In the mountainous borderlands of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s much hyped ceasefire process is faltering. While some progress towards securing a final resolution to decades of violent antagonism between ethnic armed groups and the country’s military was made during a major summit last week, significant shortcomings remain. Fierce fighting continues on several fronts, and the middle ground needed to strike any lasting deal between the country’s multiple warring factions is proving elusive, thereby threatening to prolong conflict well into the era of democratic reform.
The fifteen armies that recently sent representatives to the capital Naypyidaw form a web of allegiances and animosities so fluid and complex that it makes any straightforward resolution near impossible. Of those 15, eight have already signed initial ceasefires; the remaining seven have refused, citing a deep suspicion of the government’s intentions, and departed from the talks before agreeing to any framework for future negotiations.
Suu Kyi has made peace between the military and ethnic armies a priority since coming to power last year. While the summit ended with an agreement on the “principle” of making Myanmar a federal state — a key demand of armed groups that would grant their constituents greater political voice in the capital, and greater autonomy within their territories — the skepticism that was long leveled at the military by ethnic minorities has transferred to her reformist government. The seven non-signatory groups see a growing ideological alignment between the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military. In their eyes, any hope of federalism being realized soon is tempered by the knowledge that the military is deeply resistant to any reorganizing of the political system that would threaten its half-century long bid for highly centralized control of the country’s periphery and the resources found there.
Since the first round of ceasefire talks in August last year, the numbers of civilians displaced as a result of military attacks in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State has grown. A day after the summit began last week, heavy gunfire was traded between two ethnic armies in Shan State, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Shan State Army (SSA), causing hundreds of people to flee their villages. The gradual transition away from junta rule after 2011 has not brought peace to the country; rather, old conflicts have resumed, prompting military campaigns in the border regions of a size and intensity not seen in decades, while one-time ethnic allies have turned their guns against one another.
The landscape in which Suu Kyi attempts to negotiate these deals is uniquely challenging. Away from the ongoing fighting, a new bloc has formed composed of the seven non-signatory armies, of which the powerful China-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA) is the patron. This presents a unified alliance of opposition to the current ceasefire framework, thereby complicating the process and, to both the government and military’s ire, making China now a key player in negotiations.
Moreover, the dynamics between ethnic armies have grown more complicated. The fighting last week in Shan State involved two groups — one that had signed a ceasefire last year, and one that hadn’t — that in the past had both fought against the military. Ceasefire efforts in Myanmar have a habit of triangulating conflicts, and the processes playing out today in many ways mirror those of the past. When the junta began brokering deals with warring groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was able to co-opt select armies and then turn them on erstwhile allies. Resulting splits produced smaller factions, and no longer was the major cleavage between the military and ethnic minorities; instead, antagonisms became far more diffuse. The present-day ceasefire drive has further scattered the constellation of ethnic solidarities, meaning that the government is forced to negotiate with multiple actors, many deeply skeptical of its intentions, all with competing interests and suspicions of one another.
But the most significant problem perhaps lies with the government itself. While Suu Kyi may have reinvigorated the peace process, she has not convinced those still refusing to sign a deal that she is charting a course different to that which failed her predecessors. A major source of the recalcitrance of many armed groups lies in the fact that, in Myanmar, peace has historically meant anything but. Past ceasefire agreements, signed in several waves from the late 1980s, sought to centralize control of the resource-rich borderlands in the hands of the state. Armed groups were bought off, with development promised in return for laying down arms, and a few conflict areas were turned into “special regions” designed to show off development projects like schools and hospitals, in an attempt to lure other warring factions to sign truces. All the while, the bulk of the revenue from the aggressive development of these areas — the mining, the damming, the deforestation — went to the military and the corrupt leaders of armed groups. The populations in these areas, whose livelihoods, and lives, had been eaten away by the decades of conflict, received very little of the returns.
Their demands for autonomy reflect the depth of distrust these populations hold toward the government. The understanding among ethnic minorities of the paradox of “peacetime” in Myanmar, where civilians were further disenfranchised and new insecurities unleashed, provides grounds for suspicion of Suu Kyi’s intentions. Kachin State, where a 17-year ceasefire broke in 2011, triggering intense fighting that still continues, knows this well: soon after the ceasefire was brokered in 1994, natural resource sites were militarized and the civilians living near them forcibly relocated in their thousands, while revenue from black market sales of jade and timber enriched a military-business nexus that saw the ceasefire as an opportunity for immense profit. It is for precisely this reason that armed groups and their constituents want the political dimensions to the conflicts — chiefly, federalism, and the accompanying control of resources and trading routes, and withdrawal of Myanmar troops from their territory — to be resolved before laying down arms. Past ceasefires have served as transmission lines for damaging state interests to reach into contested areas, eroding civilian security and undermining the power bases of rebel leaders; Suu Kyi has yet to convince many groups that her framework marks a break with this
Her room for maneuver is limited by pressure from the military to give up as little ground as possible. For Myanmar’s paramount institution, conflict is both economically and politically profitable. The resources exploited in the contested border regions — jade, timber, hydropower — have provided it with a crucial source of funding, while continued instability, of which the military is arguably the key driver, offers a rationale for refusing to entirely let go of power. Over half a century of rule, the military cast itself as chief protector of the population, deploying a narrative that saw Myanmar as riddled with internal enemies that threatened national cohesion. But in a sense these enemies are, and continue to be, of its own making, born of a refusal to cede any authority to communities that were not aligned with its bid for highly centralized control. That narrative of an ever-present threat contains a well-worn circular strategy — sustain an enemy, use that enemy — that can be exploited by a military fearful of its preeminence being eroded. Intensified campaigns in the borderlands give the military an upper hand in current negotiations, in part because the resulting instability creates an image of Myanmar as a country in need of a stronger authority than a civilian government offers.
Suu Kyi has been forced to broaden her approach, and by inviting several previously sidelined groups to the capital last week has shown an inclusivity that had until now been absent. But the present-day ceasefire negotiations are different to those of old — they now involve a civilian government, disparate powerful blocs, and also China, which has substantial economic interests in the mines, rivers and forests of Myanmar’s conflict zones, much of which ongoing fighting threatens. Yet the terrain remains as hazardous as ever, and unless the actors sitting across the negotiating table from Suu Kyi are convinced this time round that peace does indeed mean peace, then that middle ground may remain elusive.