It was hoped that the Union Peace Conference (UPC) or 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC) would bring all warring parties into an atmosphere of peaceful negotiation that would lead to reconciliation and endsome seven decades of ethnic conflict. But just the opposite is happening in the aftermath of the conference, as the Myanmar military heightens offensives against the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA). Post conference, the escalation of fighting in Kachin state has prompted many to wonder why the guns have not been silenced.
On and off military engagements between the KIA and the Tatmadaw have become routine since the seventeen-year ceasefire broke down in 2011. But the escalation of armed conflicts right after the 21CPC, while it's initiator State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was away on a visit to the United Kingdom and the United States, has quite a different impact and meaning.
According to media reports, the Myanmar military conducted air strikes on 23 September in Kachin State’s Waingmaw Township, continuing a week-long offensive against the KIA. Offensives against the KIA’s Brigade 5 have been ongoing since last week, while military manoeuvres have increased against other KIA brigades—2, 3 and 4—in Kachin and northern Shan states for months, according to KIA spokesman Lt-Col Naw Bu.
He said that since 20 September, Myanmar Army troops used 120 mm and 105 mm artillery to attack Lai Hpau and nearby outpost Nhkaram, which are about three kilometres away from the Myitkyina-Bhamo highway. The KIA troops there are a security unit used to defend the KIA headquarters in Laiza which is about 30-40 kilometres away.
Naw Bu said that the offensives could be an effort to “put pressure on the KIA” to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), in order to “implement the Myanmar Army’s plan to bring disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of non-state armed groups,” which was raised by military representatives during the UPC.
Kachin media reported that the Lai Hpau and Nhkaram outposts have been repeatedly attacked since August. But during last week the offensive intensified, with the Myanmar army using some 300 to 500 troops, firing artillery, to overrun the KIA camps. Estimates suggest the Myanmar Army suffered 70 killed in action and 40 wounded, while the KIA suffered one death. However, the figures were not confirmed by either side.
On 19 September, it was reported that some 300 Myanmar Army soldiers crossed into China, wearing civilian clothes. A border observer suspected the troops could be used to attack Laiza. Reportedly, when the Myanmar Army attacked and seized the KIO’s former headquarters at Nahpaw-Pajau Bum in 1987, its troops had attacked KIA positions from across the border in China, according to KIA officials.
Meanwhile, a combined military exercise took place involving infantry, armoured vehicles, air force personnel and an anti-terrorism unit and several fighter jets. The final day of the exercise included mobilising a 155-millimetre howitzer and 122-millimetre rocket missiles. The Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing was there on September 24. The Tatmadaw chief said the two-day exercise, and the expenditure of time, money and manpower, was necessary to build the capacity of soldiers shouldering the duty of national defence.
Although Min Aung Hlaing said that that the Myanmar army held the exercise as a conventional war game to build capacity for conventional war purposes, in the light of the heightened military offensives on the KIA, some suspected that it could also be the preparation of a wider war.
Regardless, one thing is certain, for good or bad, the military knows that continued military governance is not the way to go. But one should not be misled that the military has overnight become a saint or an enlightened democratic entity. It wants to change, but on its own terms and the main concern is that economically the country cannot be left behind, especially in comparison to its neighbouring countries that are well ahead of Myanmar. Besides, it is also interested in reducing its dependence on China, which during its years of isolation has been the only supporter of the then military regime.
And what exactly is the military's “own terms”? To come shortly to the point, it is none other than “disciplined flourishing democracy” anchored in the military-written 2008 Constitution. Here its leading role and veto power are ensured to protect its own survival and interests.
In other words, the aim is to keep the military apparatus as it is now, with ethnic Bamar domination and assimilation of Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) into its Border Guard Force (BGF) scheme and the further continuation of the 2008 Constitution, with some cosmetic amendments to show that it has some features of federalism.
This means reforming just enough to lift the country's economy, with its hold on power intact, and not in any way promote genuine federalism that caters to democratic principles. But the restless EAOs and the ethnic nationalities are determined to achieve an equitable federal union and the reformation of the military to be a genuine federal army and not a Bamar-dominated organ as it is now.
This brings us to the point of what should and could be done to de-escalate the situation, so that an atmosphere conducive to the peace negotiations can be created.
The first most important task is to stop shooting. The military's offensives as a means to pressure the KIO into signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) isn't going to work, but amendments to the NCA as suggested by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which includes a unilateral or bilateral ceasefire, would help alleviate the situation.
Meanwhile, the government’s Peace Commission and the Delegation for Political Negotiation (DPN) have discussed an eight‐point proposal that had previously been submitted to the government by the UNFC. At the meeting the possibility of a simultaneous ceasefire declaration was discussed, according to an inside source. The source said that talks about signing the NCA first, followed by a simultaneous ceasefire declaration, was put forward by the government's Peace Commission.
Whatever the case, the UNFC proposal as well as the military's entrenched position, together with its exclusion of some EAOs from the peace process, have to be discussed and adjusted at the negotiation table and there should be no military pressure or more fighting. As such, it should be clear to the military that de-escalation of the war is the way to go, if it is really interested in a peaceful settlement and doesn't want to destroy or torpedo the ongoing peace process.