The Myanmar Government has invited leaders of the Myanmar military and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to sit together with Government leaders on 15 October, 2018, the third anniversary of the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). This meeting would be the first time that leaders from all sides have met together since the current peace process was launched in 2011. The meeting will reportedly attempt to address some of the most contentious topics in the peace process – including non-secession from the Union and the future of the EAOs after a final agreement is signed. While such high-level meetings are an essential part of the peace process, these leaders and other stakeholders must also open up the process to meaningful participation by civil society, including women and members of ethnic minorities – particularly those from conflict-affected communities. Furthermore, if the peace process is to move forward, the Myanmar military must immediately take steps to cease its military operations and withdraw from ethnic areas in order to reduce the conflict’s impact on civilians, and to begin the long process of building trust with conflict-affected communities. Essential in rebuilding trust is accountability, including at the international level, for the worst abuses committed by the military.
While preparations continue for the high-level meeting on 15 October, 2018, civilians continue to suffer from abuses. Increasing militarization by the Myanmar military in southern Shan State and Karen State, including road-building and troop reinforcement, is leading to fear among the civilian population. In Shan State, the Myanmar military is building a new road which will increase its access to territory controlled by the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) as well as the area on the Salween River where the Mong Ton Dam is planned. Recently, Myanmar military officials flew a drone over RCSS territory and Loi Lam internally-displaced persons (IDP) camp, causing fear among the IDPs, who had fled Myanmar military abuses years ago. IDPs in Loi Lam and the other five camps in southern Shan State along the border with Thailand are still unable to return home due to militarization and fear of Myanmar military abuses, despite the fact that their aid was eliminated by international donors in October 2017.
Tensions are also rising between ethnic communities in Shan State. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), recently joined by the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), has been engaged in increasing clashes with the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), in addition to clashes with the Myanmar military. Such inter-ethnic clashes are a classic symptom of the Myanmar military’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics. Clashes and abuses committed by the Myanmar military and all these ethnic armed organizations in Shan State have led to tensions among civilians, and a reported increase in inter-ethnic hate speech on social media. One recent high-profile incident was the arrest by the TNLA of a Shan woman, Nang Mo Hom, from her home in Namkham on 17 August, 2018. The TNLA claims it has charged her with a breach of Article 333 of the Myanmar criminal code, dealing with obstructing the work of a civil servant, in connection with an ambush on its troops directly after they collected a “tax” from Nang Mo Hom, who runs a small store in Namkham. Nang Mo Hom has been held since 17 August, 2018, and her family has not been able to visit her or receive news of her health. Thousands of people have protested in Namkham demanding her release and an end to illegal taxation but despite this, it has emerged that the TNLA sentenced her to three years in prison
Also causing tension in the state, the UWSA has also recently commenced a crackdown on Christians in its territory, mostly members of the minority Lahu ethnic group. The UWSA has destroyed churches built since 1992, banned foreigners from working in churches and religious groups, and arrested over 200 Lahu Christians, with around 100 released on 5 October, 2018. This crackdown is allegedly driven at least in part by concerns from Chinese authorities about Western influence along its borders.
In Karen State, the Myanmar military continues to increase troops and push into contested territory, also causing fear and tension among a population which has long lived with the military’s abuses and cycles of displacement. According to Saw Albert, the Field Director of the Karen Human Rights Group, who was quoted in Karen News, “villagers … tried to rebuild their lives and improve their living standards after decades of conflict, but the recent situation returns them to their past nightmares and refreshes their fears. They didn’t put their trust in the peace process and now recent conflicts means they have no trust at all.”
As the UN General Assembly will soon discuss the situation in Myanmar, the conflict and long history of crimes committed by the Myanmar military in ethnic areas must be given serious consideration in light of findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission for Myanmar (IIFFMM) that such crimes are crimes against humanity and war crimes. These crimes must be seen as inseparable from those crimes against Rohingya but distinct manifestations of the Myanmar military’s abusive tactics and impunity. The recent Human Rights Council Resolution on Myanmar called for “an immediate cessation of fighting and hostilities, of targeting civilians and of all violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in northern Myanmar[.]” The UN-mandated IIFFMM recognized the interlinkages between military abuses in armed conflict situations in northern Myanmar and those against the Rohingya. These crimes urgently necessitate international accountability, without which sustainable peace and genuine reconciliation are not possible.
In order to move the peace process forward, the Myanmar Government and military must engage with sincere political will in productive, meaningful dialogue during the upcoming high-level meetings, and allow inclusive dialogue with mutual respect and recognition not only with EAOs but with civil society and affected communities. Meanwhile, the impact of fighting and abuse is spreading through communities in conflict-affected areas and tensions threaten an outbreak of communal violence. Immediate measures must be taken on all sides to de-escalate the tensions, in addition to working towards the long-term goal of achieving sustainable peace. The military must cease all attacks against civilians and halt all militarization and road construction in contested areas. The Government must take immediate steps to ensure adequate humanitarian access and support to affected communities, acknowledge the long decades of suffering and abuses experienced by non-Bamar ethnic nationalities at the hands of the Myanmar military and the urgent need to end its impunity, and take steps toward an inclusive process of accountability by cooperating with the UN human rights mechanisms. Until the suffering and mistrust of the ethnic communities is adequately addressed, their aspirations for equality guaranteed and their meaningful participation on equal terms included in the peace process, decisions at the negotiating table will never create peace on the ground.
The international community has a role to play too. The 74th UN General Assembly must fully utilize its mandate and adopt a resolution on Myanmar that takes concrete steps towards implementing the recommendations of the IIFFMM, including by referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court and immediately providing adequate resources to the interim mechanism and independent international accountability mechanism as decided on by the Human Rights Council.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Australian Karen Organisation
By Karen National Union Headquarters
By Karen Environmental and Social Action Network
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”