December 16, 2016 8:00 pm JST
Anthony Davis

Myanmar's northeastern conflict approaches watershed

Rebel attacks in Shan State raise prospects of Chinese mediation

Soldiers of the Ta'ang National Liberation Army armed ethnic group, operating in the field in Shan State, northern Myanmar (Photo: Steve Tickner)

There is a seasonal rhythm to war in Myanmar, and the bitter fighting between government and ethnic rebel forces that erupted in late November along the Chinese border made it official: The rains are over and the cold season that favors military movement in the country's rugged northern hinterlands has again arrived.

But the latest upsurge of hostilities is much more than just another season in a decades-old conflict. Unlike anything seen in recent years, the clashes occurring in northeastern Shan State have thrown into critical focus several elements of the war in Myanmar that may combine to mark a watershed, both in the conflict and the prospects for peace.

Most strikingly, a joint rebel offensive launched against a string of border towns on Nov. 20 underscored the emergence of a potential military game-changer: a powerful coalition of northern insurgent groups that in terms of operational coordination, military clout and geographic reach is unprecedented in six decades of ethnic conflict.

With beginnings dating back to 2014, the so-called Northern Alliance - Burma brings together four factions: the ethnic-Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, based in the Kokang region east of the Salween River; the ethnic Palaung Ta'ang National Liberation Army, based in the tea-growing hill country in the northwest of Shan State; the Kachin Independence Army, which recruits from Kachin communities across northern Shan State; and the far smaller Arakan Army. Founded in 2009 under KIA auspices, the AA began operations in its home state of Rakhine in 2015, but continues to field several hundred fighters in the north operating as part of the NA-B.

Tentative coordination between the four groups was first evident in early 2015 when the MNDAA spearheaded an offensive supported by its northern allies aimed at wresting back control of Kokang from the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw. Government forces had invaded the region in 2009, side-stepping a 20-year-old autonomy agreement with the MNDAA and ejecting its leader, Peng Jiasheng, and his loyalists.

In nearly two years since then, however, the alliance has expanded its military strength and political cohesion significantly. Stepped-up recruitment has seen the TNLA grow from a force of some 3,500 fighters in early 2015 to an estimated 6,000 today. Similarly, the KIA, which earlier fielded only one brigade in northern Shan State, now fields two -- in addition to the bulk of its forces in Kachin. And whatever losses the MNDAA suffered in intense fighting with the Tatmadaw in 2015, the group appears to have more than replenished its ranks.

Critical challenge

In short, an alliance now fielding an estimated 17,000-18,000 troops and willing to launch frontal attacks on urban centers presents a critical challenge to already overstretched government forces. To hold the line against the latest offensive, Tatmadaw commanders had to reinforce local forces with the bulk of four divisions from a strategic reserve force of 10 light infantry divisions -- a reserve which since 2013 has been operationally committed more often than not, and has suffered serious casualties. At the same time, a sweeping crackdown in northern Rakhine State following Oct. 9 attacks by Muslim militants on police border posts along the country's western border with Bangladesh has seen reinforcements from two divisions sent to the area, further weighing on the Tatmadaw's resources.

A second factor giving pause to army planners is that the growing strength of the NA-B has been crucially back-stopped by support from Myanmar's largest ethnic army, the United Wa State Army. Since emerging from the 1989 collapse of the Communist Party of Burma, the China-backed UWSA has maintained a brittle cease-fire agreement with the Tatmadaw while steadily expanding and modernizing forces that today number some 20,000 trained regulars. These soldiers are equipped with sophisticated Chinese-made weapons, including heavy artillery and surface-to-air missiles, and are supported by a militia reserve of at least 10,000.

From behind this military shield the UWSA has provided covert aid to the NA-B since at least 2014 in the form of munitions, training and sanctuary, with the MNDAA and TNLA notable beneficiaries. Given the complete autonomy they have established in their "Special Region" east of the Salween River, the Wa have shown no interest in Naypyitaw's Western-supported peace process and its centerpiece nationwide cease-fire agreement.

The third element underscored by the latest fighting is China's potentially key role as a peacemaker. As articulated in an NA-B statement issued on Nov. 21, the November offensive was driven by anger over months of Tatmadaw attacks on its members -- launched in conspicuous disregard for a "Union Peace Conference" convened in late August by the civilian government.

However, the geography of the offensive made it entirely clear that the NA-B intended specifically to embroil Beijing. Assaults struck towns immediately on China's border: the major trading hub of Muse and the nearby toll-gate at 105 Mile, as well as Kyu-hkok and Mong Ko further east. Meanwhile attacks on key bridges and road traffic interdicted the main highway between Lashio and Muse which carries the bulk of Myanmar's overland trade with China. The results were entirely predictable and calculated to alarm Beijing: weeks-long disruption of cross-border trade, and an exodus of more than 3,000 civilians into China.

Predictably full-throated

Whether China's security services had advanced warning of the offensive remains open to conjecture. Several regional security analysts who spoke with the Nikkei Asian Review said it is virtually inconceivable that Chinese military intelligence, with its close and long-standing links to the UWSA and MNDAA, could have been unaware of preparations for a major insurgent campaign on a strategically sensitive border. That assessment implies that at the very least, elements in Beijing's security establishment were prepared to acquiesce in -- and may have tacitly supported -- NA-B efforts to impress on the Tatmadaw the futility of continued military pressure aimed at prodding them to sign up to the peace process.

In any event, Beijing's official reaction was predictably full-throated. While China's Ministry of Defense ordered border forces onto full alert, early statements from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign affairs and Beijing's ambassador to Myanmar, Hong Liang, urged an immediate cease-fire and the need for dialogue and consultation. Hong stressed China's willingness to make "consistent efforts" with Myanmar in promoting negotiations.

In a Nov. 29 meeting in Beijing with Tin Myo Win, chief of Myanmar's Peace Commission, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China's readiness to play a constructive role "in accordance with Myanmar's wishes." Coincidentally or otherwise, four days earlier a statement from the NA-B had called also called for Chinese mediation.

In the context of its substantial commercial stake in Myanmar, and that country's centrality to the Indian Ocean segment of its 'Belt and Road Initiative' for economic connectivity, China's interest in brokering sustainable peace on its southwestern border while minimizing Western and Japanese influence is self-evident. Moreover, a military-to-military relationship with the Tatmadaw that has grown and matured in recent years, coupled with arguably decisive influence over key insurgent groups, affords Beijing unique leverage in mediating compromises that will be necessary if Myanmar is ever to move beyond today's armed stasis.

Whether -- and how -- China's diplomats can succeed in translating leverage into agreements is far less clear, however. Most immediately they will need to confront the flaws in the current peace process. To date only eight factions have signed the nationwide cease-fire agreement, most of which are militarily irrelevant. Another 12, including the powerful groups along the Chinese border, remain deeply skeptical of a Tatmadaw-endorsed accord that appears aimed at instituting an internationally legitimized cease-fire followed by a rebel disarmament and demobilization program before, rather than after, fundamental issues of ethnic autonomy have been settled.

In the coming months much will hinge on how the Tatmadaw, the unquestioned arbiter of Myanmar's security policy, balances the threat posed by an assertive NA-B against the risks implicit in according China an influential role in a possibly recalibrated peace process. The November offensive undoubtedly inflicted a painful shock, but in the final analysis the Tatmadaw remains a proud institution in which distrust of China runs deep.

Anthony Davis is a Thailand-based security analyst and writer for HIS-Jane's.

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