Half Yearly Review

Myanmar's Transition: Challenges of Continuing and Emerging Conflicts

26 Aug, 2013    ·   4100

Bibhu Prasad Routray comments as part of the IPCS Database on Peace and Conflict in South Asia

Bibhu Prasad Routray
Bibhu Prasad Routray
Visiting Fellow

fThe in-transition Myanmar's attempts to leave its violent and divisive past continues to be thwarted both by old mindsets, and also by the opportunities for nuisance the state's apparent openness has bestowed on some groups of people. Guns have fallen silent on large tracts of territories in the country's periphery. Yet new frontiers of conflict have emerged underlining the fact that sudden retreat of the state may not augur well for the country's minorities vis-a-vis an assertive majority.

War on the Kachins
Armed confrontations between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), continuing since June 2011 subsequent to the collapse of a 17-year old ceasefire, escalated in December 2012. Prior to the December onslaught, 1,095 skirmishes had taken place between the rebels and the troops. A strategy of maximum force appeared to have replaced the sluggish approach that had failed to overwhelm the rebels in the last 18 months. The new approach combined a variety of military manoeuvres including heavy artillery fire and aerial attacks targeting towns, villages and camps where KIA cadres were ensconced among the civilian population. Some villages where the KIA had no presence also came under attack. The approach appeared to have brought instant success for the military. In the last week of January 2013, KIA, outgunned and overpowered, abandoned the Hka Ya hilltop, the last line of defence before the township of Laiza where the outfit is headquartered. Fighting with intermittent escalation continued well into April, targeting strategic KIA bases along the Myitkyina-Bhamo road at N’Pawn and at Gangdau Yang.

On 19 January, four rebels were killed by a bomb dropped by a jet on their bunker. However, since a large number of civilian refugees had taken shelter in what are considered rebels strongholds, the indiscriminate attacks by the military often resulted in incidents of civilian casualties. The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) in its report ‘State Terror in the Kachin Hills’, documented six cases of such firing that resulted in the death of nine civilians between November 2012 and January 2013. Of these, five deaths occurred in January alone. On 14 January, in the first instance of deaths during the new round of offensive, shelling of the rebel stronghold of Laiza town killed three civilians and injured four others. On 29 January, Myanmar military mortars killed two persons, besides injuring three others in the Mayan village.

The shelling, according to KWAT, started after drunken Myanmarese troops in the area opened fire, thereby creating confusion among the artillery units who mistook them for Kachin rebels. Subsequently, the military offered monetary compensation to the affected families. Apart from these incidents which resulted in civilian fatalities, incidents of burning of houses and rape of women too were reported, although the government's spokesperson categorically denied rape being used by the military as a weapon against rebel sympathisers.

Reports on fatalities either among the rebels or the military, however, remained scanty and unverifiable. In April, for example, rebels claimed that as many as 300 soldiers had been killed in the fighting since the beginning of the year. Such claims are often believed to have been exaggerated. In January, for instance, the KIA rebels claimed they shot down one of the army's Russian-made Mi-35 helicopter gunships, which resulted in the death of three soldiers on board. The government clarified that the helicopter had crashed due to engine failure. Similarly, in March, KIA sources claimed that at least eight soldiers were killed following clashes with the rebels in northern Shan state, which followed attempts by the military to take over the Magwi Baw Bum hill with lucrative coal deposits from the rebels. The military denied any such loss.

Dawn of Peace?
KIA's political wing, the Kachin Indepedence Organisation (KIO), signed a seven-point agreement with the Myanmarese government on 30 May, following three days of hectic negotiations in Kachin state’s capital, Myitkyina. Both sides pledged to decrease military tensions and to commit to work towards a future peace agreement. The agreement was witnessed and signed by United Nations (UN) General Secretary’s special advisor Vijay Nambiar, Deputy Chief of Mission from Chinese Embassy and representatives of eight armed ethnic groups. While the KIO had originally insisted that a ceasefire alone was not enough and favoured the presence of international monitors and starting of political negotiations on autonomy for the Kachin, the agreement indicated a settlement around ceasefire with a promise of political talks in the future. Statements released on the occasion also said that two parties agreed in principle to establish Joint Monitoring Committees to continue to discuss resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), to establish a technical team based in Myitkyina, and to continue to allow the participation of observers.

Whether the agreement leads to permanent peace in this troubled frontier remains to be seen. However, the signing of the ceasefire was marked by two distinct developments: the critical role played by the Chinese and the exclusion of Western powers from the peace talks.

Two rounds of peace talks under the Chinese auspices were held in the border township of Ruili in China's Yunnan province, on 4 February and 10 March. It was marked by a dramatic decline in the intensity of fighting between the KIA and the Myanmarese military, prompting President Thein Sein to claim during his European tour in March, "There’s no more hostilities, no more fighting all over the country, we have been able to end this kind of armed conflict.” A third round of talks between the government's peace team and the rebel representatives, scheduled to be held in early April in Myitkyina, was deferred. Whereas the Kachin NGOs blamed Chinese interference, objecting to the proposed presence of the representatives of the US and the UK in the peace talks, the government affiliated Myanmar Peace Centre said that the Kachins had asked for a rescheduling. Hectic negotiations and bargaining in the end led to the exclusion of the US and the UK. The UN's role as a signatory managed to receive the approval of the Chinese.

The Myanmarse army appeared to take advantage of the lull in fighting to indulge in extensive troop and supply reinforcements across the region. The Kachin National Organisation, a group consisting local and exiled community leaders, alleged that in the first week of March, 400 troops encroached upon land controlled by the KIA. Although the incident was reported to have led to clashes between both sides, no casualties were reported. In the first week of April, another rebel report indicated the arrival of 200 troops, destined for front-line army positions near Laiza, in Bhamo (Manmaw) on boats from lower Myanmar.

Rohingyas: Continued Persecution
While guns were gradually falling silent in the rebel territories, communal conflict between the Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingyas continued. In March, at least 43 people were killed and 13,000 left homeless in days of violence in central Myanmar's Meikhtila town, barely 100 kilometres from the national capital, Naypyidaw. Among the killed were 32 students of a madrassa. The violence was triggered on 20 March by a brawl in a gold shop between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owner. Later that day a monk was killed by a group of Muslims in an attack on a monastery. These two incidents sparked a wave of attacks by Buddhist mobs on Muslims. Buddhist mobs armed with machetes burned mosques and Muslim shops in a rampage that left charred corpses piled in the streets. The unrest spread with mosques being ransacked and civilians being attacked in at least 14 nearby villages. Violence ceased only after the imposition of martial law by the President on 22 March.

The March 2013 communal violence followed two similar eruptions in 2012. The first, in June, caused by the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman blamed on the Rohingyas in western Myanmar's Rakhine state ended with more than 80 fatalities and the displacement of 120,000, most of them Rohingyas. Violence re-erupted in October in six towns of the Rakhine state with even deadlier repercussions. A state spokesman said 111 people had been killed in violence, but later revised the number to 64, including 30 women. Non-governmental sources, however, said that the fatalities were significantly higher.

The continuing violence has displaced thousands of Rohingyas, internally and also out of Myanmar. Currently, about 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have been living in cramped tents and makeshift shelters in Rakhine state. In a demonstration of their intense distrust of the central authorities, the refugees refused to respond to government evacuation programmes to clear low-lying camps ahead of cyclone Mahasen in May. The displaced Rohingyas feared that once removed from the camps, they would not be allowed to return.

On 28 March, in a national speech, President Thein Sein said such conflicts were to be expected “during our period of democratic transition.” “As a nation, it is our firm belief that only an inclusive democratic society based on equality for all citizens will ensure peace and stability, especially in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith country such as ours,” he added. Such politically correct statements have done little to mask the state's tilt in favour of the Buddhists, the prejudice manifesting in various forms. Apart from the tolerance showered on the Buddhists monks who incited and participated in violent activities, even the state media until recently referred to the Rohingyas as Kalars, a pejorative term for Muslims or persons of Indian appearance. On 20 February, Kyaw Kyaw Win, the Deputy Immigration and Population Minister, denied the existence of the Rohingya ethnic group in the country while speaking in parliament. In 2012, the President himself appeared to be providing a solution to the problem by favouring a 'no Rohingya in Myanmar' scenario, before international condemnation forced him on a path of rectification.

Although 42 people have been arrested in connection with the March violence, a fast-growing Buddhist nationalist movement known as 969 remains responsible for keeping the anti-Rohingya fire ignited. The 969 movement predicts a Muslim takeover of the country by an ever expanding Rohingya population and calls for measures to checkmate such a scenario. Calls for boycotting Muslim businesses and not to marry, sell property to or hire Muslims are some of the inciting catchphrases of the divisive ideology propagated by the groups, which has received endorsements from several official quarters including the President's office.

In May, President Thein Sein visited Washington DC. The visit ironically coincided with six Muslims being jailed for the clashes in March; no Buddhists have been convicted yet. During the visit, the country's political and economic progress received praise from US President Barack Obama. Violence against the Rohingyas, on the other hand, was criticised.

However, the official outlook on the Rohingyas has not changed much. In May, a commission set up to investigate the communal violence suggested the use of family planning education to address what it described as the rapid growth of the Muslim population. On 25 May, a two-child policy was officially introduced in two townships in Rakhine state - Maungdaw and Buthidaung - along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. The measure was criticised by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the UN and the US, who termed it discriminatory and a violation of human rights. Khin Yi, the central Minister of Immigration and Population, however, publicly supported the enforcement. "The Bengali women living in the Rakhine State have a lot of children. In some areas, one family has 10 or 12 children. It's not good for child nutrition. It's not very easy for schooling. It is not very easy to take care of the children," he said in an interview that appeared on 1 June. The statement represented a bigoted mindset and an intense communal polarisation, keeping the probability of recurrence of violence alive.

Not-so-Peaceful Frontiers
The fragility of the hurriedly signed ceasefire agreements has been emphasised in the writings of several experts. Continued military mobilisation and direct attacks on rebel strongholds have violated the agreements, impacting the trust-building project of the central government among the country's ethnic minorities. The Shans appeared to be a target of such military action, both to restrict rebel positions and also to facilitate infrastructure building projects, and the areas inhabited by the Karens witnessed continued military build-up.

In April, a Myanmarese infantry battalion carried out attacks on Shan State Army (SSA)-North's Nowma camp at Nan Khan township in northern Shan state, forcing the outfit to abandon the facility and civilians in the vicinity to relocate into neighbouring China. The outfit's spokesperson claimed that ten soldiers and one rebel were killed in the fighting, which has been the most serious clash during the ceasefire regime initiated by an agreement in 2012. Both sides have fought intermittently, with the most prominent one occurring in February. That month, the environmental NGO Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation reported the movement of thousands of Myanmarese troops to the banks of the Salween River in Shan state. The pressure tactic followed after the military issued an ultimatum to the SSA-North to vacate the area to make way for a mega dam project by a consortium which included Chinese companies. In early February, the government approved the construction of six hydroelectric projects on the river that remains one of the world's last free-running rivers and runs from the Tibetan Himalayas through Myanmar and Thailand to the Andaman Sea. The SSA-North remains opposed to the construction, citing potential negative impact on the environment.

During the last week of February, SSA rebels sources also claimed that "not less than thirty" soldiers were killed as they attempted to take over the Loi Long base in Shan state. Many of the casualties were in an accidental explosion in an ammunition dump. A number of rebels were injured in the fighting but no fatalities were reported. The conflict intensified in March in the Loi Zay region with troops carrying out attacks on the rebel bases. While fatalities were not reported, large scale migration of civilians was. 

Similarly, in March, the Karen National Union (KNU) alleged an increased mobilisation of government troops in its territory, taking advantage of the 12 January 2012 ceasefire agreement. A joint Thailand-Italy road project allows the military to move its troops swiftly and set up checkpoints to collect illegal toll in the area. Since the end of 2012, several supply roads have also been repaired by the army for its use and on occasions it has forcefully requisitioned civilian trucks for its activities. Occasional instances of the military abusing civilians too were reported.

Myanmar's progress towards stability remains primarily linked to three requirements: first, the sincerity with which it implements the ceasefire agreements and takes them to the stage of political negotiations; second, the swiftness with which it addresses the seeds of the remaining conflicts; and third, its preparedness to prevent new conflicts from surfacing. Its ability to consolidate peace and to prevent future sparks that may endanger such endeavours would be tested in the coming months. Managing the existing division within the ruling elite on the future shape of the country may go a long way in what has been projected as an inclusive and democratic Myanmar.