INSTANCES OF ETHNIC STATES IN 2020: Status quo remains with uncertainty for the year ahead

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Sai Wan Sai
Sai Wan Sai

The year has been an eventful and exited year for the ethnic states and their populations because of the general election, and even more so because a new uninvited challenge coronavirus pandemic has entered the scene, while the traditional decades-long, ongoing civil war and the woes that come with it remain unresolved.

So far as the civil war or ethnic conflict war is concerned, the fightings, like the previous year 2019,  were concentrated in the northern part of Shan and northern Arakan states, including the adjacent Chin State of Paletwa Township. Elsewhere in the Kachin State, the clashes barely happened but in Karen State clashes broke out from time to time, due to the Tatmadaw’s road-building undertaking, which the Karen National Union (KNU) sees it as an expansion of the government administration into its controlled territories.  

The situation of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) remain unchanged, with some positive repatriation development happening in Karen and Kachin states in small scales through out the year. The situation in Arakan State remains dire, with some 200,000 IDP lingering in many camps in northern part of the state. But a ray of hope has emerged at this writing as the Military or Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA) have reached an unofficial truce, when the latter proposed by-elections or additional elections to be held in the nine excluded areas, including pockets of excluded constituencies, of northern Arakan State, which the former endorsed and subsequently stopped the armed engagement that have been going without interval for the last two years.

And with the full blown outbreak of coronavirus pandemic affecting the country starting January 2020,  managing COVID-19 was and is still a challenge to the government and as well for the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), in their controlled territories.

The general elections

The speculation of November 8 general elections that the ethnic political parties (EPPs) will do well and the Bamar rival parties will erode the National League for Democracy (NLD) political supremacy clout in Bamar-dominated regions by the experts missed the mark by a wide margin and instead the NLD won a third time landslide victory again.

The NLD won with a landslide in 1990, 2015 and again now in 2020. In 1990 the NLD wasn’t allowed to take over the country’s power, as the military or Tatmadaw wasn’t ready give up its hold on the country. But in 2015, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government of Thein Sein lost the election in its own game and gracefully transferred the political decision-making power, albeit if only 75 percent of it according to the constitution, to the NLD.  

The speculation that the EPPs, especially the merger parties, formed to become one through fusion of two and more parties, in Chin, Kachin, Kayah or Karenni, Karen, and Mon states, will do well was only partly correct, as NLD won in most of the ethnic states.

The merger parties are: the Kayah State Democratic Party (KySDP),  the Karen National Development Party (KNDP),  the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP), the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD), and  the Mon Unity Party (MUP).

But while the Chin, Kachin and also Karen based merger parties weren’t doing well and losing quite miserably to the NLD’s election onslaught in the general election, the KySDP and  MUP were doing  relatively better and have gained sizeable MP seats, even though the results have fallen short of their expectation.

The MUP won 12 MP seats, 11 in Mon State and one in Karen State. In 2015 election, the Mon parties won only 4 seats.

The KySDP won eight seats, but during the 2015 election the Kayah-based parties won nothing at all.

In contrast, the EPPs of Shan and Arakan states which have no such merger parties were able to maintain their political clout just like the 2015 general election. They are the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the Arakan National Party (ANP).

In 2015 the SNLD came out second in Shan State election after the USDP but ahead of the NLD which came out third. The ANP came out first in Arakan State election, but wasn’t allowed to form government or occupy the chief minister post, as NLD-led government formed the Arakan State government with its own party members and also took the chief minister position.

According to the 2008 Constitution, the president has full power to order and form the state and regional governments, including appointment of chief ministers.

Out of the 166 seats that were available in Shan State, the NLD won 54, while the Union Solidarity and Development Party got 42, SNLD secured 41, Ta’ang National Party won 12 seats, Pa-O National Organization got 11 seats, Wa National Party received 3 seats, Lahu National Democratic Party won 2 seats, and the Shan Nationalities Democracy Party and Kayan National Party each won a single seat. Independent candidates won 2 seats. 

There were 49 seats available in the House of Representatives, 12 for House of Nationalities, 98 for Shan State Parliament and 7 for the ministers of ethnic affairs. 

The SNLD won 26 seats, behind NLD 29 (+ 4 ethnic affairs ministers), followed by USDP 24, with PNO and TNP which won 7 seats each, and WNP and LNDP 2 seats each, in Shan State election.

This time around, even though about 75 percent or 9 townships and other pockets of constituencies were excluded from the Arakan State election citing security concern by the Union Election Commission (UEC), the ANP still won the majority vote in Arakan State.

ANP won 7seats, followed by NLD 4 seats and AFP 2 seats and USDP 1 seat, in Arakan State election. 

There were 47 lawmakers in the previous 2015 second Arakan State parliament—35 lawmakers (22 from the ANP, nine from the NLD, three from the USDP and one independent lawmaker) and 12 from the army (25 percent).

In 2021 to 2026 legislature period, there will be 19 lawmakers in the third Arakan State parliament, of  the 14 elected candidates – 7 from the ANP; 1 from Arakan Front Party (AFP); 4 from NLD; 1 from USDP; –  and 5 appointed from the Military. 

Thus, the NLD won’t be able to appoint Arakan State parliament house-speaker or chairman, even though it may have the power to install chief minister according to the union president’s decision, of which he is entitled according to the constitution.

It is not a wonder that the ANP has been sending signals that it would cooperate with the military bloc, which is the USDP and appointed military MPs combined, in the installation of the house-speaker for Arakan State parliament.

Thus, coalition-building will become unavoidable in Shan State and Arakan State Parliaments when competing to appoint house-speakers. In contrast to the chief minister appointment, the NLD-led central government cannot install house-speaker as it wishes and the majority vote is needed in such case.

Armed conflict in ethnic states

Armed conflict between the Tatmadaw and the EAOs occurred in Shan, Karen, Arakan and Chin states. The only three where the guns were almost silent were the Kachin, Karenni and Mon states.

According to reliable statistic collected by Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS) from January to October 2020  there were 719 armed clashes between the Tatmadaw and the EAOs. But as for the inter-ethnic armed clashes there were only 6 instances distributed over one clash each in February  and August;  and 4 clashes in October. There were also 162 improvised explosive device (IED)/Mine Attacks.

AA is the sole EAO active in Arakan State and Chin State, Paletwa Township areas, while the Northern Alliance -Burma (NA-B) comprised of Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) or Kokang are active in northern Shan State. 

However, AA involvement in northern Shan State seems to be more on the political side than military engagement as it has to deploy the bulk of its strength in Arakan State.

The highest armed clashes occurred between the EAOs and Tatmadaw were in January 95 times, followed by February 116 times, March 116 times, and October with 85 time. The moderate to low months were April with 53 times, May with 61 times, June 59 times, July 42 times, August 27 times, and September with 65 times.

Most of the severe armed engagements were in northern Arakan State and the adjacent Chin State of Paletwa Township. The relatively moderate to low armed clashes occurred in northern Shan State and Karen State. 

Other than that the Shanni Nationalities Army (SNA), now renamed as Shanni Nationalities Front (SNF), was reported to have clashed with the government once on 11 January 2020 on the Burma-India border, in Sagaing’s Homelin Township. Three SNA soldiers were allegedly arrested by the  Tatmadaw and one SNA sergeant was killed, according to Shan News report.

Although several clashes between the KIA and Tatmadaw were reported in northern Shan State in March, the unofficial cessation of hostilities between the two sides remains in place in Kachin State, according to the MIPS report.

However, Kachin Independence Organization News and Information Department Chief Col. Naw Bu said that there was fighting between Tatmadaw and KIA troops as the former intruded into the latter’s territory on June 29 west of Bhamo Township in Kachin State. The causalities were not publicized and fight didn’t escalate further leaving the unofficial truce in tact.

According to a KHRG researcher, at least 207 skirmishes broke out between the Tatmadaw and the KNLA in Lu Taw Township, Mu Traw(Hpapun) District over the reporting period from January to July 2020. The skirmishes were mainly due to the Tatmadaw’s road-building activities in KNU territories, overwhelmingly in Brigade 5 area.

Unexpectedly, armed conflict in Arakan State died down after the November 8 general elections and the unofficial truce seems to be holding through out the month and well into the month of December at this writing. The truce talks connected to the proposed additional elections in northern Arakan 9 townships and pockets of areas where the November elections were excluded were ongoing with the help of third party mediation, according to news report. The AA recent announcement of December 2 confirmed the talks through virtual online meetings with the Tatmadaw.

The war in northern Shan State were largely limited to on and off sporadic clashes, as the Tatmadaw seems to be only concerned with containing the TNLA and MNDAA to their Special Administered Zones. But the heightened conflict  between the RCSS and the Tatmadaw in Kyaukme Township area in June and October put the conflict into a moderate-level clash category, instead of a low one. Shortly after the election result became known, an assassination of the NLD MP-elect occurred by unknown  assailant, which complicated the election outcome further.

On November 24, the Tatmadaw clashed with TNLA close to the ruby mines in Mogok Township, Mandalay Region, near Kyauk Wah village at about 8:00 p.m., which lasted between 15 to 20 minutes. According to the Tatmadaw it lost one soldier and one wounded. The TNLA also fought the  Tatmadaw on November 19, less than two weeks after the general election. 

On December 5, a clash broke out between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) two Shan armies in Hsipaw Township, after many months of the observed truce that was signed in April 2019, due to the urging of the people and the Sangha of Shan State. Parallel to it fighting between the RCSS and the TNLA also broke out in Namtu Township on December 7. 

Refugees and IDPs

According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report of 31st October 2020, there are 169 IDP sites with 9,4238 IDPs in Kachin State and 9772 IDPs in northern Shan State, making the IDP figure of 104,010 altogether residing within the Kachin and Shan states.

Those staying in IDP camps and IDPs in host families total figure is 65,918 or 63%; and those living in IDP camps in areas controlled by armed groups or contested areas amount to 38,092 or 37%.

As for the Arakan or Rakhine and Chin states, according to the OCHA report of “Myanmar Humanitarian Update No. 1 | 26 November 2020”:

“The overall number of people displaced due to the ongoing conflict has seen a steady rise since January 2020. As of 15 November, 105,090 people were hosted across 205 sites and host communities in Rakhine and southern Chin states. In Rakhine, 87,467 people are currently hosted in 169 sites, while around 6,613 displaced persons are sheltering in some 30 host communities, according to the Rakhine State Government (RSG). In Paletwa Township, which has been the main area of hostilities in southern Chin State, humanitarian partners report that some 11,010  displaced persons remained in 36 sites as of October. The current displacement figures are more than the double the numbers reported in January 2020, when over 49,700 IDPs were hosted in 137 sites in the two states.”  

In addition to these, 1.1 million Rohingya refugees are still unable to return ever since a massive exodus to Bangladesh took place in 2017. Likewise, the Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan refugees amounting to 150,000 or more are still lingering in 9 official refugee camps in Thailand for decades along the Myanmar-Thai border areas, with little likelihood that the comprehensive repatriation will ever occur in the near future.

Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic hit the whole country, including the ethnic states from the beginning year. In fact, the Mong La controlled by National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA) controlled areas were starting to implement preventive measures by the end of 2019 already, when Myanmar authorities were not even aware of the impact.

Generally, the spread of the Covid-19 was less serious in ethnic states than the Bamar-dominated regions, with the exception of the Arakan State which ranked fourth in Covid-19 confirmed cases countrywide, according to the statistic of Ministry of Health & Sports, Dept. of Public Health, Central Epidemiology Unit (December 6, 2020).

Reportedly, Covid-19 confirmed cases for the ethnic states were: Rakhine 3,843 with 25 deaths; Mon confirmed cases 1,607 with 12 deaths; Karen State confirmed cases 721 with 11 deaths; Shan (South) confirmed cases 308 with 1 death; Shan (North) confirmed cases 101 with 1 death; Shan (East) confirmed cases 93 with 0 death; Kachin confirmed cases 272 with 0 death; Chin confirmed cases 130 with 1 death; and Kayah confirmed cases 22 with 0 death.

In comparison, Yangon Region has Covid-19 confirmed cases 70,906 with 1,936 deaths; Mandalay Region Covid-19 confirmed cases 7,293 with 58 deaths; and Bago Region Covid-19 confirmed cases 5,781 with 11 deaths.

The much hyped government formation of the ‘Committee to Coordinate and Collaborate with Ethnic Armed Organizations to Prevent, Control and Treat Covid-19’ (‘Committee’) in late April 2020, involving the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC), the Peace Commission and the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs, wasn’t able to do much in practical terms.

“There is evidence of both the Tatmadaw and EAOs increasing their public engagement through the Covid-19 crisis. The Tatmadaw has been seen to make ritualistic public donations of supplies and assistance to some EAOs, including the Wa, Mong La group and others, whilst EAOs have also looked to assert greater influence at the local level through their Covid-19 responses,” according to  The Asia Foundation report of August 2020 titled, “COVID-19 and Conflict in Myanmar Briefing Paper Series No. 1”.

Reportedly, the Tatmadaw also was said to donate personal protective equipment and as well as food to the KIA, KNU, SSPP and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).

The Tatmadaw has reportedly warned the KNU and RCSS to cease COVID-19 prevention activities in some areas, claiming that they are encroaching on government-controlled territory, according to the International Crisis Group 19 May 2020 report. 

Likewise the KIO prevention activities were also said to be disrupted by the Tatmadaw. 

And because of such attitude where both the Tatmadaw and EAOs have competing interest to advance their own agenda of establishing their authority and control populations and territories, the ´Committee` has so far only been seen as more of a symbolic than to benefit the local populations caught within the different EAO controlled and contested areas. 

Besides, the unilateral ceasefire declared by the Tatmadaw and NA-B staring December 2019 until the end of 2020 won’t have an impact in ending the war in ethnic states, as the armed confrontation goes on unabated. Perhaps the present unofficial truce between the warring parties in Arakan State could become a light at the end of the tunnel.

Outlook

It is in order to make some assessment on the issues of general elections, ongoing civil war, IDPs and refugees, and Covid-19 affecting the ethnic states and their populations.

The EPPs primarily were convinced that the elections could better their bargaining power, either as a coalition partner of a mainstream Bamar party or played a Kingmaker role if the election outcome becomes indecisive in union, national-level to form government. But their projected goal evaporated as NLD won a landslide victory with super majority. 

It is also too early to predict how the NLD overtures of national unity government will look like, given the friction between the Tatmadaw and the NLD in determining whether the election is free and fair.

Provided, the new NLD government transition is smooth, sub-state-level government formation might happen in Shan and Arakan states, as the NLD needs the EPPs to balance the military bloc in ethnic state parliaments.

As far as the civil war is concerned, there were no break through or hint to end it during the whole year. But the recent unofficial ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the AA starting from November elections is a positive development. This comes about as the Tatmadaw welcomed the AA proposal of holding additional elections in excluded in 9 townships of Arakan State, which it said it would cooperate to make it happen. 

The IDP and refugee populations in the north, south-east, and west remain unchanged with small scale pilot project-like repatriations taking place in Kachin, Shan and Karen states. Lately, because of the unofficial ceasefire in Arakan State is holding, some thousands of IDPs were said to have returned home temporarily to harvest the crops they have planted, according to the news.

The Covid-19 infection in all ethnic states were minimum except the Arakan State, where it ranks fourth country wide. The cooperation between the government and EAOs were minimum and the expectation that it could help build trust and reconciliation with the government, the Military in particular, did not materialized.

In sum, the ethnic states situation in 2020 haven’t changed much and generally speaking the condition of status quo remains with perhaps more political uncertainty for the year ahead. The EPPs weren’t able to make an impact politically to change the situation; the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA)-signatory and  NCA-non-signatory EAOs couldn’t move forward with the peace process; and the transitional of the new NLD-led regime for the next legislature period is not secure if not in limbo, as the Tatmadaw, for whatever reason, is eager to investigate the election irregularities, which it said exist. Thus, the next two months will be an extra-ordinary transitional period on which all attention will be focused.  

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