Myanmar ceasefires on a tripwire
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - Yet another deadline has passed for ethnic ceasefire groups in
Myanmar to join the military as part of a new government-controlled Border
Guard Force (BGF). With the rainy season approaching and a transition from
military to civilian rule underway, opportunities are dwindling for the ruling
junta to force the groups to agree before elections are held later this year.
The former ceasefire groups, including the Kachin Independence
Organization/Army (KIO/KIA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National
Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA) are the largest of more than
25 groups that have agreed to suspend their armed struggles since 1989.
The Karen National Union (KNU) and the Shan State Army-South
(SSA-S), as well as several other smaller groups, continue to fight the regime
in eastern Myanmar. The ceasefire groups were told by the regime’s negotiator,
Lieutenant General Ye Myint, they had until April 22 to announce their
decisions on joining the military or face military offensives. The deadline was
later extended to yesterday.
Observers note that it was the fifth deadline set by the government and
question how committed the regime is to backing its threats with force. Four
previous deadlines, in October and December 2009 and February and March 2010,
passed without consequence. Prior to yesterday’s deadline, negotiations between
junta and ceasefire group representatives have been inconclusive.
The groups were told that failure to comply by the deadline would result in
revocation of their ceasefire status and they would be considered illegal
organizations. With that designation, they would be forced to surrender without
the option of retaining their arms. The situation has left many with the
feeling that while the conversion of the ceasefire groups to BGFs is a step on
the regime's so-called "roadmap to democracy", the generals are not prepared to
resume full-scale hostilities while managing the delicate democratic
From a military perspective, analysts belie'e the generals’ window of
opportunity has narrowed. The rainy season is only weeks away and most analysts
believe there is not enough time for the army to carry out a knockout
offensive. The rains make the largely unpaved roads and trails in ceasefire
groups’ territories almost impassable, preventing the effective supply of
military units to carry out offensive operations.
Two minor skirmishes on April 23 and 24 between the Myanmar Army and the United
Wa State Army (UWSA) near the Thai border resulted in no casualties and an army
admission that it had made a mistake, thinking their opponents were the
still-insurgent SSA-South. Although Wa in areas along the Thai border have
started to flee to areas closer to the border or even into Thailand, the armed
exchange did not indicate the beginning of full-blown offensive military
The deadline and the expected outlawing of the ceasefire groups will
effectively put them outside the election process and ensure that their
political wings are unable to form parties and contest the polls, the country's
first since 1990. The military annulled the results of those polls and has
since maintained an iron-clad grip on power. There is even some question of
whether campaigning and voting will take place in the areas controlled by the
The international community will also pay closer attention to Myanmar during
the campaign period and the regime is anxious to win a stamp of approval for
their tightly controlled transition towards democratic rule. A military
campaign with its attendant casualties and human rights abuses would distract
international attention from the elections and likely spark new criticism of
Under the proposed BGF arrangement, ethnic rebel armies would be reduced in
size and their fighters reorganized into battalions under the command of a
department in the military. Myanmar officers and non-commissioned officers
would be assigned to each battalion, largely in specialist and logistics roles,
and the government would be responsible for training, equipping and paying the
The ethnic groups have argued that they cannot allow their military wings to
come under government control while issues are still outstanding regarding
guarantees for ethnic rights and a hoped for move towards federalism. They say
the 2008 constitution, passed in what many consider to have been a rigged
referendum, does not do enough to guarantee ethnic rights.
Rather than reject the BGF plan outright, each of the three main ceasefire
groups - the Kachin Independence Organization/Army, the UWSA and the National
Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State - have offered counter-proposals.
The Kachin, probably the most politically savvy of the three and the least
tainted by allegations of drug trafficking, have called for discussions to
amend the constitution to better reflect ethnic aspirations of federalism. They
have called for a return to the "Panglong spirit", referring to an agreement
reached in 1947 between independence leader General Aung San and
representatives from various ethnic groups, including the Kachin and the Shan,
that was supposed to guarantee a form of federalism for the country's ethnic
Pressure on the then democratic government to better implement the federalism
enshrined in the Panglong Agreement was one of the reasons for the 1962 coup
that turned the country into a military dictatorship. This led directly to the
Kachin's revolt and enflamed rebellion in nearby Shan State.
As a concession, the Kachin have recently offered to integrate their troops
into a "federal army" that would include separate Kachin battalions. The
government has rejected the Kachin proposals and Lieutenant General Ye Myint
has said in response that "the Panglong era is over".
The UWSA, widely regarded as the world’s largest narco-trafficking militia,
presented the regime with a nine-point proposal in November that it has been
presented at each follow-up meeting with the regime. They have indicated they
would be willing to join the BGF as long as their concerns in the proposal are
The main points of contention are the control of an area in the south of Shan
State along the border with Thailand known as the UWSA's 171 Military Region,
the UWSA's control of two townships along the Chinese border that abut on
territory controlled by its ally, the NDAA, and, most significantly, its
disagreement with assigning Myanmar army officers to BGF battalions.
The Wa believe the area along the Thai border was given as compensation by the
regime for the Wa's role in a seven-year war fought against former Mong Thai
army leader and drug lord Khun Sa. In 1999, tens of thousands of Wa farmers
were relocated to the region, a move the Wa say would be impossible to reverse.
The UWSA revised its proposal in a submission to the junta on April 1, saying
it was willing to concede control of two areas along the Thai border and allow
for certain positions within the new border guard battalions for Myanmar army
officers. The offer was turned down by a junta delegation on April 9 with the
demand that the Wa abide by the BGF proposal without any changes. A similar
proposal put forward by the NDAA was also rejected.
Prior to each elapsed deadline, reports have circulated of Myanmar Army
reinforcements arriving opposite the position of the ethnic fighters and
heightened tension among residents in nearby towns and villages. Junta
checkpoints have been set up to block the flow of food and other supplies,
although this has been largely countered by sourcing items from across the
border in China.
Following the March deadline, the junta ordered civil officials and staff of
non-governmental organizations working in the area to leave Wa areas by March
24. However, by April 6, United Nations and NGO staff involved in development
and opium substitution projects had returned to resume their work.
The army's August 2009 offensive against the Myanmar National Democratic
Alliance Army (MNDAA) in the Kokang region of northern Myanmar seems to have
had little effect on the resolve of the groups to oppose the BGF scheme.
According to Shan and Western observers, the groups have instead learned from
the event and taken steps to strengthen cooperation, especially between the
UWSA and NDAA. With the deadline looming, the UWSA hosted a meeting with its
allies last week to discuss the possibility of Myanmar military operations.
The threats apparently did influence one group, the Shan State Army-North
(SSA-N). Its top commander, Major General Loimao, agreed to join the BGF in an
April 22 meeting in Lashio with the Myanmar Army's Northeast Command commander,
Major General Aung Than Tut. A ceremony was held on April 25 to formalize the
transformation of Loimao's headquarters security unit into the Hsengkeow Home
The agreement, however, has reportedly split the 5,000 man SSA-N. The 1st
Brigade, the SSA-N's strongest, with some 2,500 fighters under Major General
Parngfa, has declared that it will not join the BGF. Soldiers from the SSA-N's
other units are reportedly leaving their units to join Parngfa. The group's
leader, Major General Hso Ten, is serving a 106-year prison sentence for
Developments in Myanmar's northern border region are of immense importance to
China, which has extensive and growing investments in the country's natural
resources. Not least of these is the dual oil and gas pipeline from Myanmar's
western coast to Kunming in China's southwest. The pipelines, which are
expected to go online in 2013, will supply China with oil and gas from the
controversial Shwe Gas field off Myanmar's coast as well as from tankers, which
will no longer have to travel around the strategically vulnerable Malacca
In addition to the pipelines and resource extraction projects, China sees
Myanmar as a conduit for products from its landlocked southwestern regions to
the outside world and is anxious to prevent any disruption in such flows. China
is also known to be concerned about the possibility of instability along the
border with its southwest region, which is home to numerous ethnic groups and
has had a restive past.
China would like to avoid a repeat of the influx of some 30,000 refugees in the
wake of last August's attack in Kokang. Analysts and relief workers believe
that fighting against the KIA, UWSA and NDAA would result in many times that
number and a refugee problem that could last for years.
Beijing issued a rare rebuke against the junta immediately after the attack on
the Kokang and has since increased its military presence along the border.
Several visits by high-ranking Chinese officials in the months since are
believed to have included discussion of the ethnic ceasefire groups.
Chinese officials and military officers have acted as mediators in discussions
between the ceasefire groups and the junta in an attempt to get both sides to
soften their positions. One delegation reportedly accompanied the UWSA to talks
The situation of the ceasefire groups will likely be one of the first important
issues dealt with by Myanmar's newly elected government next year. Once the
elections, expected to take place in October, are over and the new government
is installed, the military can resume its pressure on the groups or take
military action, analysts suggest.
By then the army will supposedly be under civilian rule in a democratic country
rather than the footsoliders of a military dictatorship bent on crushing all of
those opposed to its power. It's a distinction the ceasefire groups are no
doubt weighing in their refusal to put down their arms and join the BGFs.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached