Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Myanmar’s ‘foundation for peace’ under siege

Battle has resumed in Shan state, exposing last year’s much-vaunted ceasefire pact as hollow kindling for confrontation

The national ceasefire agreement signed in Myanmar last October was billed as a legacy to the success of the outgoing Thein Sein government. Now it's unravelling amid fighting between rebel militias in northern Shan State.

Humanitarian aid is urgently needed for thousands of residents who have fled the area where the Ta'Ang National Liberation Army is battling the Shan State Army-South, headed by Lt-General Yawd Serk.

The Shan army is a signatory to the ceasefire, but the Ta'Ang was excluded for reasons that remain unclear. However, blaming either side for this latest outbreak of fighting is difficult. Theirs is a long-running and complex conflict involving both the ethnic armies and government troops.

Nothing comes easy in the war-ravaged northern zone, where opium warlords, rebel militias and state forces typically settle their disputes with guns rather than words.

The biggest casualty in the renewed clashes is the ceasefire pact, hailed by the outgoing government and its backers in the international community as a foundation for peace. But the partial nature of the agreement, with some of the combatants' signatures missing, led to concern that it was less a seed for peace than a thorn in the side of ethnic relations.

It didn't take long for the thorn to draw blood, and no one is sure how hard Nay Pyi Taw is working to get the peace initiative back on track. The government could theoretically wash its hands of responsibility for the flare-up in hostilities. The olive branch was extended - at least to some of the ethnic armies - and the authorities can't be blamed if minority groups fail to capitalise on their goodwill gesture.

Nonetheless, the reality is that Nay Pyi Taw faces serious questions over the level of its commitment to peace. The government has renewed hostilities with the Ta'Ang and its allies - the Arakan Army and the Kokang's Myanmar National Democratic

Alliance Army - having failed to secure their signatures on the ceasefire document. In neighbouring Kachin State, meanwhile, the Kachin Independence Army is still fighting government troops.

Other holdouts in Shan State include the United Wa State Army, which felt it should have a separate deal. Dubbed the world's largest narco-army and boasting a fighting force of 20,000 troops, the Wa has huge leverage in peace negotiations. The group signed a ceasefire agreement with the junta government in 1989 in exchange for the power to control their own territory and grow whatever they wanted. The crop of choice has long been opium, but production has diversified to meet growing demand for methamphetamine. In recent decades authorities have been powerless to stem the flow of the drug known in Thailand as ya ba, which has brought misery to communities across the region.

The methamphetamine-heroin factor - not just with the Wa but other groups as well - establishes that drugs and insurgency are two sides of the same coin in Myanmar. If anything, it reflects the complexity of the conflict. Any solution to this problem will have to take many issues into consideration, not just security.

Communities are being torn asunder and locals, especially young men, are forced to flee their homes for fear of being conscripted into the government army or an ethnic militia. The most vulnerable group in this conflict, the United Nations has stressed, is women and children, who have been displaced or otherwise affected by the fighting.

When it comes to the ceasefire, the military top brass talks a good game, but, unless it reforms and as long as continue its cling to power, little can be expected from the men in uniform whose abusive ways carry on with impunity.

The international community has praised the ceasefire agreement. Now it needs to make some heavy demands if its support is to prove useful. The Nation, Bangkok

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