BURMA’S CIVIL WAR RAGING : More than seven decades later no ending of conflict in sight

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The Burma Army or Myanmar Military doesn’t even want to accept that there is civil war going on in the country, arguing that the last civil war was the battle in Yangon’s Insein Township with the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) troops one year after the declaration of independence from the British in 1948. But regardless of what the Military said the reality is that civil war has been continuously raging on for the last seven decades, with no end in sight.

The reason that the Military refused to acknowledge the term of civil war is that it considers ethnic conflict war as tackling the terrorist insurgency problem, as it always maintained, and not ethnic armed conflict stemming from political grievance that bloomed into civil war, in all ethnic states.

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Map of Major Ethnic Groups in Myanmar – smallwarsjournal.com

Barbara F. Walter, in her article “The Four Things We Know About How Civil Wars End,” of 18 October 2013 outlined four points. 

They are:  

  • civil wars don’t end quickly; 
  • the greater the number of factions, the longer a civil war tends to last; 
  • most civil wars end in decisive military victories, not negotiated settlements; and 
  • the civil wars that end in successfully negotiated settlements tend to have two things in common, first, they tend to divide political power among the combatants based on their position on the battlefield, and second, successful settlements all enjoy the help of a third party willing to ensure the safety of combatants as they demobilize.

On the same issue, Lise M. Howard, Associate Professor of Government and Alexandra Stark, Ph.D. Candidate, both from the Department of Government at Georgetown University, in their piece “How Civil Wars End” published on 9 February 2018 writes: “We identify three important shifts in recent history. During the Cold War, most civil wars ended with complete defeat for the losing side. After the Cold war, most ended in negotiated settlement. Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, civil wars still tend to end in negotiation, but not when a terrorist group is involved.”

Let us make use of the these two findings and compare the Myanmar or Burma’s civil war situation, in which stage it is in and if there is a chance that it would end anytime soon.

By experience, we know that civil wars don’t end quickly, as we have been in it since the British granted us independence in 1948 and the ethnic conflict war started immediately on the heels of the independence. The Karen rebelled at the beginning of independence and occupied most territories of the country, until the then U Nu government was even nick-named as Rangoon government, as Rangoon was the only place left in the hands of the government. The communist party went underground one year before independence and in late 1950s almost all non-Bamar ethnic nationalities were up in arms against the central government, due to the unfulfilled political agreement promises to establish a federal union, which goes on until today, under successive civil or Bamar-dominated civil and military regimes since 1948.

We also know that theoretically it is true, the greater the number of conflict factions, the longer a civil war tends to last. We have been now in it for more than 70 years of civil war and end is nowhere in sight. To date, we have some 20 active ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) spread out in all over in Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen, Mon, Arakan and Chin ethnic states.

The two points, “most civil wars end in decisive military victories, not negotiated settlements” and “civil wars end in successfully negotiated settlements,” outlined by Barbara F. Walter haven’t been yet applicable in the case of Burma so far, as it is still in the middle of the armed conflict, in most ethnic states.

However, in the case of United Wa State Army (UWSA) headquartered in Panghsang (Special Region 2) and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) based in Mongla (Special Region 4), the second point “successful negotiated settlement” may apply, as since 1989 after the dismemberment and downfall of the Communist Party Burma (CPB), which was then backed by Beijing until late 1980s. 

The CPB two successors revamped themselves into non-Bamar ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).   And since 1989 the ceasefire agreement has been observed and all these years both have been left alone to administer and develop their areas as agreed by the truce made between them and the government. And ever since then the two have grown with leaps and bounds, militarily and economically, becoming an enviable role model for the rest of the EAOs still fighting the Bamar-dominated successive regimes.

Thus it could be said there is no comprehensive negotiated settlement countrywide but partial agreement with Panghsang and Mongla have taken place. However, with the rest of EAOs the war goes on as usual for decades, with no one decisively winning the fight.

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EAOs groups – mmpeacemonitor.org

Now let us go to Lise M. Howard and Alexandra Stark theoretical findings of nominative trends given by different period of time, namely: 

  • civil wars ending with complete defeat for the losing side (Cold War period 1947-1991); 
  • negotiated settlement (post-Cold War period 1991-2001); and 
  • civil war still tend to end in negotiation but when terrorist group is involved negotiation ended (aftermath of  11 September 2001 period).

A series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda against the United States took place in 1 September 2001, which is also referred to as 9/11 and declared war on terrorism.

Lise M. Howard and Alexandra Stark writes: “Since 9/11, although the norm of negotiation remains strong, a countervailing norm of non-negotiation with terrorists means that the appropriateness of military victory is once again ascendant. Instead of seeking democracy, the United States and others are promoting a new norm of “stabilization.””

They also pointed out in their findings: “(N)egotiation (negotiations, negotiating, negotiator) decrease in line with an increase in the use of words associated with terrorism (terror, terrorist). 

In other words, the trend of negotiated settlement decrease and tendency to suppression increase.

Burma has passed the Cold War, post-Cold War and now in the middle of post-11 September 2001 era. In other words, Burma recently is in the era of “negotiated settlement and rejection of a terrorist group with non-negotiation posture.” 

Principally the government is employing negotiated settlement to end the civil war. But in practice it is less clear, as on one hand it said that it is for all EAOs participation, under the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA)-based peace negotiation process, and on the other hand designating the AA to be a terrorist group on March 23 and actively trying to apply counter-terrorism law to annihilate the organization, with massive military offensives against it.

And as the government also now and then used the term of terrorist insurgents on the Three Brotherhood Alliance, we are not sure if all its members are also considered terrorist organizations. But to date, official announcement designating the latter two organizations, MNDAA and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), as terrorists has not yet been done.

To sum up, the country has been in civil war mode for more than 70 years; having a multitude number of conflict parties; employing a mixed negotiated settlement and rejection of a terrorist organization, blocking its entrance to peace negotiation process mode; don’t cater well to end the conflict, according to the peace study theoreticians. 

While the decades-long civil war and having numerous armed conflict parties are two crucial handicapped points to end the conflict, the employing of a mixed strategy, pushing AA out as terrorist organization and talking peace at the same time with the rest of the EAOs will not be feasible to achieve negotiated settlement.

The reason is simple. Arakan Army (AA) belongs to the Three Brotherhood Alliance and also to the Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B), which are military alliance, meaning: they all fight as a unit against common enemy, the government and have already done so in many occasions. The NA-B is part of the seven-member political alliance Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which still has not signed the NCA and thus outside of the NCA-based peace negotiation process.

The Three Brotherhood Alliance is made up of AA, MNDAA and TNLA. The NA-B is made up of the Three Brotherhood Alliance, plus Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The FPNCC is made up of NA-B, plus UWSA, NDAA or Mongla and Shan State Progressive Army (SSPP).

Given such scenarios the government’s all-inclusiveness participation of all EAOs will not materialize, as if the NA-B doesn’t sign the NCA, the FPNCC won’t sign either. This means the NCA-based peace process will only be a partial participation of the already signed 10 EAOs, which subsequently denotes it will not be fruitful or able to achieve positive result, with 8 EAOs being left out of the peace negotiation process. 

Another NCA-non-signatory EAO outside FPNCC is Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).

As the situation now stands, there is no hope in the near future to end the civil war, as the government don’t even bother to heed the call of ceasefire the world over in all conflict affected areas by the UN General-Secretary  António Guterres during the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that it is of no use and instead opted for more offensives in Arakan State against the AA.

The question to ask now is if the government really wants to stick to the solely negotiated settlement mode and ready to disregard the designation of the AA as a terrorist group and accept it as negotiation partner.

It is also important that the government ponder the idea of acknowledging the EAOs’ legitimacy in their controlled areas so as to be on the equal-footing in peace negotiation process and not sort of making use the paternalistic master-slaves relationship, which is now the case.

According to Lise M. Howard and Alexandra Stark: “Civil wars tend to end the way that external forces think they ought to end. In other words, norms—ideas of appropriate behavior—play a direct role in civil war outcomes.”

In Burma’s case most international actors, including the UN, are for negotiated settlement although third party mediation or intervention has not been actively solicited. It is noteworthy that even China which actively backed the CPB during Cold War era is now for peaceful negotiation settlement.

But so far, the West desired Burma’s self-owned peace process and encouraged conflict parties to resolve political problems on their own, which has been officially activated after the signing of NCA with 8 EAOs in October 2015. The peace negotiation process has stagnated for almost two years now and even seems to be deteriorating at an accelerating speed because of the failed mixed strategy approach, leaning more on war path. 

Last but not the least, the given theoretical findings indicated that Burma won’t be able to achieve peace and harmony or end civil war easily. However, if only negotiated settlement is strictly employed with an able third party mediation as suggested by the theoreticians, including a degree of legitimacy acknowledgment given to the EAOs by the government, the pessimistic outlook may perhaps turn into an optimistic situation and energize the flagging peace process. Otherwise, the country will continue with the civil war raging as usual until it becomes a fully fledged failed state. 

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