As Myanmar security officials surrounded peaceful anti-war protestors in Yangon on May 12, dispersing a small gathering and arresting eight, the clampdown demonstrated more than just the persistence of the nation’s police state mentality.
The activists took to the streets to protest the wars raging across the country, especially in the northern Kachin state where thousands of displaced civilians are trapped between government air strikes and heavy artillery and the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Yet in stark contrast to the street melee in Yangon, at the lavish Lotte Hotel in uptown Yangon just days before, the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) held two days of talks on the government’s floundering Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
These talks were followed by further meetings at the largely moribund National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC), the government’s peace process secretariat. The lack of activity at the center is another indicator of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s woefully inadequate efforts at ending the seven-decades long civil war.
The JMC’s chairman, Myanmar armed forces Lieutenant General Yar Pyae, told the meeting that the JMC structure was working to “reduce armed conflicts among armed organizations, and it can be seen that a level of success has been achieved.”
“However,” he acknowledged, “armed conflicts were observed in some areas of [ethnic] organizations that had signed the NCA.”
The JMC mechanism, comprised of national, state and local level committees, claims to have received 411 complaints of ceasefire breaches, with 334 of those cases reputedly resolved. It didn’t publically say what had happened to the other 77 complaints.
The meeting of the widely criticized committee stands in stark contrast to the limitations imposed on NCA signatories from holding meaningful discussions on the path to peace with their own communities.
One of the NCA’s recent signatories, the New Mon State Party (NMSP), had been promised the possibility of “political dialogues”, essentially meetings of various social stakeholders in the community, when it signed the ceasefire in February.
However, soon thereafter, the Mon leadership was informed by the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, that any political gatherings would be limited to 20-30 attendees, a stricture that NMSP leader Nai Han Thar said was akin to a gathering at a “petty cockfight.”
The Mon were eventually permitted to hold public consultations with over 500 people attending, but only in southern Ye town not the state capital of Mawlamyine.
The Mon are not alone. The Committee for Shan State Unity (CSSU), an umbrella organization of ethnic Shan armed groups, political parties and civil society, have also been thwarted from holding consultation meetings – sometimes with armed soldiers stopping meetings, or through military requests to Thailand to ban events being held across the border.
This rewriting of the NCA’s rules have extirpated nearly all trust in the agreement. But these restrictions, vindictive and designed to frustrate the groups and their communities, pales in comparison to the undeniable rise in armed conflict throughout the country.
Myanmar’s northern Kachin State is now wracked by war on multiple fronts as the Tatmadaw have expanded offensives against the KIA in several townships, including around Sumprabum, Hpakant, Tanai and Mansi.
A 17-year ceasefire between the KIA and Tatmadaw broke down in 2011 and renewed fighting has since displaced 100,000 civilians.
In the marked escalation of the last few months, the Tatamadaw have deployed thousands more troops and increased air strikes using jets and Russian supplied Mi-35 helicopter gunships and heavy artillery against KIA bases.
The fighting and humanitarian blockades in Kachin state have evinced statements of concern from the United Nations Resident Coordinator Knut Ostby, the United States and European Union embassies, as well as local and international relief agencies.
Fighting is also intensifying in Shan state. On May 12, the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) attacked the key trading town of Muse on the border with China, killing 19 and wounding 27, with many of the casualties reported to be civilians caught in the crossfire.
The TNLA’s political wing, the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), said in a statement that the operation was launched against a casino allegedly operated by the pro-Tatmadaw Pangsay Peoples Militia, which the TNLA claims has murdered over a hundred mainland Chinese gamblers and disposed of their bodies.
“(T)he (TNLA) decided to carry out the military operation into the Myanmar military owned Pangsay casino, in order to put an end to the Myanmar military’s fraudulent gambling, illicit drug trade and killing of Chinese visitors inside the Pangsay casino,” it said in a statement.
Fighting in northern Shan state, especially in Muse and Kutkai, has been slowly escalating for several years as the Tatmadaw tightens the pressure on the ethnic armed groups operating there, especially the TNLA, KIA and the Kokang army further east.
The Tatmadaw has insisted that they disarm and sign the NCA while the use of heavy artillery and air strikes has increased. Reports of abuses against civilians including enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and forcible recruitment, have been documented by Shan and Ta-ang groups, as well as Amnesty International.
There is also a rise in intercommunal armed conflict between the signatory Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the TNLA in contested areas both groups claim, especially Namtu township, but also Hsipaw and Kyaukme and Namkham.
The tensions between both communities has sharply increased, and the TNLA have documented frequent abuses committed by SSA-S troops against Ta-ang civilians. In fighting between the two groups in March, two civilians were killed and over 1,000 displaced, with humanitarian convoys blocked by both sides from rescuing trapped civilians.
The Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar’s oldest ethnic armed organization and an NCA signatory, has regularly expressed concern about Tatmadaw violations of the agreement.
In March, Tatmadaw forces began unannounced a road extension in northern Kayin state and brought in hundreds of extra troops for security to guard the construction. Several hundred civilians have already been displaced because of the fighting, and the army have been charged with shooting dead an unarmed environmental activist.
The KNU issued a strongly worded statement on the Tatmadaw’s behavior which said “(t)hese military incidents illustrate total disregard for the NCA and demonstrate their lack of respect for the KNU as a dialogue partner.”
The area, Mudraw (Papun) District and Brigade 5 of the KNU’s affiliated Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), was the site of a major military offensive between 2005-2008 in which tens of thousands of civilians were displaced.
In one area of the offensive neighboring Brigade 5, the Tatmadaw were alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to a report from Harvard University Law School Human Rights Clinic from 2014.
These crimes are rarely mentioned internationally despite their similarity with the tactics used in the brutal expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims, and are not within the investigative scope of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission.
In early May, fighting flared again between the Arakan Army (AA) in Paletwa Township of Chin state, with AA forces claiming to have killed four Tatmadaw soldiers and wounding five others.
In a steadily rising conflict over the last three years, the AA has expanded operations in the Chin and Rakhine borderlands from their training bases and operation areas of Kachin and Northern Shan state. Several thousand civilians have been displaced by the fighting, and alleged abuses by both sides have been reported.
The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), situated in the country’s southeast, is reportedly close to signing the NCA after mounting military pressure.
But talks were frustrated by the Tatmadaw allegedly committing an extrajudicial execution of three KNPP soldiers and a civilian at a checkpoint near the state capital Loikaw in December 2017. The checkpoint had stopped army trucks reportedly full of illegally logged trees.
The ashes of the four people were handed over to Karenni (Kayah) officials in cheap plastic bottles by the military. Civilians who protested the murders on the streets of Loikaw were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, injecting more tension and mistrust of the Tatmadaw.
With war raging, many have concluded that the government’s peace process is actually cover for renewed military attacks against “recalcitrant” non-signatories.
Indeed, there is a marked difference between the affected bonhomie of formal meetings in Naypyitaw and Yangon, and the bellicose demands of Tatmadaw leaders in private meetings with ethnic leaders.
The Tatmadaw have hit on a winning formula that inverts the Orwellian maxim of authoritarian rule: talk peace as a cover for continued conflict and internal divisions. All the architecture of the so-called “peace industrial complex” such as the JMC are now merely a bureaucratic web in which the signatories are trapped and unable to move forward.
Despite preparations for the next round of the government’s nationwide Panglong 21st Century peace talks later this month, a growing consensus is emerging that the Tatmadaw is not sincere about pursuing a negotiated settlement to address decades of political, social and economic grievances.
While there is speculation that the fierce fighting across the country could return signatory groups to full-scale war, many will likely resentfully stumble on with the peace process. It is precisely this twilight between peace and war that suits the Tatmadaw.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst