Tatmadaw soldiers at Union Day Celebrations. (Photo by the author.)
Yesterday, Myanmar celebrated Union Day. It marked the 1947 unification of the country under the Panglong Agreement by independence leader Bogyoke Aung San, Suu Kyi's father and the father-figure of the military. That unification, which brought together Myanmar's dozens of ethnic groups, was short lived.
This year's Union Day was supposed to celebrate the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement with all 17 armed ethnic groups. The deadline had long become an impossibility. In the past month fighting between the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) and armed ethnic groups has flared up.
the most intense has been fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army in the country's north. The bombing of a KIA training centre killed 23, including soldiers from other armed ethnic groups training at the Kachin military academy. Following this incident, the rape and murder of two Kachin young women further angered the population, who blamed the military. Skirmishes have continued since 2011 between the Tatmadaw and the KIA, intensifying in recent months.
This week renewed fighting has also been seen between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang region in north-eastern Shan state and the Tatmadaw. The MNDAA , the latest group to recommence fighting after several years of calm, claimed it was targeted by airstrikes. Kokang region occupies a territory between the Salween River and the China border. Here, just as in Kachin state, large infrastructure projects such as the Kunlong hydropower dam have been planned, which are aggravating previously improved relations with the government.
In addition, fighting this month between the Ta'ang National Liberation Army has left at least seven dead. The armed ethnic group has refused to take part in the ceasefire process. Poppy production has hampered peace. An epidemic of drug addiction among its young men ravages the Ta'ang population. They say they won't give up fighting until a federal union is set up.
This is a familiar refrain. A federal union, as promised under the Panglong Agreement, is the end goal for ethnic groups. In a speech on Union Day, President Thein Sein put his Government's position on the issue:
The government has been relentless in its efforts to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement and has been holding all-inclusive political dialogue with all national political forces with the aim of developing a union based on a federal system and a genuine peace that puts an end to the armed conflicts that have raged for over six decades, ever since independence was regained
But it is a thorny issue for much of the Tatmadaw, which sees a federal union as a threat to its influence and to the type of 'unity' it has traditionally supported — a unity with the military at its core. The Government's chief negotiator and head of the Union Peacemaking Working Committee says further discussion is needed on the issue. In August, he announced Naypyidaw's acceptance of a federal union as the cornerstone of the political dialogue. For the Government, discussions on a federal union would ideally come during the second stage of the peace process once a nationwide ceasefire has been achieved. Yet, as in any peace process, clear and practical definitional demarcations are difficult.
The absence of trust in the process, exacerbated by renewed fighting, severely hampers the forging of new ceasefire agreements and threatens to unravel those already arrived at. The Government should be supporting development and aid in ethnic states, but a lack of good faith means that many programs are disrupted, laden with conditions or are promised and simply never go ahead.
There should be much more consultation with locals on big infrastructure projects lest these projects ignite tensions, as appears to be the case with the Kunlong dam which borders Kokang territory. As I wrote late last year on The Interpreter (and also argued here and here), large infrastructure projects such as the dams along the Salween River will become conflict multipliers during the peace process. Improved consultation and local engagement, as well as visible development programs, should be at the forefront if these projects are to happen.
Ethnic groups have their own part to play. They need to engage with their local communities to explain positions, and develop far-sighted political and social development objectives.
Many in Myanmar, on both sides, still hold out hope for the signing of a nationwide ceasefire in the coming months. Many have staked their reputation on it. But for those hopes to come to fruition, trust must first be established. The longer the fighting (and the negotiation process) drags on, the harder that becomes.