Myanmar: A Violent Push to Shake Up Ceasefire Negotiations
Friday, 01 November 2019
(Continued from Last Week)
The attacks were notable for their apparent intent as much as their scale and impact. Though they bore similarities to the November 2016 offensive in northern Shan State (both targeted infrastructure and brought overland trade with China to a halt), this time the Brotherhood Alliance did not appear to be trying to acquire territory. This distinction also sets the latest attack apart from other notable offensives, such as in the Kokang region in February 2015 and in Rakhine State since January 2019.
Instead, the intention appears to have been to inflict the maximum economic, strategic and psychological damage on government security forces with the minimum use of force.
The attacks were also deliberately provocative. The firing of rockets at the military academy in Pyin Oo Lwin – a garrison town on the edge of the Shan plateau, not far from Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city – is the closest that fighting has come to lowland Myanmar in many years. That the rockets hit the academy, killing one civilian and wounding a soldier, was surely a source of considerable embarrassment for the military.
The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army is called, has alleged that the attacks were revenge for a raid on drug production facilities in northern Shan State’s Kutkai.
It claims that the key target was the narcotics control checkpoint, where soldiers were using drug detection equipment purchased from abroad. These allegations should be treated with caution, however. While the armed groups, particularly the AA, almost certainly have some connection to – indeed, may even be heavily involved in – the drug trade, the area in which the raids took place is also home to pro-government militias with long histories of drug production, against whom the military has rarely taken action. The military has put forward no solid evidence that would implicate any of the Brotherhood Alliance members in drug production at the raided factories, and the attacks would have been planned well in advance of the raids. Linking the attacks to the narcotics trade also serves the military’s interest in denigrating ethnic insurgents as criminals.
The Brotherhood Alliance most likely aimed this message not only at the Myanmar government and military but also at China, which is a significant stakeholder in the peace process. The attacks occurred along a corridor where Beijing plans to build roads and railways, as well as border trade zones, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. In May 2019, China Railway Eryuan Engineering submitted a technical report to the Myanmar government for the $9 billion project following a ground survey started in December 2018. Both Muse and Chinshwehaw are to host economic cooperation zones, with ground surveys already completed and a draft framework agreement nearing completion. By closing highways and halting trade, the attacks have caused significant economic damage and underlined risks to Chinese ambitions. The three groups appear to be trying to force Beijing to take a more active role in the peace process in the hope that this will tilt negotiations in their favour.

Despite the impact of the 15 August attacks, the immediate response from the Myanmar military has been subdued. The military has shifted some forces to northern Shan State to reinforce those already on the ground, but it has not yet committed large numbers of troops. There has been no sign of a major counteroffensive or counter-insurgency operation, and when military forces have repelled subsequent attacks they have not pursued retreating Brotherhood Alliance fighters. Instead, the military has concentrated on reopening the roads, particularly the Mandalay-Muse highway.
Though a senior Myanmar military official described the attacks as “terrorism” and “a war crime”, he also underlined that the military was prepared to engage in peace talks.
On 31 August, the military extended its unilateral ceasefire for a further three weeks.
The lack of a counteroffensive may be a delaying tactic rather than a conciliatory gesture, however. The three-week extension could serve as a window for the military to prepare for a major retaliation. Some analysts also speculate that the military may be waiting to see whether the insurgents are planning further attacks before committing forces.
The fighting has inflicted a heavy toll on the local population, particularly around the town of Kutkai. At least 7,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since 15 August, and while many have returned, the situation remains fluid, with new displacement on a near-daily basis. It is unclear how many civilians have been killed or injured, but at least one died in a mortar attack on 18 August, while five were killed by artillery fire near Kutkai on 31 August. Humanitarian workers have not been spared: on 17 August, the leader of a Lashio-based volunteer group was killed when his vehicle, though marked as an ambulance, was hit by RPG and sniper fire attributed to the Brotherhood Alliance.

III. Unfinished Business
For the past five years, the status of the AA, TNLA and MNDAA has been a key – if not the most important – fault line in Myanmar’s peace process. For most of that time, the Myanmar military and government have sought to isolate the groups and, at times, exclude them from the national peace process, including the nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Naypyitaw has chosen this course mainly because the three groups are fairly new. Though they have links to earlier armed groups, the AA and TNLA formed under the aegis of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in the late 2000s and were intended as proxy forces.
The Myanmar authorities’ concern was that acknowledging the groups – and any territory they had acquired – would only encourage more ethnic armies to form. At the same time, the authorities have allowed groups with almost no armed forces, such as the Arakan Liberation Party and Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization, to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement and participate in dialogue aimed at ending Myanmar’s conflicts.

Both the AA and TNLA have responded to this exclusion by strengthening their forces and expanding their territory so that they essentially become too significant and dangerous to ignore. Attention-grabbing attacks such as those that commenced on 15 August are important for demonstrating this capability. As one Yangon-based diplomat observed, “The AA was told back in 2014 that it was too small [to sign the nationwide ceasefire]. The Tatmadaw is essentially reaping what it has sown by shutting people out of the peace process”.
Though the MNDAA has a longer history, it suffered defeat at the Myanmar military’s hands in 2009 and only re-emerged in 2015.
From February of that year it led efforts (with the support of the AA and TNLA) to retake control of the Kokang region in northern Shan State. These were mostly unsuccessful, but the fighting led to heavy casualties within the Myanmar military and strained Myanmar’s relationship with China. Following the Kokang campaign, the military labelled the three groups “terrorists” and refused to negotiate with them.
As a result, the peace process splintered. Eight armed groups based along the border with Thailand signed the nationwide ceasefire in October 2015, and, in the following year, they began political negotiations with the government and military through the Panglong-21 peace conference. But armed groups based in northern Myanmar, such as the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA), refused to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement, ostensibly because the AA, TNLA and MNDAA had been excluded.
In April 2017, seven groups that had not signed the nationwide ceasefire formed the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC).
Led by the UWSA, this coalition includes organisations that have bilateral ceasefires but have chosen not to sign the nationwide ceasefire, as well as those without bilateral ceasefires, such as the KIO and members of the Brotherhood Alliance. This new body initially rejected the nationwide ceasefire agreement outright, but it has since said that its members will consider signing once the AA, TNLA, MNDAA and KIO have reached bilateral ceasefires with the government, and are therefore eligible to consider signing the nationwide accord.
Over time, political and military realities, including China’s influence over the peace process, have forced the Myanmar military and government to review their position toward the three groups. In the second half of 2018, Beijing began brokering informal meetings between them and the government’s Peace Commission. These resulted in the trio issuing a statement in December pledging to stop “military actions” and expressing a desire for negotiations.
The Myanmar military responded on 21 December by declaring a unilateral ceasefire in Kachin and Shan States to last until 30 April 2019. The ceasefire was severely tested just two weeks later, when the AA staged coordinated attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine State on 4 January, leaving thirteen officers dead and prompting heavy fighting.
But the Myanmar military and government have continued to pursue talks with the Brotherhood Alliance’s three members, along with the KIO. The military extended its unilateral ceasefire to 30 June, then again to 31 August and now a third time to 21 September.
For the government and military, bilateral ceasefires are a step toward the groups signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement, which is a prerequisite for participation in political dialogue aimed at reaching a comprehensive peace agreement that would end Myanmar’s conflicts. For the Brotherhood Alliance, bilateral ceasefires are more a means of securing political recognition, cementing territorial gains and potentially getting access to new economic opportunities.