It’s time to close the vicious circle in the search for peace

The Northern Alliance attacks in Shan State have highlighted the need for a greater effort to achieve an inclusive national ceasefire agreement.

By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

TENSIONS REMAIN high in northern Shan State where fighting between an alliance of four ethnic armed groups – headed by the Kachin Independence Army – and the Tatmadaw erupted on November 20.

The fighting began when the four Northern Alliance groups launched surprise attacks on Tatmadaw and police positions and other targets at the border town of Muse, the nearby 105-mile trade zone, and Kutkai, Panhseng and Mongkoe.

The fighting has serious implications for the peace process. The attitude of the Tatmadaw toward the groups has hardened. It was already opposed to three of the groups – the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army – joining the process unless they agreed to disarm.

There is widespread concern that the attacks will have an adverse effect on the peace process. This week I would like to discuss the implications of the attacks on the process.

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In a statement released on November 21, hours after they launched the attacks, the alliance said its joint military operation was a controlled offensive that was not intended to destroy national reconciliation. It said the attacks were an inevitable response to constant military pressure from the Tatmadaw in ethnic areas.

Although the KIA and its allies have been claiming that they want peace, they do not seem to have considered whether their offensive would help or hinder the peace process under Aung San Suu Kyi.

The well-prepared surprise offensive resulted in heavy initial casualties among the Tatmadaw and other government forces. Border trade with China was halted and the 105-mile border trade zone was closed. Mongkoe, a town on the border with China west of Muse, became a battlefield. The fighting forced many to flee their homes, adding to the number of internally displaced persons in the country.

In the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the Tatmadaw tried unsuccessfully to have the KIA and its allies declared terrorist organisations because they had attacked civilian and military targets. The move was rejected by MPs in the National League for Democracy-dominated Union parliament out of concern that it would adversely affect the peace process.

The Tatmadaw had a more receptive audience in the Shan State Hluttaw, in which the military-created Union Solidarity and Development Party has the most elected seats. There is a long history of armed conflict in Shan and with the USDP and the Tatmadaw having more than half the seats in the state assembly, the proposal to label the four groups as terrorist organisations was approved.

Not surprisingly, the KIA and its allies criticised the decision by the Shan State Hluttaw and said it might have a negative affect on the peace process. Khun Tun Oo, who chairs the second biggest party in the state assembly, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, said that labelling Northern Alliance members as terrorist groups would ultimately destroy the peace process.

The United Wa State Army, one of the biggest armed ethnic groups along with the KIA, said the decision would only cause chaos, and demanded that it be repealed by the Shan assembly. Even some of the eight groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015 criticised the decision. A leading member of the Chin National Front, Dr Lian H. Sakhong, said the decision was not in accord with the constitution.

Curiously, the ethnic armed groups and peace networks that objected to labelling Northern Alliance members as terrorist organisations have not spoken out against the attacks launched on November 20 that resulted in military and civilian casualties and forced people to flee their homes.

Frankly speaking, except for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD, almost all other stakeholders in the peace process stand for one side and criticise the other. The result is a vicious circle. If we are to achieve lasting, national peace we first need to have a ceasefire. It must be based on an inclusive ceasefire agreement.

The KIA and its allies have previously said they could not sign the NCA because it was not inclusive. What we should be doing is to bring all parties together for negotiations aimed at ensuring an inclusive NCA. There is no time to lose.

When civil conflict occurs, peace networks, NGOs and others should be critical in equal measure of the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups. It does not help the peace process to stand for one side and blame the other.

When Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD can resolve this problem, Myanmar will be on the genuine path toward peace.

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