A backdrop of conflict: militarisation as a way of life
Internal military conflicts have long been central to the nation-building ambitions of the Tatmadaw in Myanmar. In a country where national identity has long been linked to a particularly “racialised” vision of ethnicity, the national armed forces have been engaged in protracted warfare with a wide range of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), amongst them the KNU, since independence from Great Britain in 1948. During these years, a simplistic vision of national politics has often pervaded popular imagination and discourse. In recent decades, this vision has been marked by the country’s democratic hero, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), who – it was hoped – were gradually leading the country on a path away from state failure and international isolationism towards democratisation and respect for human rights.
These expectations reached a pinnacle when the NLD won the 2015 general election, assuming government office the following year. Yet amidst the period of economic liberalisation that followed the 2011 shift to a nominally civilian system of government, armed conflicts have persisted in ethnic nationality areas outside of the Bamar-dominated heartlands in the centre of the country. While the army's blood-stained campaign against the Rohingya population in 2017 was the subject of much international media coverage, the Tatmadaw has also continued to carry out “anti-insurgency” campaigns against EAOs among several other nationality groups, including the Buddhist Rakhine people who also hail from Rakhine State. The cycles of conflict within the country are yet to be ended.
Many nationality peoples have been affected. Following the expulsion of over 750,000 Rohingya people, the Tatmadaw became locked in an increasingly bloody conflict with an emergent Rakhine force known as the United League of Army-Arakan Army (ULA-AA). But, after the NLD’s accession to office, the Tatmadaw also escalated military “clearance operations” forcibly displacing local populations in the Kachin, Karen and Shan States as well, severely impacting on the security and livelihoods of farming communities who depend on land for their survival.
Accurate humanitarian statistics are difficult to assemble from different parts of the country. But up to 10,000 people are believed to have died during Tatmadaw operations in the past five years, while over a million civilians are currently displaced from their homes, either living as refugees in neighbouring countries or in displacement camps in the hills. The evidence of a pervasive culture of human rights violations is deeply troubling. Today Tatmadaw actions during the events of the past few years are the focus of ongoing human rights investigations for potential war crimes by the International Criminal Court, International Court of Justice and UN Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.
Finding a political language, though, that unites peoples and addresses the conflict challenges in inclusive ways has historically proven difficult. Distinctions between “state” and “non-state” actors have often been opaque within the geographic boundaries of Myanmar. Shifting alliances between the Tatmadaw, ethnic nationality forces, government-backed militias and local military strongmen have been one of the most persistent realities in defining the functioning of “State” in many parts of the country. Today over 20 EAOs remain active in different nationality lands, from Rakhine State on the Bay of Bengal to the Tanintharyi Region in Myanmar’s far south.
In this context, projections of national unity become a reflection of the complex relationship between the Tatmadaw at the political centre and the peripheries where diverse nationality peoples live in uplands surrounding the Ayeyarwady plains. Over the decades, continued exploitation of the wealth of the resource-rich borderlands has been central to the development of Myanmar state, much in the same way that the plunder of native lands, slavery and a western expansionism was central in the shaping of the American national imaginary. Much of this economy is secretive and under-reported, but Myanmar’s ethnic states are home to large mineral reserves, illicit drug production and lucrative cross-border trades from which powerful elites and outside interests – not local peoples – mostly profit.
Compounding the marginalisation of local peoples, there is often a large knowledge gap in the outside world about the harsh living conditions in the country’s conflict zones. Such a lack of understanding is a constant source of frustration for ethnic nationality peoples trying to make common cause with their fellow countryman, yet find themselves stymied by urban-rural differences as well as ethnic, religious and linguistic divides. Even many well-informed urban Burmese only have a limited grasp of what is happening in the hills. The same lack of awareness exists in the international community, where the confusing array of armed groups poses significant barriers for foreign journalists, policy-makers and other outside actors who seek to understand some of the longest-running conflicts in modern Asian history.
For this reason, the failure of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership to address conflict and the grievances of non-Bamar peoples remains one of the party’s most notable failures during its time in government office. The 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which the NLD-led administration inherited from its quasi-civilian predecessor, was a cornerstone in a faltering peace process that not only failed to include a majority of the strongest EAOs in the country but was also one in which the none of three words in its title could be said to be true: i.e. it was not nationwide, a ceasefire or an agreement.
To try and pick up the political momentum, the NLD inaugurated a 21st Century Panglong Conference in August 2016 with a promise to re-energise the peace process. But the government never acknowledged the NCA’s many failings. The NCA’s largest signatories in terms of EAO combatants – the KNU and Restoration Council of Shan State – could hardly be seen to be representative of the entire country and both continued to clash with the Tatmadaw. At the same time, most of the eight other EAOs that signed the NCA were significantly smaller, some of which had never seriously fought with the government while others, notably the Chin National Front, had not had protracted clashes with the Tatmadaw since the early 1990s.
Equally damaging to the credibility of the NCA, there were powerful and well-organised EAOs in the north of the country that were either not allowed by the Tatmadaw to join the accord or decided to boycott the process altogether. Pre-eminent EAOs which never joined the NCA include the United Wa State Party and Shan State Progress Party which have formal ceasefires with the government, and the Kachin Independence Organisation, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and ULA-AA that do not.
The ethno-political landscape is now highly uncertain. Following the coup, the NCA EAO-signatories collectively issued a statement on 20 February refusing to recognise the new regime as a legitimate power, and leading to a cessation of further talks. This represents a de facto breakdown in a ceasefire which, since its inception, had given little assurances to NCA signatories that the Myanmar armed forces would hold true to their word. For ceasefire EAOs, this represents a dilemma. According to Lt-Col. Saw La Shwe Hai from the KNU’s armed wing, Tatmadaw officers claim to follow the NCA codes of conduct and that they will try to resolve issues through political dialogue, but they do not follow through in practice:
“Instead they try and control more territory, build roads and further infrastructure and keep sending more reinforcements… They are trying to gradually control our area, bit by bit, but pretend they are following agreements… they couldn’t be lying any more”.
For ethnic nationality communities in the conflict-zones, such experiences are hardly new. But there is evidence that the scale of human rights violations across the country since the SAC’s seizure of power is bringing about a change in attitudes among the Bamar-majority population as well. Amidst the protests in the cities, incidents are being documented that the Myanmar military has been looting shops and houses, stealing food from street vendors and taking livestock from markets. Understanding the reality of such violence from the perspective of those living in the ethnic states and borderlands sheds light on the nature of the ethnocratic state-building policies of governments since independence and the ideology of the Tatmadaw.
Echoing this, a vocal minority of Bamar people have begun apologising for failing to stand behind ethnic peoples as they faced persecution. A female activist, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that “the intimidation, harassment and violence by the police and soldiers are nothing new” but that the “the violence and oppression has now been extended to the cities”. She continued:
“We are not even experiencing the brutality of the military yet in the cities, like those people in Rakhine experienced every day and every night. Those in Kachin. Those in Karen. Those in Shan. Now we too have to defend ourselves.”