News analysis

Ethnic clashes highlight fragile peace in Myanmar

New government has its work cut out to continue half-finished peace process

Amid a preoccupation in the capital with Myanmar's political transition, an ethnic flare-up in northern Shan state underlines the fragility of peace agreements - and the complexity of on-again, off-again conflicts. The latest clashes this month have displaced up to 5,000 people and highlight why it is critical for the peace process to continue when the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government takes over from April 1.

 The peace process is, at best, half-finished. In October last year, only eight out of 16 armed ethnic organisations had signed a National Ceasefire Accord (NCA) - negotiated over five years - though all had earlier agreed to the text. 

Since then, tensions have been brewing.

In Shan state, which borders China, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South) signed the NCA. But another group at war with the Myanmar military did not - and now that group, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) representing the Palaung ethnic group, is clashing with SSA-South.  

The conflict shows that bilateral or collective peace agreements with the Myanmar army are only part of the solution to the country's long history of ethnic conflict centred on self-determination.

Many areas still vulnerable to flare-ups are rich in natural resources. In SSA-South's case, the Shan feel the state is theirs, and the agreement with Naypyitaw did not solve their issues with the Palaung.

Since signing the NCA, the SSA- South has been emboldened to move closer to or into Palaung areas - drawing resistance from the TNLA in what is essentially another battle over territory and resources. 

Refugees at a temporary camp in northern Shan state, where clashes have displaced some 5,000 people. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

"This highlights broader risks," said Dr Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Yangon. "There are lots of fault lines at the sub-national level, and that has been very much overlooked. Now we see several different lines of friction of which the Ta'ang-Shan is only the most obvious, and a warning of what could come. In the case of the SSA-South, they signed the NCA at not inconsiderable political risk, and feel they have yet to derive any benefit."

 There are tensions brewing as well between the Chin National Front and the Arakan National Army, as reports emerge of the Arakan army looting supplies from Chin villages.

And as if to underline the volatility that the incoming NLD government will inherit, and the urgency of making progress on peace talks, a brand-new armed group appeared late last month - the Red Shan's Shanni Nationalities Army (SNA).

The Red Shan, a sub-group, comprises some 300,000 people in southern Kachin state.

In an insight into the legacy of mistrust and militancy, a Mizzima News report quoted a Red Shan soldier saying: "If the tiger has no fangs, the animals will not be afraid of it; if the people have no guns, we will not be safe."

Ethnic groups believe they must have an armed force to have any influence, which is in direct opposition to the army's view that eventually they must give up arms.

 Stabilising this volatility depends on how well the NLD government rises to the occasion. 

Peace with ethnic minorities is the key to stability, analysts say. "Myanmar is a state, but not yet a nation, and the peace process is in fact devoted to that end," Professor David Steinberg, of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, wrote in an e-mail. 

Dr Horsey said in an interview: "One advantage the NLD has is that it does not have the baggage of the last five years of this administration, or the last 50 years of the military. Its leader Aung San Suu Kyi has enormous credibility, so even if people are sceptical, there's a general feeling that she has good intentions. 

"There is therefore a greater political need to make a deal; a failure to do so with an NLD government would be even more costly than a failure with a military government."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2016, with the headline 'Ethnic clashes highlight fragile peace in Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe