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Clashes threaten peace deal

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezFebruary 13, 2015

At least 47 soldiers have been killed in clashes between Myanmar troops and rebel forces in the China-bordering state of Shan. DW speaks to Myanmar expert Jasmin Lorch about how this impacts peace efforts in the region.

Birmesische Soldaten
Image: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images

More than 70 soldiers have also been injured and at least four military vehicles have been destroyed this week in the fighting in Myanmar's northern Kokang region, according to state media. A spokesman from the rebel faction, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), reported at least 20 casualties on their side as a result of the recent confrontations.

Fighting started after the MNDAA took weapons from local militia in the Kokang province on Monday, February 9. Soon afterwards, other rebel groups including the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and Shan State Army-North joined the fight. Since 2011, the government of Myanmar has been trying to install a nationwide ceasefire by drawing up peace agreements with numerous ethnic minority rebel groups. But the recent fighting has put a halt to further agreements.

Thousands of people in the region have fled across the border into China as a result of the violence. Officials in China reacted by urging the two sides to settle the issue peacefully so that refugees could safely return to their homes.

Jasmin Lorch, a Myanmar expert at the Germany-based GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, talks in a DW interview about the factors driving the conflict and says the renewed clashes are a further setback for peace negotiations as they delegitimize the government's peace efforts not only in the eyes of the MNDAA rebels, but also in those of many other ethnic groups.

Jasmin Lorch Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
Lorch: 'The clashes are a further setback for peace negotiations'Image: SWP

DW: What lies at the core of the conflict in Shan State?

Jasmin Lorch: Over the past days, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) of the Kokang, or at least fractions of it, have clashed repeatedly with the Myanmar army which has begun to launch air strikes against the rebels.

In 2009, there had already been major clashes between the Kokang and government troops in which the Kokang lost almost the whole territory they controlled at the time. It seems like the MNDAA has been trying to recover at least parts of this territory over the last days.

But the MNDAA is only one of the ethnic armed groups that operate in Shan State. There are ethnic insurgent groups in other parts of the country as well, and generally, all of them demand enhanced political and economic autonomy. At the same time, some of these ethnic armed groups are also involved in criminal activities, such as the extraction of precious stones, illegal logging or drug trade. The same is true for the Myanmar army though.

What is the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA)?

The MNDAA is an ethnic rebel group that currently has no ceasefire agreement with the government. It is mainly made up of ethnic Kokang, a minority group of Han Chinese decent who operate near the border with China, and is one of the smaller ethnic armed groups that operate in Myanmar. It reportedly has between 1,000 and 3,000 soldiers. During the 2009 clashes, the MNDAA was almost wiped out by the Myanmar Army. But it has been able to regroup.

Birmesische Soldaten
At least 47 government troops have been killed since clashes began this week, according to state mediaImage: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images

It is almost impossible to tell where exactly this and other insurgent groups get their weapons from. But, as a rule, a lot of weapons are smuggled into Myanmar from China. When the Myanmar Army attacked the Kokang in 2009, they also had their own weapons factories. The same is true for other ethnic groups, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is the biggest rebel group with around 20,000 regular troops and around 10,000 militia.

Some 47 soldiers have reportedly been killed this week. Why has the fighting intensified?

Since its inauguration in 2011, the government of President Thein Sein has reached bilateral ceasefire agreements with almost all of the country's armed ethnic groups. It has also started negotiations with the ethnic groups in order to achieve the signing of a nationwide ceasefire and establish a national political dialogue aimed at finding political solutions to the country's long-running ethnic insurgencies.

A few days ago, MNDAA representatives already claimed that forces of the Myanmar Army were attacking them. Moreover, given that the MNDAA does not have a ceasefire with the government, the group apparently feels excluded from the ongoing political process. On Thursday, for instance, the government celebrated Union Day, a national holiday to commemorate independence hero General Aung San and the signing of the Panglong Agreement.

This accord was reached by General Aung San, with the country's ethnic groups and guaranteed the latter substantial political autonomy. The MNDAA and other non-ceasefire groups, such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), were not present during this celebration. However, a number of other ethnic groups, which had concluded ceasefires with the government, were invited and took part in the festivities.

The MNDAA has criticized the government for not being invited to the public celebrations on Union Day. And it has also criticized the government for not living up to the Agreement of Panglong. But there are other issues for the intensification of the struggles as well, such as territorial and economic issues.

What do the recent clashes say about the government's ability to forge a nationwide ceasefire?

At the moment, the prospects for achieving a nationwide ceasefire are not good at all. The government has been forced to postpone the signing of the nationwide ceasefire again and again because negotiations with different ethnic groups have stalled and open fighting is also continuing in many ethnic states. This is not only the case in the area of the Kokang.

Many other ethnic regions, such as the areas controlled by the KIO, have also seen violent clashes. Until a few weeks ago, the government still wanted to get the national ceasefire signed by Union Day, an initiative that failed. A major reason for the stalling of the peace process is that there are strong veto players in the army who oppose the introduction of genuine federalism.

But federalism is a key demand of the ethnic groups. The recent clashes with the MNDAA can thus be seen as one example of the government's inability to forge a nationwide ceasefire.

What are China's concerns about this issue?

China's main interest is stability. Since fighting began between the MNDAA guerillas and the Myanmar army about 2000 people have reportedly fled into neighboring China. Ethnically, the Kokang are a Han Chinese group, so China is unlikely to close its borders to displaced people from the Kokang region. But, at the same time, China is worried about the influx of refugees.

The clashes between the Myanmar Army and the Kokang in 2009 sent about 30,000 refugees into the neighboring Chinese provinces. At that time, Beijing openly rebuked Myanmar, which is quite uncommon, as China normally insists on the principle of non-interference into the internal affairs of other countries.

Burma - ASEAN Gipfel
President Thein Sein has reached bilateral ceasefire agreements with almost all of the country's armed ethnic groups.Image: Getty Images

What does the renewed fighting mean for peace negotiations?

The clashes are a further setback for peace negotiations, as they delegitimize the government's peace efforts in the eyes of many other ethnic groups as well. The ethnic groups as well as many national and international experts have argued repeatedly that the fact that fighting is ongoing in many ethnic areas puts the government's sincerity with regard to the peace process into question.

In the run-up to the national elections scheduled for the end of this year, fighting may increase in other ethnic areas as well as the government and the army may seek to strengthen their territorial control over ethnic regions. The situation was similar in the run-up to the elections in 2010.

Jasmin Lorch is a research fellow at the Germany-based GIGA Institute of Asian Studies.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.