More than Just a Threat to the Peace Process: The Beginning of a Full-Fledged Crisis?

Khin Zaw Win discusses the recent offensive by the “Northern alliance” and its implications.

The fresh outbreak of fighting that started on the 20th of November in Myanmar’s northern Shan State caught many people by surprise. Even in a country inured to decades of armed conflict, the coordinated attack by four ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) – the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Arakan Army (AA), comprising the “Northern alliance” was significant in its boldness and intensity. The main artery to China and civilian targets has been hit, resulting in casualties. The scale of the fighting and its coordination shows that the offensive had been carefully planned. But by whom and with what objectives? One plausible answer is that the United Wa State Army (UWSA) wanted to draw the central military away from the ‘front’ adjoining its own Wa Autonomous Region – a de facto statelet for all practical purposes. There had been a tense standoff a month ago farther south in Shan State, over the UWSA’s moves against Mong La, another EAO-controlled enclave. The Wa are among the ethnicities calling for a state of their own. This is going to be a thorny issue now that the door to federalism has opened. Control over territory and getting more territory is now high on many ethnic agendas.

Another reason could be that the “Northern alliance” has either not signed or has been actively excluded from the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Recently, the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, reiterated the call for groups to sign the NCA before proceeding with the next round of peace talks (the next ‘21st Century Panglong Peace conference’) scheduled for February 2017. The current offensive could be the northern alliance forcing the issue, attempting to by-pass the NCA and going straight to political dialogue.

Part of the rationale behind all these agendas is the realization that the eight month-old NLD government does not proffer anything new, besides being weak and ineffectual. This reinforces the inclination amongst some EAOs to wrest as much as they can and go their own way. One extreme instance of this has already surfaced. The KIO’s leader has publicly stated that secession might become necessary. The northern alliance’s attacks are unwarranted and public opinion is turning against it. Bringing up secession only makes things worse. It is not only negotiators and governments that have their red lines – societies have it too. (And I am not talking about only Bamar society. The Union of Burma/Myanmar has lasted for nearly 69 years and it has certainly not been a happy era. Despite all the troubles and tragedies, breaking away is not an option and never will be. If Myanmar has just one red line, this is it.)

The people of Myanmar are short on memories, and need unbiased reminding. One does not have to go back too far in modern history. The 1947 Panglong Agreement – from which the Union of Burma emerged – was marked by expediency and compromise. The article on secession that was incorporated into the 1947 Constitution was perhaps the outstanding example of this, which some observers have even called mischievous. However, it is a mistake to assume that in the federal conferences of 1960-61, there had been an outright threat of the Shan state seceding from the Union. Nonetheless General Ne Win used it as a pretext to mount a military coup and abolish the Constitution, setting in train the tragic consequences which are felt to this day.

There are similarities with the present-day situation but also major differences. The constitutionally-elected prime minister at that time, U Nu, was seen as soft on the ethnic nationality and federal issues, and Ne Win dispensed with him as well. U Nu could conceivably have accepted a form of federalism but it is incredulous to imagine him giving assent to secession. It might be added here that he was on easy terms with many ethnic nationality leaders of that time, far more than Aung San Suu Kyi is with her corresponding contemporaries today.

The significant turning-point then was that all decision-making on ethnic and federal issues was usurped by the military – a situation that has lasted for over half a century. Now those issues are back on the table with a vengeance, so to speak. Notwithstanding its eight months in office, are there any new policies or initiatives on this from the NLD government? I don’t think it needs reminding that the issues are far more complex, numerous and demanding than they had been in the early 1960s.

In a perverse way, the situation is helped if things come to a head. On the matter of secession, this time it is a definite, public statement voiced by an EAO leader. In other words, he has impinged upon the red line. Crossing it will be totally unacceptable and the consequences for the country shall be dire. It is like beckoning to a military solution at a time when so much effort is being expended to avoid precisely such an outcome. Peace negotiations will be difficult and lengthy, and the results are uncertain. But there is no alternative.

Recently the Myanmar Commander-in-Chief was interviewed by Channel News Asia. The anchor pressed the Senior General hard on whether there are preparations for a military coup. She asked the question three times in a row, but the general only replied that the armed forces shall abide by the law and the Constitution. Those who understand the emergency powers articles in the constitution will understand that a military coup is totally unnecessary. Because a constitutional transfer of power to the military is provided for.

Such a move cannot be ruled out, and I would say that the incumbent NLD government will not be entirely displeased about it either. There are degrees and nuances to the relationship between the two. The Commander-in-Chief has mentioned the emergency articles that provide for a transfer of power twice in his recent speeches. It could be that it will be a matter of “not if, but when.” If the NLD government cannot handle the twin security, human rights and peace crisis situations, an agreement will have to be reached to transfer power to a military government. To put it bluntly, this would let the government and Aung San Suu Kyi off the present hook.

Returning to the decision-making on the ethnic nationalities mentioned earlier, it is matter of doubt whether there has been any change. After campaigning on a raft of promises of change in last year’s elections, the NLD leadership is now characteristically silent on many pressing issues. Rather than a matter of the military refusing to concede any of its powers, I would say it is more of the NLD government’s innate inability to make such decisions and lay out directions for the country. One can discern an unexpressed “division of labour.” As one example, the Chairman of the Kayin National Union (KNU) was in Naypyidaw last week and met with the Commander-in-Chief as well as U Shwe Mann, the still-influential former Speaker of the Lower House. The KNU is the strongest of the NCA-signatory EAOs and he requested an appointment with Aung San Suu Kyi. She turned him down.

It is critical for domestic (and international) players to learn to separate the rice from the chaff. The time for populism is over; well-grounded policies and leadership are necessary if Myanmar is to remain an integral nation-in-the-making and overcome its awesome challenges.

Khin Zaw Win is currently the Director of the Tampadipa Institute, working on policy advocacy and capacity building since 2006. His current engagement includes communal issues, nationalism and international relations. He is also an honorary senior research fellow at the Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies. He served under the Department of Health, Myanmar, and the Ministry of Health, Sabah, Malaysia and did the Masters in Public Policy programme at the National University of Singapore. He has held a fellowship with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and was also a UK FCO Chevening Fellow at the University of Birmingham. He was also a prisoner of conscience in Myanmar for “seditious writings” and human rights work from 1994 – 2005.