PAPUN TOWNSHIP, Kayin State — More than three years after Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government assumed power and made plans for a nationwide ceasefire a centerpiece of its bid for international acceptance, the country is no closer to peace, and could soon descend once again into civil war.
This grim assessment of the situation in Myanmar’s border regions, where ethnic armed groups have long fought central control, is supported by evidence that both government and rebel forces are girding for war, even as they continue to engage in talks that are moving no closer to a compromise acceptable to the opposing sides.
While international stakeholders remain hopeful and largely oblivious to the tensions on the ground, those with the most at stake—the people who live in areas that would be thrown into turmoil by a resumption of war—are growing ever more pessimistic.
After decades of war, ethnic armed groups and local civilians say they want peace, but don’t believe the government is really interested in finding a solution that would permanently end conflict.
“We all want peace, but we want a kind of peace real enough that we can sleep at night and not worry about our physical and cultural extinction in the morning,” said Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, the vice commander-in-chief of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
The KNLA’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), began its struggle for ethnic Kayin autonomy in 1949, and has never come closer to ending its struggle with Myanmar’s government than it is today. But as negotiations with the administration of President U Thein Sein fail to reach a lasting settlement, its faith in the peace process is fading fast.
“The way the government is trying to secure peace with the ethnic minorities is not sustainable in the long term. It can break down anytime, and when it does, it will even be worse,” said Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh.
“The government will also face a much worse situation,” he added, warning that Naypyitaw also has a great deal to lose if it doesn’t live up to the expectations raised by promises of peace.
War Games Warning
As the U Thein Sein administration continues to talk up the peace talks, both the government army and the ethnic armed groups appear to be betting that it is only a matter of time before they are back on a war footing. While their leaders meet across the negotiating table, all parties have been busy beefing up their military positions and recruiting new foot soldiers.
Myanmar’s military leaders have been especially keen to demonstrate their battle-readiness. In late February, they staged a well-publicized live-fire military exercise dubbed the “Anawrahta war games,” after the founder of the 11th-century Bagan Empire.
British security analyst Anthony Davis, writing in Asia Times Online, noted that the games “involved a panoply of military power centered on mechanized infantry of the Magway-based 88th Light Infantry Division using indigenously produced Ukrainian armored personnel carriers and Chinese infantry fighting vehicles.”
According to Mr. Davis, “The infantry was supported by intense firepower from main battle tanks, a range of artillery systems including multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), 105mm and 155mm howitzers, and close air support in the shape of rocket-firing Mi-35 helicopter gunships and low-flying MiG-29 air superiority fighters.”
Asked what he thought of this show of military might, the KNLA’s Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh dismissed the government’s insistence that it was primarily concerned with “external threats.”
“The actual threat is very much domestic. The problems are domestic and institutional. In fact, they [the government] want to show off their military capacity to ethnic groups. It is a sort of threat to ethnic armed groups,” he said.
While the international community hails the current round of ceasefire talks as a major step toward long-term stability, many inside the country fear that any peace achieved will be temporary at best.
One reason that hope seems so elusive is that Myanmar has been here before. In the 1990s, the country’s then military rulers succeeded in bringing several armed groups “into the legal fold”—most notably, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which signed a deal to stop fighting in 1994. But while this agreement brought some relief to local civilian populations caught in the crossfire, it left many issues unresolved, and in 2011, the ceasefire collapsed completely and quickly turned into a brutal conflict that continues to this day.
Ashley South, a longtime observer of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts who works as a consultant for the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, a Norwegian government-backed international peace advocacy group, acknowledged that the current offensives against the KIA, as well as the government army’s apparent unwillingness to accept ethnic armed groups’ key demands, are a major concern.
“I do not believe the peace process can be sustainable unless there is a political settlement which includes ethnic demands for a renegotiation of state-society relations, along federal lines,” he said.
He added that there was also a danger that “international donors and aid agencies are increasingly working in conflict-affected areas, in ways which promote the government agenda, without adequately consulting local communities, civil society actors and ethnic armed groups.”
Despite these concerns, however, Mr. South said he believed the international community should continue to support “the existing ceasefires and emerging peace process.”
Worse than Before
If civil war does break out again, ethnic observers warn that it won’t be confined to remote ethnic areas, and could be even worse than anything the country has seen to date. Growing unity among the armed groups, they say, would mean a nationwide conflict that would not spare Myanmar’s cities.
Meanwhile, the KNLA and other armed groups say they are bracing for a government army offensive that could come at any time—perhaps as soon as this summer, or early next year, ahead of elections whose outcome could be determined in large part by the government’s success in reaching a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
As the ethnic armed groups step up their recruitment efforts, military training and exchanges with each other, the government army is planning offensives against the KNLA’s Brigades 5 and 2, according to intelligence intercepted by the KNLA from satellite networks.
Like the offensive against the KIA stronghold of Laiza in late 2012 and early 2013, the assault on the “hardline” KNLA brigades (which have resisted a ceasefire agreement) will involve airpower, KNLA sources say. The government army has set up helicopter landing pads and stockpiled rocket launchers and artillery shells at frontline bases in northern Kayin State near where Brigade 5 and 2 are based. Similar activities by the government army have also been reported in Kachin State and Shan State.
According to a wide range of ethnic sources from Kachin State in the north to Kayin State in the south, both ethnic and government forces are on high alert. In the case of the ethnic armed groups, that means maintaining regular contact with each other and preparing to fight if any of them come under attack.
A Role Model
While Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups band together in anticipation of resumed fighting, many now see the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the most heavily armed among them, as an example worth emulating.
The UWSA is not just the most formidable fighting force in the country outside of the government army; it also controls an autonomous region that functions like a totally independent state, complete with its own civil administration and police force.
More importantly, perhaps, it has its own weapons factories, producing mostly AK47 rifles that it is happy to supply to other armed groups. It has also taught the smaller groups how to make weapons of their own and helped them purchase arms on the black market.
All of this is necessary, the ethnic armed groups believe, because government troops continue to reinforce their positions in ethnic areas despite repeated calls for their withdrawal as a condition for agreeing to a ceasefire. For most, this is a clear sign that the talks now taking place are little more than a stalling tactic.
“We must be ready for anything,” said Saw Der Lwe, a KNLA soldier. “Even if there is a ceasefire, we don’t know how long it will last. They [the government army] could do anything, suddenly and without warning.”
This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.