A big chill settled over Myanmar’s already frigid peace process when a planned July 20-22 meeting of ethnic Shan political parties, armed groups and civil society organizations in Chiang Mai, Thailand was cancelled on orders of the Royal Thai Army.
Thailand acted on a request letter sent on July 19 by Brigadier General Khin Saw, Myanmar’s defense attaché based in Bangkok. The diplomatic missive claimed the meeting was planned between legal and illegal organizations and thus threatened to infringe on Myanmar’s election law and disrupt its government-led peace process.
The Committee of Shan State Unity (CSSU) – an umbrella group comprised of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S), Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), and other political, armed and civil society outfits based in Myanmar and Thailand, would have convened around 600 attendees.
The CSSU issued a statement lamenting Thailand’s decision while calling on the Myanmar government to be more “broadminded.” It insisted the planned meeting was in no way aimed at obstructing the peace process.
The likely reason behind the diplomatic incident was the likely inclusion of the SSPP/SSA-N, a political armed group which has steadfastly refused to sign the October 2015 partial Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The RCSS/SSA-S has signed.
The government and military have insisted ethnic armed organizations sign the NCA before any political talks on autonomy and federalism are held, a precondition several have refused.
SSPP officials, despite regular clashes with the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, in central and northern states, continues to attend nationwide peace conferences as a member of the non-ceasefire signatory umbrella group the Union Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).
RCSS’ chairman and long-time insurgent commander General Yord Serk was livid to learn of the Myanmar military’s intervention to stop the conference in Chiang Mai, which he claimed was a breach of the NCA and exposed the contradictory and self-defeating approaches to the peace process of the elected government and autonomous military.
“I have my doubts [about the Tatmadaw’s sincerity] when they accuse us of endangering the peace process,” said Yord Serk, adding the cancelled event was not to be held “underground” as the military alleged. “This letter was sent directly from the [Myanmar] military. But when we asked the government, they said they didn’t know anything about it.”
Sai Wansai, a prominent Shan commentator, speculated the military’s pressure to cancel the Thailand-based event, several of which have been held over the years, was indicative of long-standing efforts to create political divisions and thwart efforts at bringing together disparate ethnic Shan voices to discuss a range of issues related to the peace process.
“(T)he Shan are distrustful that the military won’t be sincere to resolve the conflict through political dialogue and its commitment [to] a genuine federalism, while the military never is convinced that the Shan would not opt for a total independence that would break up the union,” he wrote.
For many Shan leaders, the thwarting of forums to discuss a host of long-standing grievances and strategize a unified engagement with the Myanmar government and military must smack of déjà vu.
On February 7, 2005, a dinner to mark Shan National Day with various Shan political leaders to discuss the then moribund military-driven National Convention to write a new constitution resulted in the arrest of several key participants.
Hkun Tun Oo, the chairman of the SNLD party which won the second highest number of seats in the 1990 nationwide elections swept by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy but abrogated by the military, was sentenced to 93 years in prison for high treason and transferred to the country’s harsh northernmost prison in Putao, Kachin State.
Other Shan leaders, including the former commander of the SSA-N Major General Hsao Hso Ten, received 106 years behind bars. The breathtaking severity of the sentencing spoke volumes about the Tatmadaw’s long-standing animus towards the Shan armed resistance and its long denied political aspirations for autonomy.
The military has long used divide-and-rule tactics to prevent a unified Shan position, a cynical approach that has in some measure worked judging by the fact that certain Shan groups have signed the NCA while others remain strongly opposed.
Further exacerbating divisions within Shan communities is the military’s the routine interdiction against gatherings, such as the scuppered one in Chiang Mai that could lead to a more unified Shan position.
A similar meeting planned for March in the former capitol of Yangon was also cancelled due to military pressure. The long promised Shan National Level Political Dialogue was permitted only at the last minute in April due to military imposed delays, and was not allowed to include many of the actors who would have attended the Chiang Mai event.
There is widespread sentiment in Shan State that the government’s and military’s behavior towards NCA signatory groups and their supporters, and their increasingly belligerent stance towards non-signatories, is fast driving the entire peace process into a cul-de-sac of inactivity.
Suu Kyi’s popularly elected government has given the peace drive top priority during her first year in office.
Another possible reason for the military’s strong pressure to cancel the Chiang Mai event could be recent armed clashes between the RCSS/SSA-S and the Tatmadaw’s Light Infantry Battalion 249, including a particularly violent exchange in mid-July in Southern Shan State’s Hopong Township.
Clashes between SSA-S units and the military have been widely reported in the media and acknowledged by the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC), a Tatmadaw dominated group formed as a forum for reducing tensions and permitting civilians to report any abuses committed by NCA signatories.
The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, specifically mentioned at the end of her 12-day mission to the country last week that the situation in northern Shan is “deteriorating.”
“I am concerned to hear from groups working on the ground they see more conflict, more cases of alleged human rights violations by different parties to the conflict and inadequate assistance for civilians,” she said. In a country that has suffered one of the longest and multi-sided civil wars in the past 70 years, Shan State’s conflict stands out as the most perplexing to resolve.
It is complicated and perpetuated by the presence of several different large ethnic armed organizations, lucrative conflict economies ranging from narcotics, mining, logging and human trafficking, and a military renowned for chronic and systematic rights abuses.
In a country that has suffered one of the longest and multi-sided civil wars in the past 70 years, Shan State’s conflict stands out as the most perplexing to resolve
Efforts by Shan–based local members of parliament, civil society organizations including youth and women’s groups and human rights outfits have all tried to use the limited space accorded by recent political reforms to pursue peaceful conflict prevention and mitigation initiatives, as well as confront the legacy of decades of debilitating war and unaccountable Tatmadaw rule.
An open forum to start discussing these issues would have been a positive step forward for peace, truth and reconciliation. It’s military-imposed cancellation is yet another indicator of the Tatmadaw’s hardline stance against ethnic organizations, both those which have signed the NCA and those which have declined, and the hollow foundations of the civilian government’s increasingly mistrusted peace architecture.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst