The recent violence in Shan State is the consequence of flawed peace agreements and inflexible attempts at diplomacy. All sides must accept an imperfect peace in order to move forward.
This year, renewed fighting in Myanmar’s Shan State has pushed thousands of people from their homes forcing many into makeshift camps and or monasteries to escape the escalating violence.
Ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military share responsibility for the deteriorating situation. The new wave of clashes stems from territorial disputes between the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA, also known as the Kokang Army), and the armed wings of both the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).
Fighting often breaks out between the ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw and also among the ethnic armed groups themselves.
The recent fighting in Shan State is a part of a trend toward escalation that began after the passage of the 2008 Constitution, which was only exacerbated by the impotent Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed by the Tatmadaw and 10 ethnic armed groups in 2015. The Tatmadaw’s insistence that groups give up their arms before signing bilateral agreements meant that while the RCSS signed on to the NCA, the TNLA, MNDAA and the SSPP did not.
These terms of negotiation and the impact of the 2008 constitution are key to understanding the recent violence, and the inability of all sides’ leadership to deliver peace. The armed groups continue to fight not only for the power to control the future of their region but also in order to be seen as the sole legitimate representative of their ethnic group.
This has created an inescapable cycle of failed peace negotiations. Many ethnic armed groups feel they cannot capitulate to the Tatmadaw until a suitable peace agreement is reached. But the Tatmadaw will not accept a ceasefire until the group puts down its weapons.
The only avenue for progress in Myanmar is if the Tatmadaw abandon’s its preconditions for peace and pushes for a lasting ceasefire with the armed Shan groups. For the armed groups, this means they must place a ceasefire – and the protection of the rights of local communities – over all other political goals.
The NCA and the 2008 Constitution provided several lessons
The recent cycle of conflict in Shan stems from violations of the NCA and the inadequacy of the 2008 constitution as a peacebuilding tool.
At first glance, it appears to be a conflict over territory. The TNLA retaliates against what it sees as the military’s aggressive campaigns to expand Tatmadaw control.
Conflicts between the Tatmadaw and MNDAA in northern Shan State have fallen into a similar cycle, as the MNDAA fights to retake lost territory on the China-Myanmar border and the Tatmadaw responds with their own offensives. Though the SSPP signed the NCA, fighting between the armed group and the Tatmadaw has also continued since it broke out in late 2015, displacing over 10,000 people.
Attempts to resolve territorial disputes have broken down, and it’s clear that the new 2008 constitution and the NCA are inadequate tools to resolve this conflict. The constitution was designed to facilitate a transition to multiparty democracy, but it also stipulated that there would be one army for the whole union. This effectively tried to place the Tatmadaw in charge, with ethnic armed groups as their subordinate allies.
This left underlying issues unaddressed, including autonomy, land and resource rights, political representation, and a plan to transition the ethnic armed groups into a new post-conflict role. This was a recipe for contention – most armed groups refused to cooperate. Those that did, were invited to participate in the NCA, sowing division between ethnic groups which still scars the political landscape today.
In April 2017, seven groups active in Shan State who were not signatories of the NCA began to gain more political traction when they formed the Federal Peace Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) – made up of the TNLA, the MNDAA, the SSPP, the Kachin Independence Army, the United Wa State Army, the Arakan Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA). One of the FPNCC’s first actions was to demand that the NCA be replaced.
The FPNCC represents a call for the central government to make itself open to negotiations with the ethnic groups excluded from the NCA. But such an agreement must secure the rights of the people of Shan State, rather than solely be a piecemeal for the political goals of its members. The central government has only recently begun to meet with the Committee, in part because of the Tatmadaw’s preconditions for peace talks.
Non-secession and disarmament can be goals but not pre-conditions
Tatmadaw Senior General Min Aung Hlaing now maintains two pre-conditions for peace talks that undermine any attempt at compromise: ethnic armed groups must give up their weapons and agree to a basic tenant of non-secession.
While these terms may well be a part of a final peace agreement, as pre-conditions they demonstrate an unwillingness to compromise on some of the ethnic armed groups’ principal aims in the peace process.
This hardline diplomacy prevents the Shan groups from reaching any sort of temporary agreement, even one that seeks to provide even a short period of peace to allow for further negotiations.
Ethnic armed groups in Shan object to the Tatmadaw’s preconditions because they want to assert ownership of their region and their vital contributions to a peaceful union. Some ethnic armed groups also see the alternative to negotiation not as war but as independence, making the need for peace appear less urgent.
The ethnic armed groups also fear that if the people of Shan see them as conceding to the Tatmadaw on either of these points, it would threaten their power and position. Even for those groups that did sign the NCA, such as the RCSS, the Tatmadaw often accuses them of abusing or twisting the terms of the agreement.
To move forward on diplomacy, the Tatmadaw must accept an imperfect peace
The failed peace agreements from the 1990s and the NCA both point to the same solution for the current humanitarian crisis. These accords were flawed, but violence is not the cause of the conflict – it is only a symptom.
The NCA was designed as a tool for dialogue between ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw, but it now fails to offer protection to the people of Shan State. It ignored crucial actors (those now a part of the FPNCC), doing nothing to prevent intense fighting among smaller guerrilla groups.
But despite the shortcomings of the NCA, this premise of “peace first, dialogue second” needs to be the basis for an agreement with groups in northern Shan.
The Tatmadaw claims to be on track to bring peace to the union by 2020, but their leadership has yet to allow Shan armed groups the space to protect the rights of those they claim to represent.
Similarly, the RCSS, SSPP, TNLA and MNDAA prioritize their need to prove their legitimacy as representatives of the people of Shan State. This leads to unnecessary violence and actually threatens their credibility, as they fail to protect the needs of the Shan people and allow the conflict to destroy their homes and lives.
If all sides prioritise the basic needs of the local communities they claim to represent, they will accept an imperfect peace. Only when some form of peace has been established, can dialogue begin on the real causes of the conflict – autonomy, the rights of the people of Shan State, and the future of the Union Government.