Along the moat of the old palace in Mandalay, the royal seat of Myanmar’s last kings, pale blue banners decorated with white doves and olive branches flutter in the winter breeze, testament to a government campaign for peace.
A seven-hour drive into the Shan hills to the east, a war-weary population is bracing for another season of suffering as the nation’s military and a slew of rebel armies ready for war in the most contested corner of Southeast Asia.
There is, of course, no inevitability that conflict must come. But as rain-logged tracks and rice paddies around the northeastern city of Lashio dry out and cynicism over the government’s stumbling search for ethnic reconciliation deepens countrywide, the odds are stacked heavily against doves and olive branches.
“There’s no indication there will be any less fighting than last year,“ notes one foreign humanitarian official visiting Lashio, which sits on the main trade artery between Mandalay and the China border. “Whether you’re looking at the number of clashes or the geographic locations, the trend is clear: it’s always north Shan.”
The slide towards renewed war is fanned by a convergence of interlocking factors which feed off each other, meaning this year could finally derail a government-sponsored peace process that has already been stalled for months.
At the most basic level, there are simply too many armed groups jostling for influence and control across the ethnic checkerboard of northern Shan state for peace to be sustainable for long. “Forces are almost too close to each other not to clash,” notes the same foreign official.
Between the Salween River to the east and the border with Mandalay Division in the west, the northern Shan hills are home to a chaotic kaleidoscope of armed factions. One of the oldest is the Shan State Army (SSA), weakened since 2010 by surrenders to the government, but today seeking to reassert itself.
Another Shan group, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) is relatively new muscle on the block. Based along the Thai border some 350 kilometers to the south, the RCSS climbed on the government’s peace bandwagon in October 2015 by signing its centerpiece National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) – and then promptly moved hundreds of troops north, apparently with the acquiescence of the national military, or Tatmdaw.
The 8,000-strong Kachin Independence Army, (KIA) one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic factions, is also a key actor in north Shan state. The bulk of its forces are deployed in Kachin state to the northwest, where in recent days it has come under Tatmadaw attack. But the KIA also fields two brigades in Shan state that draw support from the region’s numerous Kachin communities.
In the tea-growing country west of the main Mandalay-Lashio highway, the ethnic Palaung Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) holds sway over an area that extends north to the Chinese border.
Meanwhile, from bases in the Kokang region east of the Salween River, ethnic Chinese rebels of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) have also extended their reach into the hills west of the river.
Amid this vortex of insurgent groups, the national military occupies major towns and controls the region’s few key highways. It projects its power into the rural hinterlands through a patchwork of garrisons in township centers, colonial-style outposts that rely heavily on local people’s militia forces (PMFs).
Lightly armed groups of questionable military utility, PMF political loyalty is loosely secured by unfettered access to the region’s booming drugs trade.
However, a perennially precarious balance of power is now shifting in a manner that clearly threatens what semblance of control the Tatmadaw can claim in north Shan and all but guarantees military retaliation.
One of the biggest changes of the past three years has been the dramatic growth of Palaung power. After emerging in the 2012-2013 period with a few hundred men trained and supported by the KIA, the TNLA – the military wing of the Palaung State Liberation Front — was estimated by early 2015 to number some 3,000 combatants.
Today, following an aggressive recruitment drive that sees every family with two or more sons required to provide one for ‘national service’, the TNLA is assessed to field at least 6,000 combatants in six brigades.
Ranging across northern Shan state between the ruby mining town of Mogok in the west to the Salween River in the east, it constitutes the strongest combatant force in a potent axis of armed ethnic groups which has squarely rejected the government’s NCA as a realistic basis for negotiations over a federal system for Myanmar.
Adding insult to injury, the so-called Federal Political and Negotiating Consultative Committee (FPNCC) has also demanded that the government treat it as a single, united bloc, pre-empting Naypyidaw’s traditional negotiating strategy of divide-and-rule.
To the alarm of the Tatmadaw, TNLA expansion and assertiveness across northern Shan state has rested heavily on support extended by the godfather to the alliance, the China-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA).
Secure in strongholds along the Chinese border east of the Salween, and protected by the daunting deterrent of its own 20,000-strong army, the UWSA has provided weaponry, training, logistical backing and – albeit deniably — manpower in support of its protégés fighting west of the river.
Beyond the growth of Palaung power, another destabilizing factor in northern Shan has been the arrival of the RCSS and its ambitions to assert a state-wide leadership role by establishing a solid military presence in the north where before it had only a foothold.
Initially the RCSS’s late 2015 northern expedition was viewed favorably by the Tatmadaw, which in a classic divide-and-rule stratagem saw the Shan group as a potential check on TNLA expansion. And, indeed, clashes between the two forces, supported by valley-dwelling Shans and upland Palaung respectively, erupted almost immediately.
Two years on, however, the dynamic has changed markedly. Hostilities between the TNLA and RCSS have declined even as relations between the RCSS and the military have soured to the verge of hostility. That disenchantment has been fed by a sense in the Shan leadership that the Tatmadaw has failed to live up to its commitments in implementing the NCA.
There is also a realization that the Tatmadaw views the accession of ethnic armed groups to the NCA as a defining legal step towards their disarmament and demobilization with no guarantees that inevitably protracted negotiations can deliver any meaningful devolution of power.
It was not lost on observers that Shan New Year celebrations staged by the RCSS at its headquarters on the Thai border in November were attended for the first time by two senior UWSA military commanders.
The remarkable entente between two ethnic forces which once fought bitter battles along the Thai border was clearly calculated by both sides to send a very public message to the Tatmadaw: the RCSS, an NCA signatory, is now on cordial terms with the lynchpin of the anti-NCA alliance, a group which despite – or because of – its own ceasefire with the Tatmadaw undermines the military at every turn.
How far China is able or willing to exert the real influence it has amassed over both Naypyidaw and the UWSA-led ethnic alliance remains central to how events in the northeast unfold.
Naypyidaw appears to hope that China can be persuaded at least to stay the hand of ethnic forces. An unusual report released by the Tatmadaw on December 22 asserted that joint TNLA and KIA forces had attacked security posts along the key oil and gas pipelines that run through northwestern Shan state into China.
Claiming that the attacks were specifically intended to “damage the relationship between Myanmar and China”, the report pointedly implied that the ethnic groups were recklessly targeting the security of the pipelines and thereby endangering China’s strategic interests.
However, none of the ethnic groups in the region has ever displayed any interest in threatening the pipelines either during their construction or since, and it is difficult to see why that might change today.
While admitting that the Tatmadaw had clashed with its forces in Namhkam township near the Chinese border through which the pipelines pass, and with KIA in Bhamo in neighboring Kachin State, the TNLA was quick to deny there had been any joint operation or that fighting had endangered the pipelines.
More broadly, given deep mistrust and a yawning rift between Naypyidaw and the FPNCC over the NCA, it would be naïve to imagine Beijing can persuade either side to exercise significant restraint. Indeed, there exists a real possibility that continued skirmishes may provide a pretext or indeed real grounds for yet another coordinated counter-offensive by the FPNCC’s northern alliance.
If the alliance campaign of November 2016 which invaded towns and cut highways is any yardstick, the impact of another strategic offensive would be considerable. Militarily, it would serve both to repel and embarrass the Tatmadaw.
Politically, it would deliver a major blow to government hopes – to be celebrated at a Union Peace Conference scheduled for late January – that the NCA can remain a viable basis for peace negotiations.
Dangerously, Tatmadaw dry season attacks, often driven by tactical objectives and aimed at keeping multiple ethnic foes on the back foot, are as much reflex as strategy. Conditioned by decades of hostilities, the military’s mindset is certainly no secret.
Across the moat, a large billboard adorns the high brick battlements of the palace at Mandalay. In Burmese and English, its blunt message has nothing to do with doves or olive branches: “Tatmadaw and the people cooperate and crush all those harming the Union.”