Fighting In North-East Myanmar: What Lies Beyond
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Issue Vol. 31.1 Jan-Mar 2016 | Date : 09 Aug , 2017

In recent years, the central government has made an effort to pacify its ethnic regions but the situation is still unstable in many places and the humanitarian toll that has resulted from these conflicts is substantial. Over a million people are internally displaced and some three million have found refuge outside Myanmar. With the power of the army receding in Naypyidaw and the rise of the democratically elected NLD, ethnic groups have a new interlocutor in Suu Kyi but multiple issues are involved. The Army is also particularly worried about the fact that the NLD has only a limited knowledge of the conflicts and of the tumultuous relationships that the central government maintains with minority groups.

In November 2015, the people of Myanmar voted in free and fair elections for the first time in more than 50 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory albeit the Myanmar Military still controls 25 per cent of the Parliament as well as the three key Ministries of Borders, Defence and Home Affairs. Just prior to independence, in 1947, Suu Kyi’s father, Bogyoke Aung San (the fifth Premier of the British Crown Colony of Burma from 1946 to 1947) struck the “Panglong Agreement” with all major ethnic groups, ensuring these groups, and their territories, would stay in what was then called the Burmese Union while enjoying political autonomy. After an initial period of ten years, the ethnic regions would have the choice to stay in, or leave the Union. However, General Bogyoke Aung San, the ‘guarantor’ of the Agreement, was assassinated and it was not implemented when independence came in 1948. After that, the central government faced two main conflicts; the Communist Party rebellion, and insurrection from the Karen ethnic group. Hence, right since 1948, Myanmar’s ethnic groups have neither left the Union nor have they enjoyed real political representation or autonomy.

In 1962, a military coup put an end to Burmese parliamentary democracy sparking more armed insurrections from ethnic groups as the Burmese military government and its successors followed a policy of Burmanisation across the board throughout the country: one, promotion of a single religion – Buddhism; two, a single language – Burmese and; three, a single culture – Burman. This was enforced by successive military regimes fearing that otherwise Burma (now Myanmar) would disintegrate. There was no scope to establish a multiparty system or a federal government that would have given autonomy and representation to its ethnic groups. Hence, ethnic minority groups especially on the periphery of the country, have been fighting the central government to protect their cultures and in pursuit of some kind of autonomy.

An estimated one to two million Rohingya live in Myanmar and roughly 250,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly unregistered, in Bangladesh…

Ethnic Groups

There are more than 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar, each with its own history, culture and language. The seven largest minority nationalities are the Chin, the Kachin, the Karenni (sometimes called Kayah), the Karen (sometimes called Kayin), the Mon, the Rakhine, and the Shan. The 2008 Constitution of Myanmar offered no real protection for the many ethnic minorities of Burma and several leaders in the different ethnic communities have voiced their concerns that it is meant to wipe out the diverse cultures of the people of Myanmar. Some of the major ethnic groups are as under:

  • Bamar or Burman. Bamar are the majority ethnic group of Burma, numbering over 60 per cent of the population by some estimates. They are of Sino-Tibetan origin and reside predominantly in the central plains near the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers. The Bamar population is itself divided into various sub-groups and thus is not a homogenous ethnic category.
  • Chin. Chin are estimated at 1.5 million and comprise many different sub-groups. They are of Tibeto-Burman origin and live in the North-Western Chin State, which separates Myanmar from India.
  • Kachin. Kachin comprise a number of different ethnic sub-groups, live mainly in North-Eastern Myanmar as well as parts of China and India. The Kachin in Myanmar are estimated to number between 1 to 1.5 million and are traditionally hill dwellers subsisting on rotational cultivation of hill rice. During the British rule of Burma (from 1886-1948), most Kachin territory was specially administered as a frontier region. Christianity spread among the Kachin people at this time. When Burma gained independence in 1948, the Northern mountainous extremity of the country was designated as Kachin State. There is also a sizeable population of Kachin people in Northern Shan State.
  • Karenni. Also known as the Red Karen, they are a subset of the Karen people. Covering around nine different ethnic subsets, the Karenni are estimated to number about 300,000. Together with the Mon, they are the oldest indigenous group in Myanmar, migrating from China in the sixth or seventh century. Karenni (or Kayah) state lies between Karen and Shan state along Myanmar’s border with Thailand. 
  • Karen. These number around seven million making up one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. The religious make-up of the Karen people is a combination of Buddhism, Animism and Christianity. They reside mainly in the Southern and South Eastern parts of the country, whilst thousands live across the border in Thailand in a state of limbo.
  • Mon. Mon live mostly in Mon State situated in the Southern part of Myanmar bordering the Bago Region, Tanintharyi Region and Karen State. It also has access to the Andaman Sea. Mon are considered to be one of the first people in the Southeast Asia and the earliest ones to settle in Burma. They were responsible for spreading Theravada Buddhism, the oldest school of the religion, in Myanmar and Thailand. Currently, there are estimated to be around eight million Mon people in Myanmar.
  • Rakhine. They are the largest ethnic group in Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan, which lies in Western Myanmar. The Rakhine or Arakanese dialect is also spoken by around 35,000 people in neighbouring Bangladesh. The population, as with most areas in Myanmar, is difficult to establish accurately, especially since the patchy census data only counts the number within the state and not the population of the ethnic groups. It is estimated that those in Rakhine state make up – four to 5.5 per cent of the total population of Myanmar. They are predominantly Theravada Buddhists. Rakhine state is also home to populations from other ethnic groups, such as the Chin, Mro, Chakma, Khami, Dainet , Maramagri as also a large minority population of Muslim Rohingya.
  • Rohingya. Although they have been living in Rakhine (Arakan) State in Western Myanmar for centuries, the government considers them to be foreigners. They are refused citizenship and face some of discrimination; unable to move and find jobs without obtaining permits. An estimated one to two million Rohingya live in Myanmar and roughly 250,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly unregistered, in Bangladesh. Thousands more have fled to Thailand, Malaysia and India.
  • Shan. Most ethnic Shan live in Shan State in Eastern Myanmar, but smaller Shan communities also live in Kachin State to the North and in China, Thailand and Laos, which border Shan State. There are an estimated four to six million Shan in Myanmar. There are many smaller ethnic groups in Shan State as well, including the Kokang, Lahu, Palaung, Pao and Wa. While most Shan are Theravada Buddhists, Christianity is also practiced among a number of the other ethnic groups in Shan State. Shan State is home to a number of armed ethnic armies, including the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), fighting against the Myanmar Army. The most recent ceasefire agreement between the SSA-South and the Government, signed in December 2011, broke down in February 2012, as fighting broke out in areas across Shan State.

The Wa have inhabited a territory that they have claimed as their ancestral land since time immemorial…

Shan State, Wa People and the UWSA

Shan State. China borders Myanmar’s Shan State to the North. Laos and Thailand border to the East and South respectively. In the West are five administrative divisions of Myanmar itself. Spanning 155,800 sq km, Shan State is largest of the 14 administrative divisions of Myanmar in terms of area constituting about a quarter of the total area of Myanmar. The State abounds in silver, lead, gold, tungsten, rubies, sapphires and teak. More significantly, Shan State straddles the Golden Triangle, one of the most extensive opium-producing areas in the world and the production and trade of heroin, plus increasingly other drugs, like methamphetamines. All this has led to rampant corruption on a local and national level, extortion and illicit taxation, widespread addiction among local communities and perpetual armed conflict.

Wa People. The Wa people are an ethnic group that lives mainly in Northern Myanmar, in the Northern part of Shan State and the Eastern part of Kachin State, near and along Myanmar’s border with China, as well as in China’s Yunan Province. Historically, the Wa have inhabited a territory that they have claimed as their ancestral land since time immemorial – calling it the Wa States. It is rugged mountainous territory located between the Mekong and Salween rivers, with the Nam-Hka river flowing across it. Chinese documents written prior to the twentieth century rarely mentioned the Wa as headhunters and yet it is this aspect of Wa culture that has been cited more often than any other in order to emphasize the primitive character of the Wa. According to the British era border between Burma and China, the Wa people were divided between the two countries.

The Wa regions in Burma were largely left alone until the 1950s, when China’s Communist Revolution ousted the Kuomintang regime in 1949. A decade and a half later, the region came under the influence of China-backed Communist Party of Burma. In 1989, the Wa authorities expelled the Burma Communist Party and negotiated a ceasefire with Burma’s military junta. They founded the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the United Wa State Party (UWSP) with a centralised command, in return for agreeing to the ban of poppy cultivation and opium production in the region.

As stipulated by the 2008 Burmese Constitution, on 20 August 2010, the Wa Self-Administered Division was established. It is administered by the Wa people and its territory is between the gorges of the Mekong and Salween rivers, in the Eastern part of the Shan State, near the border with the Chinese province of Yunan. The Wa are one of the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar. Their proportion to Myanmar’s total population is 0.16. Wa are one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by China where they live in compact communities in multiple counties of South-Western Yunan Province. Wa population in China is estimated at around 400,000. In recent times, some Wa communities from Myanmar have crossed the border and settled in Thailand, where they have no official status as a Hill Tribe. The Wa live mainly in the Mae Sai District and Mae Yao sub-district of Chiang Rai Province, as well as in Wiang Pa Pao in Southern Chiang Rai Province and Chiang Dao District in Chiang Mai Province. In Thailand, the Wa having come recently from Myanmar, are often referred to as ‘Lawa’, although they do not strictly belong to the latter ethnic subgroup.

UWSA. The UWSA was one of the world’s largest narco-armies with up to 10,000 men under arms. Until 1996, the UWSA was involved in a conflict against the Thai Army which suited the objectives of the Myanmar Military in the region. During this conflict the USWA occupied areas close to the Thai border, ending up with the control of two separate swathes of territory North and South of Kengtung. In 1999, when the Myanmar Military requested the USWA fighters to return to the Northern area the UWSA refused. During the 2000s, the UWSA shifted focus into from heroin to amphetamine production. By 2006, Myanmar was the source of half of Asia’s methamphetamine, with experts believing that most drug labs are in areas under Wa control. The land where the Wa have been traditionally living is divided between Myanmar and China. The international border cuts the ancestral Wa region roughly in half.

Only eight out of the 15 original signatories signed the ceasefire agreement on 15 October 2015…

China’s Sub-Conventional Forays

China’s proclivity to wage sub-conventional wars has never really been hidden. Spawning extremist movements like the New People’s Army of Philippines, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Japanese Red Army, Shining Path in Peru and Maoist movements in Myanmar and Nepal as part of ideology spread was just one early form. For decades, China has been arming, financing and supporting insurgents in North-East India, as well as in Myanmar. The Kachin and Wa were special beneficiaries of such Chinese largesse. China even provided Kachin rebels with AK-47 manufacturing capabilities. Despite the close political, economic and military relations between China and Myanmar, China had been steadily arming the UWSA who have large tracts of Myanmar territory under their control as ‘liberated’ zones in North and East Myanmar, particularly in Shan State. The obvious Chinese aim is to ensure that the UWSA remain its proxy. The Myanmar military is unable to regain this territory and China can use the USWA as the trump card to keep Myanmar subservient to China, assist in China accessing the Indian Ocean, permit energy supplies through Myanmar and establish the Chinese Navy in ports of Myanmar of Chinese choosing. In recent years, Chinese support to UWSA by way of assault rifles and machine guns, was upgraded to supply of rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons, shoulder fired QW-1 Manpads and even armoured troop carrying vehicles.

Since 2013, China has been equipping UWSA with Mi-17 ‘Hip’ medium transport helicopters armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles creating a proxy that will be even deadlier than the LTTE. In a bid to deceive, China has been flying in these helicopters across the Mekong River from Laos rather than directly from China. UWSA as China’s narco-proxy also suits the Chinese concept of ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ that includes optimisation of guerillas, terrorism, smuggling and drugs. In May 2015, Chinese intelligence used Myanmar territory to forge an alliance between nine North-Eastern insurgent groups, bringing them under a common umbrella as the United Liberation Front of West, South, East Asia (UNLF WSEA). This organisation is headed by the NSCN (K) and ULFA.

Situation over the Years

In recent years, the central government has made an effort to pacify its ethnic regions; but the situation is still unstable in many places and the humanitarian toll in these conflicts is substantial. Over a million people are internally displaced and some three million have found refuge outside Myanmar. With the power of the Army receding in Naypyidaw and the rise of the democratically elected NLD, ethnic groups have a new interlocutor in Suu Kyi but multiple issues are involved. The Army is also particularly worried about the fact that the NLD has only limited knowledge of the conflicts and of the tumultuous relationships that the central government maintains with minority groups.

China’s modus operandi against Myanmar is very much similar to what she is employing against Afghanistan…

The ethnic groups and minorities are also conscious of the fact that the NLD is still a party that is predominantly Burman, the main ethnic group in Myanmar which minorities have been not very comfortable with since Burmans always supported the central government and the military junta. They also fear a tie between the NLD and the military elite (a combined Burman front) which would be hard to negotiate with. Moreover, the Shan and the Kachin are still engaged in armed conflict with the military. However, minorities (less perhaps Rohangiya) have faith in Aung San Suu Kyi since the NLD still won a majority of the seats in ethnic regions during the elections albeit this also may have been due to split-voting in ethnic areas due to divisions within the ethnic political framework where several parties were representing the same minority and the NLD was the obvious saviour against persecution by the central military government for decades.

Under the new constitutional reforms in 2011, the state level and union level ceasefire agreements were reached with many rebel factions. 14 out of 17 of the largest rebel factions signed a ceasefire agreement with the new reformed government. All the 14 signatories wanted negotiations in accordance with the Panglong Agreement of 1947 which granted self-determination, regional autonomy, religious freedom and ethnic minority rights. However, the new constitution had only a few clauses dedicated to minority rights and, therefore, the government discussed with rebel factions using the new constitution for reference, rather than the Panglong Agreement. There was no inclusive plan or body that represented all the factions and as a result, in resent, the KNU backed out of the conference and complained of lack of independence for each party within the ethnic bloc. According to the Myanmar Peace Monitoring Group, clashes between Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), its allies and the government, had already displaced hundreds of thousands of people, creating humanitarian crisis in Kachin and the Northern Shan State.

In April 2015, a draft Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was finalised between representatives from 15 different insurgent groups – all part of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and the Government of Myanmar. In October 2015, after two years of negotiations, the government of Myanmar announced that it will finalise and sign a ceasefire agreement with eight insurgent groups, including the Karen National Union. However, only eight out of the 15 original signatories signed the ceasefire agreement on 15 October 2015, after seven of members of the NCCT backed out of negotiations in September 2015. The signing was witnessed by observers and delegates from the UN, US, UK, Japan and Norway. But peace has continued to elude Myanmar despite this peace agreement which anyway was signed only by eight of the 15 insurgent groups.

It is yet to be seen whether China will play the Islamic radicalisation card in Myanmar through the Rohingyas…

Renewed Fighting Endangering Reconciliation

Myanmar’s government faced fresh crisis in November 2016, when four ethnic armed groups attacked military and police posts and a business centre near an important trading hub on Myanmar’s border with China. They overran the police headquarters at Kyee Kan Pyin and looted, according to officials, 62 weapons and over 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Border police outposts at Nga Khu Ya in North Maungdaw and Koe Dan Kau were also targeted. The attacks appeared to have been carefully planned Improvised Explosive Devices were used to prevent reinforcements from moving in. To military experts, the evidence suggested that the clash leaders, at least, had relatively sophisticated training.

China announced it was providing shelter for people who fled across the frontier to escape fighting in the towns of Muse and Kutkai, in Myanmar’s North-Eastern Shan state. Beijing has called on the parties involved to exercise restraint. This escalation coincided with conflict in North-Western Rakhine State that sent hundreds of Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. A significant development has been the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) joining three smaller groups that have been in a stand-off with the Myanmar military since clashes on the border during 2014.

The fighting during 2014 had pitted the Myanmar army against the predominantly ethnic Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and its allies, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA). In separate clashes during 2015, five Chinese nationals were killed when the fighting spilled over into Chinese territory. Now these three groups announced that they have joined the KIA to fight the Myanmar Army. In a joint statement they proclaimed, “The Burma armed forces have been assaulting to destroy all political and military struggles of the ethnic peoples because they have no will to solve Myanmar’s political problem by politically peaceful negotiation methods.”

The China Factor

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang had said a stray bullet from the fighting had wounded a Chinese resident (during the November 2016 clashes) and China had lodged a protest. A Chinese defence ministry statement read, “The Chinese army is on high alert and will take the necessary measures to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and safety, as well as protect the lives and property of Chinese citizens living along the border.” But the fact remains that behind the peace homilies by China and showcasing eagerness for assisting Myanmar’s reconciliation process, lies deceit and the aim to ‘control’ Myanmar through her sub-conventional proxies. That is why China continues to support select insurgent groups of Myanmar particularly in the Shan and Kachin States of Myanmar. In fact, China’s modus operandi against Myanmar is very much similar to what she is employing against Afghanistan; protecting her own strategic and economic interests, displaying peace and reconciliation overtures, while supporting Taliban and encouraging Pakistani proxies to destabilise Afghanistan. If China aims to get the US-NATO forces out of Afghanistan, it very much is averse to Suu Kyi’s growing closeness to the US as well as to India.

The Future

Suu Kyi, whose father was the architect of the ‘Panglong Agreement’ ensuring all ethnic groups and their territories stay in the Burmese Union, has a difficult task at hand. She and the NLD won a tumultuous victory in the elections on the plank of ushering in national reconciliation. Her sincerity was indicated by the major peace conference she organised in August 2016, with most ethnic armed groups. Government negotiator Hla Maung Shwe told the media recently, “It was really regrettable that civilian areas have come under attack. This is likely to further complicate the peace process.”

Continued fighting coupled with the Rohangiya-Buddhist clashes definitely has added to instability. Myanmar Ministry of Defence spokesman Major General Aung Ne Win said, “We will increase the operations to secure these areas and protect the civilians.” But what Suu Kyi also has to contend with is her Machiavellian neighbour China who holds the aces to calibrate instability in Myanmar. It is yet to be seen whether China will play the Islamic radicalisation card in Myanmar through the Rohingyas, in conjunction with Pakistan, as China is doing in India’s North-East. Asim Umar, Pakistani radical, heads the South Asia branch of Al Qaeda, and its mother organisation, the HUJI, ran branches in Kashmir, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In October 2014, the first issue of the AQIS magazine, Resurgence, had called Myanmar a “21st century concentration camp”. It talked of Buddhist Rakhine villagers killing eight Muslims being smuggled into Bangladesh through Du Chee Yar Tan village in the Maungdaw township of Arakan, following which when Muslims retaliated the next day by capturing a police officer involved in the killings and executing him, the police ganged up with the local Buddhist population and killed over 50 Muslim men, women and children. Ethnic Bangladeshi networks in the UK, key to financing jihadi operations in their country of origin, are suspected of some role in Myanmar too. In December 2016, two AQIS-linked message boards reposted messages “from a brother”, saying he was “personally travelling on the 20th of December to Burma with a few brothers to help displaced Rohingya.” For further information and inquires or to donate the message gave a UK number. That such activities would be supported by China and Pakistan is very much a possibility. Recently, the Chinese media talked of the situation in J&K being linked to Afghanistan and that Muslim organisations in India’s North-East could react to action by Indian security forces in J&K.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army.

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