Heavy fighting in Myanmar’s Shan state has reached an almost unprecedented level of intensity, seen in last week’s ethnic rebel attacks on Myanmar military elite academies, army bases, police stations and locations around the northern capital of Lashio.

The August 15 attacks by the so-called Northern Alliance Brotherhood, a loose collective of the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army (AA), have killed and wounded scores of soldiers, police and civilians caught in the crossfire.

This is the first time in decades that ethnic insurgents have struck so close to the Myanmar heartland in the central Mandalay Region, and marks a sharp escalation after a lull of several months in northern Shan state, where armed conflict has raged for several years. While most attention has been on the daring ferocity of the attacks and the evident vulnerability of the security forces, the latest round of fighting has major implications for the future of the peace process in northern Myanmar.

Since December 2018, there has been in effect a unilateral operational pause imposed by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw. In a press appearance in the capital of Naypyitaw, flanked by his deputies and senior officers, Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing announced a four-month “ceasefire for eternal peace” from December 21 to April 30, 2019, in five key military command areas encompassing restive Kachin and Shan states.

The Tatmadaw announced in 11 paragraphs a plan to seek preliminary peace talks with non-state armed groups (NSAGs) in the north, namely Kachin, Ta-ang, Wa, Shan and Kokang rebels who have resisted the central state for several decades.

This was sparked by a December 12 statement issued by three groups, the Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party (MNTJP), Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), and the United League of Arakan (ULA), the political wings of the Kokang, Ta-ang and Rakhine armed groups, which declared “that they would halt military operations and continue engaging in national reconciliation and peace process through political means.”

Myanmar troops patrol after an insurgent attack in Shan state, August 15, 2019. Photo: Twitter

Min Aung Hlaing’s announcement called for “separate talks” with all the non-signatory groups to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which includes seven armed groups which total far more soldiers under arms than the ten signatories to the formal ceasefire. This collective is “represented” through the United Wa State Army (UWSA) driven umbrella known as the Federal Peace Negotiations Consultative Committee (FPNCC).

The December announcement had four strong provisions for all the northern groups to abide by during the four-month period. What the statement made clear was: “commitment to (past) agreements, (a)bstaining from misusing the peace agreement, (n)ot to place burden on local people, (and) (a)bidance to existing laws.”

These are four out of six “peace principles” the Tatmadaw has for more than three years used to curtail peace negotiations with all insurgent organizations. Tatmadaw negotiators would often produce cards listing the six principles during formal and informal discussions to shut-down what should have been more frank discussions.

Having four of them attached to a pledge to open a different approach to peace talks smacked of more of the same, even as Min Aung Hlaing’s statement warned “in good faith, all ethnic armed organizations are advised to put special emphasis on (these) four.”

Within several weeks of the announcement, the Tatmadaw’s media arm, The Myawaddy Daily, was already listing a precise number of breaches, or infractions, of the ceasefire that included cases of armed clashes, recruitment, taxation and other alleged actions, and also included “evidence” of cases from Southern Command by the Karen National Union (KNU), which wasn’t included.

All of these were recorded as rebel infractions, with no admission of Tatmadaw units belligerence, breaches of the announcement, or human rights violations: a one-sided score-card. There were no bilateral agreements to accord by these provisions.

Promised talks frequently failed to materialize, and when they did, in China at some points, the Tatmadaw’s demands were similar to those of the past few years: sign the NCA as a precondition for talks. As the four-month period neared an end, the Tatmadaw announced a two-month extension. Then in late June, another two-month extension, with little to no gains to be heralded for the nearly eight months it was in effect.

Arakan Army soldiers take aim from an undisclosed location in Myanmar. Photo: Arakan Army Video

There were ominous rumblings ahead of the end of the August deadline. On August 12, the AA, TNLA and MNDAA issued a “Statement of Three Allied Forces” that said, “Under the aegis of the People’s Republic of China and FPNCC, we have been tolerantly trying to participate in a discussion of the one-sided and un-negotiable bilateral ceasefire agreement (draft) proposed by the Myanmar Army.”

The statement then proceeds to list Tatmadaw military pressure placed on all three groups, in northern Shan state and Rakhine state, and against its FPNCC fellow member the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), in recent months. It concludes, “If offensive attacks are continued without the ending of occurring (sic) war, the Myanmar Army will bear the consequences.”

Two days later, Min Aung Hlaing’s office retorted by saying the unilateral ceasefire was nearing an end, and it had been designed for “paving the way for the ethnic armed organizations to engage in peace talks without being forced or pressured…(the northern groups) must have total trust in holding serious talks while staying away from applying any time-wasting tactics during the ceasefire term allowed by the Tatmadaw.”

Literally hours after the statement was produced, the rebel groups blew up bridges and launched 107mm rocket rounds into Tatmadaw installations.

The Tatmadaw’s unprecedented December announcement was a surprising unilateral gambit, one that has clearly failed. But what was really behind it? Min Aung Hlaing’s “eternal peace” was clearly not the goal. Several interlocking factors have to be taken into account.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/STR
Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/STR

The most obvious is that the ceasefire did not extend to Rakhine state, where armed conflict between the AA and Tatmadaw has raged since the moment it was announced. The AA had been steadily expanding its reach and broadening its attacks on government targets.

Over the last eight months, the conflict in Rakhine has become the most serious the Tatmadaw has faced in decades, with hundreds of casualties, fighting spreading to urban centers and affecting main highways and waterways in more than nine townships, including neighboring Paletwa in Chin state.

Tens of thousands of mostly ethnic Rakhine, Mro, and Daignet civilians have been displaced. The internet has been shut off for two months. Access for humanitarian workers has been sharply curtailed. Reports of human rights violations, including killings and torture of civilians, have been widespread. Scores of Rakhine suspects, including several deported from Singapore in recent weeks, have been charged under the 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law.

That raises questions about how much was the December ceasefire predicated on curtailing the rising operations of the AA while manufacturing a respite in the north. If this was a serious calculation, it backfired badly. The AA have dramatically opened another front in the 70-year long civil war that will have profound and devastating consequences for future peace building, development and stability in Myanmar.

The involvement of AA forces in the latest attacks in Shan state, and their actual “boots on the ground” forces there, are difficult to discern. But the political allegiances, at least in public pronouncements, make their resistance clearly a national movement like no other. On this factor alone, the Tatmadaw’s four-month ploy has been counterproductive.

The most obviously practical element of the announcement relates to plans for the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) and plans for road and rail construction through the very areas of northern Shan state that has seen bridges blown up and roads ambushed in the last week.

China has been exerting intensified pressure on Naypyidaw to fast-track surveying and planning work for these projects that aim to open their outlet to the Indian Ocean, and announcing an operational pause provided a public relations patina to those plans.

Map of proposed China-Myanmar corridor. Image: Facebook
Map of proposed China-Myanmar corridor. Image: Facebook

Before and during the ceasefire, Chinese firms have been conducting surveying work. China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEC), the core enterprise of China Railway Group, signed an MoU on a feasibility study in October 2018 with Myanmar Railways, and measurements for the axis of the planned railway took place in early December.

An environmental impact survey was conducted between June and July in several conflict-affected townships in northern Shan state, including Naungchio, Lashio, Kyaukme, Theinni and Muse. This was announced in Myawaddy News on the same day the ceasefire was extended for another two months.

How the northern armed groups explain themselves to China after the carnage they have unleashed along these crucial trade routes remains to be seen. But the attacks could be cast as an ultra-violent negotiating tactic for a better peace deal from the government and Tatmadaw. If this argument has any basis, it is a high-risk strategy, and likely to fail, at least in the near term.

Another factor that should be considered is in relation to the government’s moribund Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) process. Few if any credible observers in Yangon and further afield put much store in the stillborn NCA.

Of its ten signatories, only two have significant military strength, control of territory and popular support: the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS). The remaining eight, a few of which have long-standing credibility and support, albeit smaller military forces, are dwarfed by the northern groups that have still been fighting.

The sincerity of the initial four-month long pause should have been open to question from the start, if for no other reason than the point-man chosen to facilitate the announced “talks”: Lieutenant General Yar Pyae, chairman of the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) created by the 2015 ceasefire agreement. The KNU and RCSS have suspended engagement with the NCA in recent months, partly due to frustration at the JMC’s institutionalized culture of stonewalling by the Tatmadaw contingents led by Yar Pyae.

Why the northern groups would have trusted military leaders implicated in institutions established by the NCA that scupper progress, and to which the United Nations have squandered a reported US$6.5 million to support, is a mystery. It’s another element of why the formal peace process is a fractured vessel for further talks.

United Wa State Army (UWSA) soldiers in a military parade to commemorate 30 years of a ceasefire signed with the Myanmar military, April 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

In a recent Contemporary Southeast Asia journal article on the UWSA and its role in the peace process, academic Andrew Ong makes the important point that many scholars, think tanks and research institutes have “struggled to propose feasible recommendations which would result in progress” on the peace process.

Many of these studies have looked at groups such as the Karen and Mon in the south-east, “and not members of the FPNCC, where ongoing conflict, confusing zones of control, militia groups with shifting affiliations, and greater military strength renders comparative lessons less transferable.”

This paucity of understanding of the complex security, economic and inter-ethnic patchwork of Shan and Kachin states partly explains why international actors on the peace process, including the West, China and Japan, are constantly frustrated by the reality of the conflict. Their frustration must surely have graduated to incomprehension in the past several days, and the recent attacks should be a rebuke to the hubris of international donors who have bankrolled what many consider to be an abject farce.

One of the several peace meetings that actually did take place during the past eight months was the 30th Anniversary of Shan State Special Region Four, otherwise known as the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) or the Mong La group, in which a host of insurgent and government leaders attended in June. A meeting between the Northern Alliance and the NRPC was held on the sidelines, with the readout being a positive step forward in negotiations.

It would be an additional irony to a litany of absurdity if the NDAA became the arbiters of a rejuvenated peace process, but this is highly unlikely and was probably a mixture of bombast and affected bonhomie around the celebration of an illicit economic enclave along the Myanmar-China border known for its casinos, drug production, and human and wildlife trafficking. Like many public events around Myanmar’s peace process, there is much fanfare and almost zero substance.

International pressure may have played a part in the peace gambit. The Tatmadaw and its senior leadership are under scrutiny, and active investigation, for war crimes and crimes against humanity for abuses perpetrated in Rakhine state, northern Shan state and Kachin state, as well documented by the United Nations Independent International Fact Finding Mission report of September 2018, as well as Amnesty International and others.

Was the recent pause in hostilities another desultory measure to wrest some initiative and avert international pressure for accountability, from either sanctions, the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the UN Security Council? This may be a factor, wrapped in peace process theater to propound the pretense of sincerity to appeal to states who wish to move on and to help develop and invest in Myanmar.

Rohingya refugees shout slogans at a protest against a disputed repatriation program at the Unchiprang refugee camp near Teknaf in Bangladesh in November 2018. Photo: AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar

During the past year, the Tatmadaw and the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government have both attempted to stave off international pressure by front-loading the barely credulous Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE), tasked with investigating allegations of human rights violations and related issues following the attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in Rakhine state. The military has formed its own investigation commission, but this too has little if any sincerity, let alone legal standing.

Neither have had the effect of averting international pressure. The United States recently imposed travel bans on Min Aung Hlaing, his deputy and three other senior officers. The recent UN Fact Finding Mission report on military business ties, while riddled with mistakes, replete with old information and flawed logic, will nevertheless have an emotive impact that could drive further sanctions by Western lawmakers.

A fractured peace process, in the eyes of the West, is the least of the Tatmadaw’s crimes, and nothing the NLD or Tatmadaw are doing has had any effect on curbing these accountability measures, no matter how off the mark they may sometimes be. Or were the calculations for the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire closer to home? Was this an early 2020 nationwide election ploy to garner more domestic support and further demonize perceived recalcitrance of non-signatory armed groups?

It also serves to further undermine the 21st Century Panglong process of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which could in part serve the speculated political aspirations of Min Aung Hlaing. Peace progress is not shaping up to be a defining feature of the 2020 polls, and the recent escalation of fighting in Rakhine and northern Shan states may well play into the hands of the military in demonizing ethnic nationalities even further, and unfairly, as they have done for decades.

Any considered assessment of the recent eight-month ceasefire should conclude that it had as much to do with “eternal peace” as the Tatmadaw’s commitments to the NCA, which only the most soft-headed of peace entrepreneurs would cast as sincerity. The Tatmadaw, as so the NLD, has utterly failed to pursue a peace process that is genuinely inclusive or credible, let alone with a real plan other than “sign the dotted line, disarm, and shut-up.”

The armed groups that have perpetrated the violence in Shan state in recent days, and in other parts of the country, are equally culpable in their abuses against civilians and their attacks should likewise be investigated as possible war crimes. But they also need to be offered a more credible set of deals, not just one discredited 2015 agreement, to end decades of violence and suffering.

And they need that to come from credible national leaders genuinely committed to peace. Currently, they do not exist beyond cynical platitudes dispensed by almost all national leaders, military and civilian. Any future peace gambit by the Tatmadaw will be taken seriously only by the exceedingly greedy or the excruciatingly gormless.

David Scott Mathieson is a Myanmar-based independent analyst