KIA is still part of the Northern Alliance (NA) and the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), and refuses to sign the NCA. As a heavily armed group with high constituent power amongst its ethnic population and control over critical natural resources (like gold and amber ores), the KIA remains the Tatmadaw’s prime target for now.

Losses for KIA

The military began its signature ground-and-air winter offensive against the KIA in and around the Kachin town of Tanai in early January, and followed it up with another larger offensive in early March. Contrary to popular expectations, the offensive continued into spring and escalated further when KIA’s Laiza headquarters came under attack on 11 April from both ground and air forces of the military, and then again the group’s Battalion 6 of Brigade 2 in mid May.

The relentless offensives have caused significant damage to KIA’s territorial hold, infrastructure, supply lines, human resources, and in turn, strike capacity. In this, the military with its airpower, enjoys a clear tactical advantage over the KIA.

The Tatmadaw’s heavy offensives over the past two conflict cycles have compelled the KIA to abandon some of its key strategic outposts and pull back from previously-held frontlines. This began with the group losing its critical hold over Gidon Hill in December 2016, and now its bases in Tanai and southern Kachin in the March-April 2018 period. The few bases under KIA control in Tanai, surrounded by gold and amber mines, were particularly targeted by the military in the current cycle as part of its renewed attempt to stake claim over high-value resources under the rebel group’s control. Unsurprisingly, the KIA has often termed these pullbacks as strategic retreats meant for rearming and regrouping, rather than losses.

The Tatmadaw’s choice of Tanai as the central target of its winter offensive and the high number of IDPs trapped in the battle-zone reflect the infamous ‘Four Cuts[1]’ doctrine that the military relies on in high-intensity rebel zones to choke the insurgents’ supply lines and networks of support. Burma analyst, Stella Naw, brought to notice last year the military’s usage of this ruthless strategy in Tanai where the army had been blocking “transport of rice and gas into the township since mid-2016.” This year too, the army blocked off approach routes in to the town during the first phase of the offensive, trapping more than 3,000 civilians in the conflict zone and draining rebel outposts of critical resources.

Notably, the surge in fighting comes right after the KIA appointed a new Chairman, General N Ban La, in early January. General Ban La initially appeared to be tilted towards greater dialogue than armed resistance; but the trajectory following his appointment has been otherwise. Not to mention the fact that the KIA and the Tatmadaw met in China’s Yunnan Province for military-to-military level talks in early February. While this didn’t serve any real purpose to quell the violence, it is a clear indication of the fact that the KIA leadership (for whatever reasons) considers the military, and not the civilian government, the only legitimate point of dialogue.

The Consequences: Displacement and dissent 

The military’s ruthless ground-and-air campaign, marked by use of Russian-supplied Mi-35 helicopters and heavy artillery, has caused widespread damage to civilian lives and property and triggered massive internal displacement. Even the KIA’s attempts to cut population centres from Tatmadaw’s approach routes has contributed to the steady emergence of a worrying humanitarian crisis.

So far, the fighting has displaced more than 15,000 civilians in a span of four months and more than 6,800in April itself, with fatality numbers still unknown due to limited access for independent observers, journalists, and humanitarian services. The settlements in and around Tanai have been particularly affected, with thousands of locals (including women and children) trapped in forests with no access to basic services. Locals in Injangyang, Tanai and Hpakant townships have also been severely affected.

Notably, the military stands widely accused of deliberately causing a situation of internal displacement and forcing the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to either remain holed up in dangerous conditions or return to their homes in active conflict zones.

Civil society in Kachin State and elsewhere has responded quickly and affirmatively to the worrying developments. On 30 April, thousands gathered in the streets of the Kachin capital, Myitkyina, to register their dissent against the military and union government for not doing enough to stop the violence and rescue the civilian trapped in remote areas. Similar demonstrations were organised in Yangon and Mandalay on 6 May, following which local police arrested two protesters and sued the organisers.

Notably, on 23 April, 32 Kachin associations in Myanmar and elsewhere issued a letter urging the UN to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the military’s violence against civilians in the north. This is a rare escalation in the civil society narrative against the day’s government, and reflects the frustration, anger, and weariness of the local population.

There seems to be a clear wave of dissatisfaction in Kachin State with the current dispensation in Naypyitaw that relies on mixed political signals and a passive policy towards frontier communities trapped in conflict zones. If left unaddressed, such popular grievances, besides strengthening the KIA further, could directly result in a further widening of the trust deficit between the union government and the Kachin peace bloc. Moreover, a heavy handed response by the state – like arresting peaceful protesters– could directly lead to greater civil support for the KIA and further reduce capacities for reconciliation.

Is there a way ahead?

Given the heightened level of violence at the moment, even a piecemeal ceasefire arrangement between the KIA and the Tatmadaw could temporarily but effectively stop the loss of civilian lives and property. However, this would require full compliance of the Tatmadaw to the cessation of hostilities and the ceasefire monitoring regime. So far, it has an unenviable compliance record as far as the NCA is concerned. Hence, a broader settlement with the KIA could take years, and would demand greater investment from a range of actors – including Kachin civil society, independent mediators, the union government, and of course, China.

More importantly, the union government needs to show greater proactivity in engaging with the Kachin population, especially the civil society. In the absence of clear incentives to support peace through due process, the community is bound to regress into alternative means of grievance redressal. For example, the total apathy that the civilian government has shown towards trapped Kachin civilians in the ongoing war could damage prospects for peace even in the longer term by pushing the entire population further into the KIA’s fold.

Notably, earlier in May, the local Kachin community leaders showed exemplary humanitarianism by rescuing hundreds of villagers trapped in forests due to the fighting. This is something that the state government, in collaboration with Naypyitaw, should ideally have done. The blatant inaction is bound to leave a stain in the collective memory of the Kachin community. When it comes to an insurgent bloc negotiating with a larger entity, collective memory can decisively shape the outcomes of dialogues.

The union and state government must immediately engage with Kachin civil society organisations like the Kachin Peace Network (KPN), Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC),  and the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWA) to ensure smoother and consistent communication between the key stakeholders. These local organisations, owing to their deep understanding of Kachin society and trust-based relationships with civilian blocs, can be effective conduits for dialogue and aid delivery.

The short wars

Besides the bigger battle in Kachin State, there have been several other violent escalations in Shan State, Rakhine State, Kayin/Karen State, and Tanintharyi Region since 2018 began. Beginning January, five distinct instances of inter-EAO clashes (excluding KIA)[4], two instances of low-grade clashes between the Tatmadaw and EAOs (excluding KIA)[5], three incidents of rebel attacks in civilian areas[6], and one incident of a non-combatant civilian directly killed by the Tatmadaw have been reported[7].

Evidently, the conflict in these geographical areas has diversified in scope and scale since the NCA was first signed in October 2015 – in terms of geographical spread, active participants, and contesting interests. Save for the northern groups, most other armed ethnic actors had been relatively disengaged since the current peace process began in 2016. However, the recent bouts indicate a steady regression into the bush wars of the days past, characterised by low-grade, evenly spread-out insurgencies.

The Karen standoff

While most of the short wars erupted due to overlapping territorial blocs or one-off skirmishes over unwarranted troop incursions, the KNU’s recent confrontation with the military has a peculiar tenor to it.

The KNU/KNLA – one of the most powerful NCA signatory groups – clashed with the Tatmadaw in Kayin (or Karen) State’s Mutraw (Hpapun) district between 4-8 March, besides also clashing with the New Mon State Party (NMSP)/Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA) in the Tanintharyi Region during the same period. More than 2400 civilianshad been displaced due to the clashes as of 6 April 2018.

The KNLA had accused the Tatmadaw of barging into their territory in Mutraw on 4 March without taking permission (which is a mandatory pre-condition under the NCA) and initiating construction of a road. The situation took a deviant turn in April when the militaryshotan unarmed Karen community worker dead, triggering massive outrage in the state and amongst the regional humanitarian community.

The military’s adventurism in Kayin State, however, isn’t a new phenomenon. A closer look at the past two years reveals that the military never really took the NCA seriously when it came to dealing with the Karens.

Despite the KNU signing a bilateral ceasefire agreement in 2012 and then the NCA in 2015, Kayin State has witnessed a steady military buildup[8]over the past two years in the form of greater Tatmadaw troop presence, denser military infrastructure, and a road that the military had been laying in Mutraw. The KNU leadership has described this contentious road, which cuts through the group’s key territory and local farmlands, as a “tactical military road” that attempts to upgrade the Tatmadaw’s overall presence in the state.

In April 2018, the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) released a damning report, which asserted that the Tatmadaw has been “taking advantage of the ceasefire to […] expand and upgrade its military infrastructure and capability to seize and control indigenous Karen people’s lands.” KPSN claims that its “findings show that the Burma Army has repeatedly breached the terms of the 2012 and 2015 ceasefire agreements in Mutraw District.”

Furthermore, in a recent interview with the Karen Information Centre, KNLA’s Vice Chief of Staff Lt-Gen Saw Baw Kyaw Heh stated that the recent offensives were merely the Tatmadaw’s way to test the waters for a bigger one. He also hinted towards the prospect of a continued armed struggle in the face of failed negotiations. What more, a 2017 study on the KNU concluded that the group “was facing an ‘inevitable’ return to open conflict against the Myanmar Armed Forces” if the union government continues to dismiss the need for further reforms.

These developments have spurred fresh anxieties within the Karen bloc. Local political leaders and civil society have begun to question the ceasefire’s credibility and the government’s agenda. Add to this the growing popular discontent against the regime in Naypyitaw for not granting full political reforms. The Tatmadaw’s continued refusal to openly communicate with the KNU further aggravates the sense of alienation and confusion.

But, fortunately, the situation de-escalated around mid-May as both parties began to talk to each other, and finally on 17 May, the Tatmadaw agreed to postponed road-building activities in Mutraw. In light of the latest agreement, the union and state governments must ensure that both parties strictly adhere to the agreed principles of ceasefires and territorial movements, particularly given the acute lack of mutual confidence.

What we’re looking at in Kayin State is a difficult and precarious situation. There is little doubt that the Tatmadaw actively contributed to the escalation by crossing ceasefire lines in violation of the NCA while also dismissing repeated requests by the KNU to hold talks. Hence, without proactive concessions and strategic revisions from the military, including a partial or total withdrawal of forces from KNU territory, there is little possibility of reconciliation. But, simply respecting ceasefire lines won’t be enough as the larger discontent regarding lack of political reforms and justice can only be addressed if the union government expresses a will to renegotiate the terms of the NCA within legitimate, mutually-agreed boundaries. A postponement on this agenda could lead to similar standoffs in the future.

A damaged government-signatory relationship, that too involving an influential ethnic bloc, could prove to be the ultimate death knell on the NCA. After all, what real incentive does any non-signatory have in changing their position on the agreement when the military itself continues to flout its provisions openly? Thus, the union government must invest more in patching the Karen situation up before its ripple effects consume the peace process.

A new western battlefront

Since November 2017, Chin State has been on the edge with the Tatmadaw clashing with the Arakan Army (AA) on two major instances[9]. The escalation has killed more than two dozen people (including civilians, Tatmadaw troops, and AA rebels) and displaced more than a thousand civilians across the border into India’s Mizoram state. Unlike in most other military-rebel clashes in the recent past, the Tatmadaw appears to have suffered heavy casualties here in Chin.

The AA is a relatively new ethnic Rakhine group that is currently in tactical collusion with larger northern groups like the KIA[10], but mostly operates in Rakhine and Chin States. As a non-signatory to the NCA, it remains a part of NA and FPNCC: a sufficient precondition, in some sense, to come into the Tatmadaw’s crosshairs.

The western battlefront is particularly critical because the core conflict zone here falls along Myanmar’s highly strategic borders with both India and Bangladesh. While the fallout of the violence here has already spilled over to the neighbouring Indian state of Mizoram, major instances of fighting have taken place in and around Paletwa– a nodal point for the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP), which is India’s pet connectivity project for its northeastern frontiers aiming to link up Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India through overland and water routes.

The looming threat of violent clashes, thus, is a major deterrent to such developmental projects, which also hold significant geo-economic value for Naypyitaw. Given that the AA remains defiant of its affiliations with hostile northern groups and that the military would certainly respond to the damage inflicted on itself, propensities for further violence remain high in the region.

The Arakan fix

The Tatmadaw-AA confrontation has a complex and rather foreboding political context to it.

Since October 2016 when local Rohingya militants staged attacks on security outposts in the north of the state, Rakhine State has witnessed a rapid escalation in violence and instability. The events that followed, including the larger Rohingya insurgent attack on 25 August 2017, the massive refugee outflux into Bangladesh, and the subsequent international outrage against the Myanmar army’s use of excessive force against Rohingya civilians, resulted in increasing polarisation and a general sense of unease across the state. The situation compounded on 16 January 2018 when the state police opened fire on unarmed protesters in the historic Rakhine town of Mrauk U, killing seven civilians. Thereafter, several other demonstrators, including two prominent Rakhine leaders, were arrested.

The killings triggered a massive outrage in the state with local sentiments reaching a fever pitch in opposition to what ethnic Rakhine see as an apathetic and discriminatory Bamar-dominated union government. The situation took a further hit when a senior local administrator who had a role in ordering the heavy-handed police action was found stabbed to death in his car on the Sittwe-Yangon highway two weeks later. Again, almost four weeks hence, a low-grade, still unclaimed triple bomb blast rocked Sittwe.

With little to no medium for open negotiation with the union government, the local tide may steadily shift towards greater support for armed struggle. It is already an open secret that several Rakhine politicians back the AA. In fact, Dr Aye Maung, former chairman of the Arakan National Party (ANP) who was arrested after the Mrauk U demonstrations, was quoted by the Ministry of Information as saying that it “is the right time for [ethnic Rakhines] to take up armed struggle to regain [Rakhine’s] independence” and that the “Arakan Army, led by Twan Mrat Naing, is undertaking an armed struggle to regain Rakhine State and its sovereignty and to free [ethnic Rakhines] from Burmese servitude.”

For the union government, the only legitimate negotiating party in Rakhine State is the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), which has signed the NCA. But, that does not automatically render the AA irrelevant in the eyes of Rakhine’s own political and civil actors, case-in-point Dr Maung’s open support for the group. In fact, a head-on battle for legitimacy between the AA and the ALP is inevitable in the days to come. On the other hand, even the ALP, despite being an NCA signatory, is growing increasingly bitter, thanks to Naypyitaw’s repeated rejection of proposals for a national-level dialogue in Rakhine.

Notably, the union government is poised to repatriate some of the Rohingya displaced after the 25 August 2017 violence – a step that is bound to sharpen local sentiments in Rakhine and only fester more bitterness against Naypyitaw. Paul Keenan, the author of a report released last year by the Euro Burma Office (EBO) said the following in an interview with The Irrawaddy:“The situation in Rakhine State, I think, it is going to get worse next year [2018], but not because of [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army], primarily probably because of the Arakan Army […] Arakan Army for me will be the flashpoint for the peace process next year, because they don’t seem to have legitimacy.”

The union government must realise sooner that the standard template for dialogue wherein the Peace Commission engages with a largely homogeneous ethnic bloc might not work in Rakhine. Recent developments have shown that Naypyitaw is staring at more than one disenfranchised parties in the state within a single ethnic bloc: ALP, ANP, and unaffiliated ethnic Rakhines. Without multi-pronged, context-specific engagement with all actors (including local civil society), Naypyitaw is doomed to face a bigger, more powerful and popular AA.

Combined with the unrest in Northern Rakhine, an open conflict with the group could drag Rakhine into a state of total lawlessness and wholly negate the NCA’s limited gains.

Back to bush wars?

Besides the KNU and the AA, four other EAOs have trained their guns on each other in the past few months: Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)/Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), National Mon State Party (NMSP)/Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP)/Shan State Army-North (SSA-N). Most of these low-grade confrontations have taken place over unclear territorial blocs and sudden troop incursions into each other’s territories.

Intriguingly, three of the five EAOs which have engaged in inter-group clashes are NCA signatories – KNU, RCSS, and NMSP. Strangely even, non-signatories TNLA and SSA-N – which recently engaged inheavy clashesin Shan State’s Namtu township – are both members of the NA and FPNCC, and have conducted joint operations in the past. Furthermore, all the warring EAOs were once members of the ethnic coalition, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).

The above reflect three things: the waning credibility of the NCA, the inefficiencies of the ceasefire monitoring regime, and the precariousness of ethnic alliances in Myanmar.

These low-grade bush wars haven’t caused significant damage to life and property. But, they are hugely detrimental to the overall environment of peace and dialogue. While confrontations between non-ceasefire groups remain beyond the direct mandate of the union government, the skirmishes between the ceasefire groups fly in the face of the NCA’s core intent of maintaining a peaceful status quo and in fact, validate the apprehensions of the anti-NCA bloc who argue that it is an ineffective instrument of dialogue. More importantly, the frequent violence serves well to preserve the traditional fissures between various EAOs, thus preserving openings for bigger conflicts in the future.

Furthermore, these skirmishes reveal that ethnic coalitions cannot be taken at face value. Over the past two years, we have seen existing alliances dissolve rapidly and new ones form out of thin air. As with most other conflict paradigms involving a multiplicity of actors, in Myanmar too, political groupings (like UNFC) have sustained for longer periods than tactical ones (like TNLA-RCSS joint brigades). Those that are a mix of both – for example the FPNCC led by the United Wa State Party (UWSA) – carry even better prospects of survival given their well-rounded nature and higher bargaining power.

Insurgency to terrorism?

Since January 2018, at least three major attacks have targeted civilians or lateral civilian targets – the 21 February Lashio bomb blast, the 24 February Sittwe blast, and the 12 May attack by TNLA in Muse, northern Shan State. The first two attacks have gone unclaimed.

EAOs in Myanmar do not have a history of categorically targeting civilians within the broader insurgent agenda, with infrequent exceptions mostly in the north. Very few rebel groups have dared to drag the jungle wars into urban centres to gain tactical advantage. The last major rebel attack on civilians took place on 5 March 2017 in Laukkai, Shan State when the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) mountedan assaulton security outposts, hotels, and casinos, killing 30 people.

The recent attacks show that insurgent EAOs are willing to take the terror path for three identifiable reasons: target critical civilian or quasi-civilian (militia) assets of the Tatmadaw and affiliates of rival groups; bridge the asymmetry in the conflict, not unlike Hamas’ use of suicide bombing in the face of Israeli weapons; and dramatically raise the costs of Tatmadaw’s perennial against EAOs. Greater the number of attacks on civilians, higher the public pressure on the military to stop the fighting.

For the government, dealing with jungle wars would be easier than urban attacks, which tend to be more discrete, non-uniform, and errant. For the military, a war with bare minimum of rules of engagement is strategically more viable than one without any rules whatsoever. Hence, from a neutral standpoint, rebel offensives against soft targets can be effective in eroding the government’s legitimacy further (given it fails to secure civilian lives) and in the longer term, tilt the balance of force in favour of the hostile EAOs.

However, under current conditions, one can expect only the hostile northern groups like TNLA and MNDAA to attack non-combatant targets to increase their bargaining power and protect their illicit interests along the border areas. In addition, although the Sittwe blast has gone unclaimed, the AA too might engage in a few attacks on non-military (not ‘civilian’[11]) targets in the coming months to level the playing field.

Need for better ceasefire monitoring

In order to keep a check on the frequent territorial standoffs between NCA signatories, the government needs to urgently strengthen the ceasefire regime and make it more responsive to individual complaints (both verbal and written). This not only entails crunching the response time between receipt of the complaint and redressal of it, but also chalking neat ceasefire lines, especially in areas where EAO blocs overlap explicitly. This is a difficult endeavour and would require close participation of all signatory EAOs, verification teams, and civil society groups in the proceedings and working of the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC), which is one of the most decisive nodal points in the entire peace machinery.

The JMC, which is trifurcated into union, state, and local levels, is already designed to deal with multiple levels of complaints. However, the actual monitoring remains lax due to the structural distance between events on the ground and the monitoring machinery. This critical gap needs to be bridged. It is imprudent to expect the JMC-Union (JMC-U) to micromanage ceasefire monitoring, especially in remote hinterlands. Thus, the state governments need to set up more local-level JMCs (JMC-L) and Local Civilian Monitoring (LCM) teams under the state governments in order to ensure a more disaggregated and devolved monitoring regime.

Some of these suggestions were already made in the most recent meeting of the committee. Whether similar suggestions were made in earlier sessions and how much follow-up work was done remain unclear. Further, there is a lack of transparency within the government’s monitoring bureaucracy. As Yangon-based Burma analyst, David Scott Mathieson has pointed out recently, the government failed to publicly announce the reason behind the latest round of unresolved ceasefire violation complaints. Such opaqueness is bound to sharpen the lack of popular confidence in the government’s ability to manage a delicate status quo.

While the close participation of Tatmadaw and EAO representatives is imperative, the government needs to bring in more neutral civilians (in addition to the existing ones) who can implement the monitoring regime in a completely impartial manner. The state administrations should encourage closer participation of local-level ethnic mediation, reconciliation, and humanitarian groups, examples being the Kachin Peace Network (KPN), Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN), and Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN). Several of these groups are already part of the monitoring regime, but they need to be given greater agency in decision-making, planning, and reporting.

The government must also encourage regular local-level meetings between disputing parties and the verification teams. This would reduce the overall response time and thus, reduce the possibility of low-level skirmishes blowing up into full-fledged confrontations. The JMC-Ls should also conduct trust-building exercises from time to time, preferably at the community level, which would not only involve core EAO representatives but also civilian members from their respective ethnic blocs. The idea here is to amplify common interests and connectors between traditionally hostile groups and thus, bring the ethnic blocs closer to a peaceful, co-habitable status quo.

Notwithstanding the above, skirmishes involving non-signatory EAOs[12]are tougher to deal with since they do not fall within the JMC’s ambit. Thus, the government needs to diversify its approach in this case and institute ad-hoc mechanisms for informal talks with warring parties. While the government is already doing so for signatories, it needs to engage with non-signatories along a similar format. These could either be direct talks with trustworthy government representatives or those that are led by local non-governmental support groups. When it comes to hostile groups like the TNLA and SSA-N, the former option risks triggering greater instability as trust deficit between the state and non-signatories remains unusually high.

Can broken ceasefires lead to peace? A new scholarship perspective 

Myanmar is a classic scenario of ceasefires emerging and failing on multiple counts, sometimes in cyclical phases. At the outset, this appears to be detrimental to peace. But, some fresh scholarship from this decade argues otherwise.

According J Michael Quinn and Madhav Joshi, political scientists at Notre Dame university who have studied 196 ceasefires and peace deals from 1975 to 2011, failed agreements are ultimately good for peace. A September 2016 New York Times report comprehensively sheds light on this domain. It it, Joshi argues that “failures pave the way for better agreements down the road.”

The core of this new line of argument[13]is that in a multi-party conflict scenario, repeated drafting of agreements and deals permits stakeholders to incrementally enhance the incentives for reconciliation by revealing gains and losses at a micro level. Even if these agreements fail recurrently, the trial-and-error approach creates a durable space for continuous engagement and cost-benefit analysis for conflict actors.

The above approach is aptly summarised in a May 2013 Foreign Affairs article by Quinn and Joshi where they say: “As soon as one party reciprocates, a peace process is underway. And with each successful round, just enough trust and good will may be generated to move on to the next item.”

What does this mean for Myanmar? At the base level, it could imply that the unenviable pace of the peace process is not only normal but also productive for the greater good of complete reconciliation. Since the NCA was first signed in 2015, various intermediate agreements have been drafted with both signatories and non-signatories. A large part of these discussions have centred around Burma’s contested federal future, autonomy for individual ethnic blocs, and disengagement from armed conflict. But, very few of them have actually succeeded in achieving tangible objectives, for example the successful negotiations with the NMSP and Lahu Democratic Union (LDU)[14].

Despite the fragility of these intermediate, micro-level agreements (or draft agreements), the yearlong process of negotiation have yielded several points of agreement and disagreement amongst the negotiating parties. These have given all actors yardsticks to assess their own standing in the dialogue process as against their larger political aspirations. Thus, the precise trajectories of agreements do not matter as much as the back-and-forth hashing out of incentives and disincentives. Hence, Myanmar might as well climb towards durable peace in a step-by-step fashion rather than taking a giant, reckless leap towards a transient calm.

At the same time, it is crucial for the government to keep treat all ceasefire violations on an equal footing, rather than with political bias. In a situation otherwise, the dialogue process will remain fractured. In this context, University of Richmond professor Stephen B. Long argues that “everyone learns he is better off complying if cease-fire violations are consistently punished with some form of retaliation — strong enough to hurt, but not to escalate.”

These, however, are all theoretical understandings and have their own limits on the ground. In Myanmar, the presence of certain overbearing parties (and interests) may put a rider to the “broken ceasefires are good” hypothesis. This includes the Tatmadaw, which continues to play spoiler in the dialogue process, and China, which continues to exercise disproportionate leverage over non-ceasefire groups in Myanmar’s north. Given the asymmetric concentration of power in both parties in context, a patterned prognosis may not be the best idea as both parties are capable of changing the course of the dialogue process through abrupt interventions.

[1]According to the Myanmar Peace Monitor monthly database:http://www.mmpeacemonitor.org/research/monitoring-archive
[2]Author’s own research and database compilation
[3]Here, ‘broader conflict cycle’ denotes a confrontation that lasts for more than two months and is characterised by heightened violence and recurrent military-to-military clashes. Example: The ongoing war between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north.
[4]  The Karen National Union (KNU)/Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) clashed with the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) on 8 January 2018 in northern Shan State, and with New Mon State Party (NMSP)/Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA) on 5 March 2018 in Tanintharyi Region’s Yebyu township. Further, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)/Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) engaged with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) on two occasions in Namkham and Namtu townships, northern Shan State in March and April. Also, the TNLA clashed with the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP)/Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) beginning 4 May 2018 in Namtu Township, Shan State.
[5]The Tatmadaw clashed with the KNU/KNLA from 4-8 March in Kayin/Karen State. Further, it engaged in a heavy confrontation with a Northern Alliance/FPNCC member, the Arakan Army (AA), near Paletwa, Chin State.
[6] A bomb exploded outside a Yoma Bank branch in Lashio, Shan State on 21 February 2018, killing 2 and injuring 22 others. Three days later, on 24 February, three low-grade bombs exploded near government properties in Rakhine State’s capital, Sittwe. So far, both attacks have gone unclaimed by any group. On 12 May, the TNLA attacked police outposts, a bridge, and a casino near the border town of Muse in northern Shan State,  killing up to 20 people.
[7]On 5 April, Saw Oo Moo, a local Karen community worker who was a member of the Mutraw (Papun) Emergency Assistance Team (MEAT) and the KNU was shot dead by the Tatmadaw while he was returning home on a motorbike. The military later claimed that Oo Moo was a rebel disguised as a civilian.
[8]Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN), The Nightmare Returns: Karen Hopes for Peace and Stability dashed by Burma Army’s actions (April 2018):https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jq_q1pRsCw-uKVHkZFU8I4uj6Q2SAzg-/view; Panyakom, Somboon and Waters, Tony, ‘Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement: Challenges and Opportunities on the Path to Peace-building in Myanmar: A case Study of Karen National Union (KNU)’, Page 8:“For over a year now the Burma Army has taken advantage of the ceasefire, they continued to transport their military supplies, rotate their troops, modify and fortify all of their bases. They also built and repaired their helipads. In Mutraw district alone, since the ceasefire, the Burma Army has created 14 new military bases,”:https://bit.ly/2I04tSh
[9]The military and the AA first clashed with each other all through November 2017 at various occasions:https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/1300-chin-state-villagers-flee-to-india-to-escape-tatmadaw-arakan-army-clashes; after a gap of almost six month, they clashed again in May 2018:https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/renewed-clashes-leave-4-dead-chin-state-aa-spokesman.html
[10]The KIA has reportedly trained half of AA’s cadreship, and has also permitted the group to set up bases in its own territory.
[11]In the author’s distinction of ‘non-military’ and ‘civilian’, the former denotes targets affiliated with the state apparatus (including civil law-and-order) but not directly the armed forces or paramilitary (examples: police station, post office, administrative offices, ministerial residences), while the latter denotes all other civilian targets not affiliated with the state (like malls, banks, public squares, etc.)
[12]Clashes between RCSS (signatory) and TNLA (non-signatory) in March and those between TNLA and SSA-N (both non-signatories) in early May
[13]Key arguments can be found in – Joshi, M. & Quinn, J.M. (January 2015), ‘Is the Sum Greater than the Parts? The Terms of Civil War Peace Agreements and the Commitment Problem Revisited’, Negotiation Journal:https://doi.org/10.1111/nejo.12077
[14]Both groups signed the NCA in February 2018

Angshuman Choudhury is a Researcher and Coordinator of the South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP) of New Delhi-based think tank, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). He is currently conducting research on Myanmar’s ethnic peace process and has previously written about this subject for his institute. He is also an independent journalist and filmmaker, and has written on political and conflict-related issues in The Diplomat, Asia Times, South Asia Journal, Firstpost, The Huffington Post India, The Citizen, The Quint, etc. Angshuman holds a M.Sc. in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from Durham University (UK).