TWO weeks after a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed between Burma’s central authorities and a number of ethnic armed groups, the country’s ethnic areas remain anything but peaceful.
According to a dispatch by UNHCR, the United Nations’ commission for refugees, sporadic clashes between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burmese armed forces continue in Kachin State, the country’s northernmost province, forcing civilians to hide in forests.
Outright war in the area broke out in 2011, when the army terminated a bilateral agreement signed in 1994, and has since remained tense, with more clashes taking place in June this year.
“Unable to leave the jungle area where they have sought safety, they are in dire need of emergency shelter, food and medicine. Initial reports suggest that some 40 per cent of the trapped population are children under the age of 15,” says UNHCR.
Even less peaceful, if possible, is Shan State. Since early October, the armed forces have carried out an offensive against the Shan State Army – North (SSA-N) which left over 3000 civilians displaced, while fighting was also reported in the southern portion of the province.
These reports stand in striking contrast to optimistic promises of peace made before the ceasefire deal was signed on October 15.
That agreement was the result of talks between the government and ethnic militias which had been underway all year long. In March, the ethnic groups’ negotiators signed a draft agreement which seemed likely to pave the way for a national ceasefire. In June, ethnic leaders rejected the deal and proposed a series of amendments, the most controversial of which was the inclusion of the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) into the process.
The government, on various grounds, had no intention to allow these three organizations to join the NCA and eventually a watered-down version of the agreement was signed only by eight rebel armies, effectively killing the ‘national’ character of the deal.
Those who stayed out – and among them are some of the country’s largest ethnic armies – argued that a national ceasefire could not possibly exclude three active groups.
Their exclusion raised eyebrows among observers, too. To put it plainly, some feared that the NCA was a tactic to divide the rebels, regroup and eliminate them one by one – a fear that has strengthened since government troops launched the current offensive in Shan State.
“It definitely seems a divide-and-rule strategy,” says Ariana Zarleen, co-founder of Burma Link, an organization that works with ethnic minorities. “It is the classic tactic of talking with some groups while attacking others, and they have been successful at it. For a while, it seemed the ethnic groups were united and holding to their demands, but eventually it all fell apart. Now the split is not only among different groups, but even within single organizations,” she told Asian Correspondent.
The specific reasons why attacks have been launched in Shan State remain unclear. “It may be that they are trying to pressure the SSA-N to sign the ceasefire,” says Ms. Zarleen, but she cautions that the opposite could be true, too. “Some people say that the armed forces attacked because they want to get total control over the area,” she contends.
Ongoing war is not the only news to come out of Burma’s peripheral areas in recent days. On October 26, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), usually regarded as the most powerful militia in the country, invited 11 ethnic groups which did not sign the ceasefire to assemble in the capital of the Wa Special Region for a conference.
The UWSA is the heir of the now defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and was not part of the ceasefire agreement (its leadership seeks autonomy rather than federalism, as opposed to most others).
“the attacks in northern Shan State are believed to be a kind of punishment for not signing”
According to the Irrawaddy, Zhao Xiaofu, a spokesperson for UWSA, said that “the meeting will focus on the views of ethnic armed groups on the election and how we, ethnic armed groups, should engage with the new government.”
It is easy to guess that the war in northern Shan State may have played a role in the UWSA’s decision. According to Tom Kramer, a researcher with the Transnational Institute (TNI), “the attacks in northern Shan State are believed to be a kind of punishment for not signing, but they are also aimed at cutting the SSA from the UWSA, their main ally.”
“The Wa are very worried about this because the situation is deteriorating,” he says, mentioning that the MNDAA, one of the three groups excluded from the ceasefire deal, is also one of their allies.
“This is part of a very long strategy on the part of the central authorities: it is about managing conflict, not solving it,” argues Mr. Kramer, adding that the present offensive “raises a lot of serious questions about the government and the armed forces.”