On 21 November 2016, a group of four Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) launched a joint offensive against security outposts and bridges near the border town of Muse in northern Myanmar's Shan State. The daring assault prompted a strong reaction from the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Defence Services), which launched a violent counter-assault by land and air. As of 30 November, at least 16 people had lost their lives in the fighting, 51 injured, 2600 internally displaced, and over 3000 pushed across the border into China.
This commentary looks at the recent episode of rebel violence and its effect in the context of the ongoing internal peace process in Myanmar.
The EAOs which constitute this newly-emergent ‘Northern Alliance’ are: Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta'ang (Palaung) National Liberational Army (TNLA), Mon National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Arakan Army (AA).
The attack comes only a year after the previous quasi-civilian government signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA) with eight EAOs in October 2015, and barely three months since the new civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) hosted the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference in August 2016. Notably, while none of the Northern Alliance members have yet signed the NCA, the KIA, which called the attack "inevitable" in a statement released afterwards, attended the Panglong conference in August.
A Failed Strategy
The Muse Township assault is not an abrupt incident, but follows more than twelve months of low-to-medium level violence between the Tatmadaw and recalcitrant EAOs in Shan and Kachin States of northern Myanmar. From the time the NCA was signed in October 2015, the Tatmadaw has launched several dozen offensives and troop incursions against the non-signatories KIA, TNLA and MNDAA. The period from February to March and then from September to October 2016 saw heavy fighting, involving heavy artillery attacks and even airstrikes against KIA and TNLA. Both EAOs, in addition to MNDAA, have accused the Tatmadaw of perpetrating violence against civilians in their respective areas and reconfiguring stable frontlines by brute force.
Quite evidently, the military's objective has been to degrade and demoralise the rebels, reduce their capacity to strike back, and ultimately to compel them to disarm and sign the NCA, with little bargaining power. However, the tactic of violent coercion seems to have done more harm than good.
Instead, the Tatmadaw's offensives have led to a new tactical grouping - the Northern Alliance - and triggered a violent response. In a statement released after the assault, a TNLA spokesperson categorically stated that the Muse operation was launched “because the Tatmadaw has continuously carried out offensives in remote ethnic areas.” Furthermore, TNLA, MNDAA and AA have decisively reversed their hitherto supportive deportment, rejecting an offer to disarm and join the Panglong process earlier this year. Even the KIA - who remained open to consultations through most of 2015 and 2016 - is on a belligerent footing now.
In sum, the military’s aggressive approach has had three distinct outcomes: pushed the non-signatory EAOs to a far more hardline position than before, compelled the rebels to switch from a defensive to an offensive footing, and moved the entire frontline from the remote countryside to urban areas.
Two Peace Processes
The Tatmadaw’s violent war of attrition against non-compliant EAOs stands in stark contradiction to the parallel peace process spearheaded by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, which seeks dialogue and peaceful rapprochement. Why does Myanmar’s ‘peace process’ have two separate fronts? The answer lies in the administrative structure of the new union government.
The military still occupies a solid 25 per cent of seats in both houses of the Parliament and is in charge of internal security and counterinsurgency. This explains the continuity in the longstanding approach of coercion and military subversion that the previous administration relied on. This militaristic approach is perpetuated by the passive conformism of the NLD, which continues to tow the Tatmadaw's line. Expressing remorse after the Muse attacks, Suu Kyi, said that "such attacks were instigated" and urged the non-signatory EAOs to sign the NCA. She made no mention of what really instigated the attacks.
Two diametrically opposite prognoses of the same problem has had counterproductive outcomes and the latest attacks are testimony of this.
The fresh attacks could threaten the credibility of the entire Panglong peace process and the NCA mechanism. This could, in turn, widen the trust deficit between belligerent ethnic groups and the union government.
However, not all hope is lost. The KIA stated that operation was a “controlled/limited offensive” that “was not intended to destroy national reconciliation”. This leaves the government with still viable openings for peaceful reconciliation.
If the government wishes to bring the non-compliant EAOs to the table on its own terms, it would need to offer strong political incentives that relate to the actual grievances of the groups. A violent war of attrition isn’t one. The military will also have to operate in absolute concomitance to the core objective of the peace process, which is to resolve outstanding ethno-political disputes through political dialogue.
Expansion of the NCA, however, remains a long shot for the government given a bare minimum of sustained peace and confidence is a prerequisite for wholesale disarmament. In such a fragile situation, the last thing that Myanmar can afford is a contradictory and dualist policy of reconciliation.