Myanmar reaches a political impasse

Myanmar reaches a political impasse

Members of the People's Defence Forces who became guerrilla fighters after being protesters are seen on the front line in Kawkareik, Myanmar on Dec 31. REUTERS
Members of the People's Defence Forces who became guerrilla fighters after being protesters are seen on the front line in Kawkareik, Myanmar on Dec 31. REUTERS

Myanmar is engulfed in a civil war that is growing daily leaving diminishing options available to try to resolve it in what is a growing political impasse. For the past year, since the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, seized power, the country has been overwhelmed by violence and mayhem that is continuing to escalate, bringing civilian administration to a standstill throughout the country, disrupting the economy and leaving the majority of its people increasingly in danger of malnutrition and starvation. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the Tatmadaw's military campaigns and face a torrid and uncertain future.

Despite virtually unanimous international condemnation -- of the coup, and the violence and bloodshed it unleashed -- there are few realistic options open for third party attempts to resolve the stalemate and find potential political solutions to the burgeoning civil war. Next week the foreign ministers of the regional bloc Asean will meet in Cambodia -- the group's current chairman -- where the situation in Myanmar will feature prominently.

But their role in trying to be mediators is limited as there is an acute failure to understand the realities on the ground. The space for any meaningful dialogue in the next three months is very limited as this is the "fighting season".

Taking advantage of the dry season, the Tatmadaw has launched fresh operations against their traditional foes -- the ethnic rebel groups, especially the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) based in the north close to the Chinese border and the Karen National Union (KNU) based in the south along the border with Thailand.

This year of course they have been forced to open an even greater operational front as they are also fighting the new -- predominantly Bamar -- peoples' militias, which call themselves the Peoples' Defense Forces (PDF) and are loosely affiliated with the democratic opposition under the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG).

Myanmar's military leaders have seriously miscalculated the public response -- who after 10 years of rising expectations, fuelled by tentative democratic reforms, cautious steps towards liberalisation and economic development amid a faltering acceptance in the international community, have risen up in their rejection of a return to naked military rule and all its brutality and authoritarianism.

"I would rather be dead than live under military rule," said Sakura, a young university graduate who has fled abroad. "A year on though I only feel depressed and helpless."

It is a sentiment shared by so many Myanmar civilians, especially the youth.

The junta has imprisoned the country's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and most of her National League Democracy, or NLD, party's leadership and accused them of a plethora of crimes, including treason. All are spurious accusations and the typical responses of illegitimate regimes desperately seeking legitimacy.

It launched a brutal campaign to quell the national uprising through punitive arrests, summary executions, massacres of civilians and the torching of towns. Clearly the Tatmadaw has lost the battle for the "hearts and minds" of the people of Myanmar despite a constant barrage of propaganda and claims of success.

In the last 12 months hundreds of thousands of young Myanmar graduates, professionals and political activists have fled abroad for safety or are in hiding within the country, gravitating to Myanmar's border regions and the protection of the ethnic resistance organisations as they now call themselves. Thousands of them, in the course of the last 12 months, have taken up arms and after receiving training have joined the battle-hardened ethnic militias and taken the fight to the military.

The next three months are going to be critical as the fighting is going to escalate further because of the opportunities offered by the dry season. While the traditional ethnic armies will concentrate on fortifying their positions and repelling Tatmadaw attacks, the new democratic militias are preparing to go on the offensive, with a renewed emphasis on strategic cooperation and coordination.

The PDFs are growing in strength (some estimates suggest there are some 50,000 trained civilian guerillas) and grouped into three regional commands: north, west and south. These are loosely part of the military coordination committee under the NUG's ministry of defence, but with representatives of the ethnic resistance organisations. But in each of the ethnic "liberated" areas, most of them come under the control and command of the local ethnic army.

In the KNU areas for instance the local PDFs are under the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). More than 80% of the PDFs are under the KNLA command, according to the KNU spokesman Padoh Saw Tawnee.

"They have been trained by the KNLA and wear KNLA uniforms," he said. "Even though they don't speak Karen," he laughed. In fact, the militias have the KNLA insignia on one arm and the PDF's own emblem on the other, according to witnesses.

This is the principle in all the main ethnic areas, especially the Kachin, Karen, Karenni and Shan areas. The PDFs are supported and tolerated because they have at least nominally accepted the regional ethnic army's control. But the ethnic's military command over these groups is rather loose according to Asian military intelligence sources.

Often the PDFs quietly break from their base areas, conduct operations and return later. Nevertheless the PDFs do seem to be evolving into serious operational units with an increasingly defined strategy and operational objectives.

The plan is to encircle the capital Nay Pyi Taw, where the country's military high command and national administration is based, cutting it off from the battalions doing battle in the various ethnic regions, and the key Bamar cities of Mandalay and Yangon. The PDFs are "marching" south from their northern bases to the east and west of the country with Mandalay currently the eastern target.

Apart from disrupting the Tatmadaw's supply routes, the multiple fronts are effectively stretching the Myanmar army, causing it problems. The plan is also to reportedly establish PDF/NUG territorial control of "revolutionary liberated" areas by the end of April. The democratic opposition is on a roll -- with recruits flocking to join their militias. There is no incentive to talk, and the democratic opposition is not inclined to talk to the Tatmadaw as they are not seen as part of the solution, but the core of the problem.

If the violence and bloodshed is to be curtailed and even stopped the international community needs to pull a rabbit out of the hat. More thought needs to be given to a road map -- a return to normalcy and democratic transition.

But this cannot be a case of simply rolling back the clock to Jan 31. And it must be one that is inclusive, and prevent a return to the past: one of Asian engagement pitted against Western sanctions and isolation.

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

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