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Myanmar's new war in the north

Shan State Army South soldiers in a military display at Loi Tai Laeng's SSAS National day in 2012 (Photo by Steve Tickner)

It is a conclusion that is becoming difficult to avoid: To date the most notable result of Myanmar's Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, signed last October amid fanfare and international acclaim, has been to pave the way for a new war in the country's north.

     The current crisis, stemming from an outbreak of fighting between ethnic groups as well as with Myanmar's armed forces, known as the Tatamadaw, will almost certainly be the first order of business for the incoming National League for Democracy government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which is due to take over on April 1. It will also speak to the relationship between the new government and the military.
     The conflict spreading across northern Shan State has left scores dead and over 4,000 civilians displaced since November. It pits one of eight ethnic armed groups that signed the cease-fire pact: the Restoration Council of Shan State  (the RCSS, made up of ethnic Shans) -- against a faction that did not : the Palaung Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). Not by coincidence the hostilities appear to be serving the interests of the military, which last year was confronting the twin threats of a deteriorating military situation in the north and the advent of a democratically elected government with a sweeping popular mandate in Naypyitaw.
      Embarrassing as this diplomatic and humanitarian debacle should prove for the architects of the NCA -- the government's chief negotiator U Aung Min and his secretariat, the Myanmar Peace Centre, which facilitated the talks; and its western financiers and cheer-leaders -- it can hardly be described as surprising. Even before the NCA was signed on Oct. 15 it was apparent that the pact was a half-baked concoction pushed through to meet an artificial deadline for reasons of political expediency that had little to do with the country's long term stability.

T.N.L.A. soldiers pass a group of Palaung women in Kyauk Hpyu village. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

     Those reasons were no secret either then or now. One was to add luster to the election with the administration of President Thein Sein in the run-up to the November polls. Another was to improve the image of the MPC among European governments that poured millions of dollars into its institutional coffers between 2011 and 2015.

The "final-final" October deadline -- preceded by numerous broken deadlines before it -- also reflected the eagerness of western states and international peace-brokers to "lock in" a settlement -- any settlement -- before the onset of the months-long transition period between the polls and the accession of a new government. The NCA, went the argument, could just be an "open book" to which other groups could accede later.
     One look at the limp line-up on Oct. 15 2015 should have raised questions about why any non-signatory would have wanted to join later. Eight of about 20 ethnic armed groups signed. Most were militarily minuscule; four, based on the Thai border, were responding to vigorous prodding from Bangkok's ruling military; and, most tellingly of all, none was actually involved in hostilities with the Tatmadaw.

     Myanmar's ethnic heavy-hitters -- some already engaged in unilateral cease-fires with the Tatmadaw, others active belligerents -- steered clear. Their scepticism was understandable given the bizarre proposition underlying the entire negotiation: an internationally legitimized cease-fire agreement and subsequent disarmament process designed to take place before any formal agreement had been reached over devolution of political and economic power -- -- the very issues at the root of decades of ethnic strife in Myanmar.

Strategic gambit

Many of the NCA's proponents were undoubtedly aware at the time that the pact would prove divisive and aggravate tensions between signatories and non-signatories. What they clearly did not expect was that within days of the signing ceremony, the newly "legalized" RCSS -- the only signatory fielding a serious armed force -- would launch a strategic gambit, moving troops north from its bases on the Thai border into territory in the north of Shan State that is dominated by the TNLA but home to both Palaung and Shan communities.

     By late January an estimated 1,500 troops of a total RCSS force estimated at around 6,000 had moved several hundred kilometers to reinforce a presence in the north that before the cease-fire agreement had consisted of fewer than 200 fighters. Clashes began in late November in Namkham, near the Chinese border, but as Shan reinforcements arrived, the fighting spread west to Namhsan, Hsipaw and Kyaukme townships.

Palaung and Shan civilians take refuge at a Buddhist monastery in Kyaukma During armed clashes in northern Shan. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

     From the onset of hostilities on Nov. 27 the TNLA -- which appears to have suffered the greatest setbacks in the fighting -- claimed that the Tatmadaw was providing logistical and artillery support to the Shan fighters moving into the region. RCSS leader Yawt Serk has denied these claims.

     Not in dispute, however, is that Tatmadaw forces were also weighing in against the TNLA; and that the movement of some 1,500 well-armed RCSS troops across the length of Myanmar's largest state could hardly have occurred without the active cooperation of the military, which maintains garrisons in every township along the route. Indeed, by mid-January reports from independent sources were saying that the RCSS contingents were not only using major highways but being transported in Tatmadaw trucks.

Fighting chance

Almost at a stroke Yawt Serk, an experienced and undoubtedly canny leader, grasped the opportunity to extend the RCSS's political and military footprint across wide swathes of northwestern Shan State, where to date its influence has been minimal or non-existent, but where it will certainly lay claim to support from Shan communities. It is already recruiting local manpower. Indeed, in the months and years to come, the RCSS's state-wide presence will make it a key player in any peace negotiations.

     For the Tatmadaw, the benefits of the new war are far broader. Politically, seething communal tensions between the hill-dwelling Palaung and the valley-based Shan communities play into a broader strategy of ethnic divide-and-rule, on which the military has of necessity relied for decades.

     More immediately, a strategy of outsourcing counter-insurgency operations by deploying hundreds of fresh, well-equipped Shan fighters to the north to wage a "guerrilla on guerrilla" campaign against the TNLA has already served to relieve mounting pressure on the Tatmadaw's own severely overstretched forces. Since early 2015, when war erupted in the Kokang region of northeastern Shan State, the military has struggled to contain a range of active insurgencies across the north of the country.

     It is a strategy that is not without danger, however. The current fighting undoubtedly risks embroiling other groups allied to the TNLA -- not least the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army. While the China-backed UWSA's uneasy cease-fire with the military remains in place, its stronghold in an autonomous "special region" east of the Salween River has been serving as a rear base and source of weaponry for several groups in active hostilities with the Tatmadaw, notably the Kokang rebels and the TNLA. Intervention by well-equipped UWSA forces to prevent a TNLA collapse could further exacerbate the conflict.

     With or without such an escalation, however, war and ethnic tension in the north pointedly underscore a critical juncture - one that portrays the centrality of Myanmar's military as the indispensable guarantor of stability, and the country's best defense against the threat of "national disintegration." Whatever attempts the incoming government may make to revive Myanmar's battered peace process will necessarily unfold within these freshly reinforced constraints.

Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane's.

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