State of emergency muddles Myanmar peace process
President Thein Sein, who is a former military leader himself, declared a three-month state of emergency in the Kokang self-administered zone in the northern part of Shan state, which shares a border with China's Yunnan province.
The emergency rule, which was read out on national television on Tuesday, came after days of clashes between the Myanmar army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
The fighting started on Feb 9 in Laukkai township when MNDAA fighters who were trying to retake the Kokang self-administered zone attacked the Myanmar army outposts near the towns of Mawhtike and Tashwehtan.
The Myanmar army resorted to airstrikes in retaliatory attacks. According to the government, more than 50 troops and 26 Kokang fighters were killed, forcing thousands of civilians to flee, either elsewhere in Myanmar or over the border to China.
The MNDAA, under the leadership of Phon Kya Shin, enjoyed a ceasefire with the government from 1989 to 2009. The ceasefire ended when the MNDAA rejected the Myanmar government's proposal to become border guard forces under the command of the Myanmar army.
In late-August 2009, the Myanmar army, with the help of some Kokang army leaders including its Deputy Chairman Bai Suoqian who were loyal to the military government, captured and occupied Laukkai.
The state of emergency means that the Myanmar military would now exercise unrestricted authority in the Kokang region — Kongkyan and Laukkai townships. The region is mostly populated by the Kokang people, a Han Chinese ethnic group.
The imposition of military administration is a clause in the 2008 constitution which gives both executive and judicial powers to the military.
In an interesting development, Thein Sein on Tuesday vowed "not to lose an inch of Myanmar's territory" and said the military was "protecting sovereignty and ensuring territorial integrity".
The intense fighting between the Myanmar army and the MNDAA came at a time when the country is preparing to sign a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that would pave the way for political dialogue with the ultimate goal of building a federal union for peace and national reconciliation.
While the Thein Sein government has agreed in principle for the formation of a federal union, which is aimed at granting autonomy to ethnic minorities, the declaration of emergency rule and continued armed confrontations could hinder the peace process.
Besides the MNDAA, other ethnic armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) are yet to sign bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government.
The violence in Kokang region is proof that there still remain challenges and issues that need to be addressed. The continued armed clashes are also evidence that there is a lack of mutual trust between the Myanmar government and ethnic armed groups.
Similar to the Myanmar army's attack on a KIA cadet training center near Laiza in November 2014, which killed 23 cadets, the latest development in Kokang region is a testament to how complex issues surrounding ethnic minorities in Myanmar are.
Despite the continued armed confrontations, both ethnic armed groups and the government have not abandoned negotiations over the NCA, which have been drafted by the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team and the Union Peacemaking Work Committee.
Without a doubt, the attack on the KIA training base and the latest incident in Kokang region is a manifestation of decades-old ethno-political problems since the country's independence in 1948. Nonetheless, the peace process needs to be encouraged and supported.
To achieve the goal, there need to be both short- and long-term strategies.
The short-term strategy should focus on critical issues hindering the signing of the NCA, such as ending armed conflict in Kachin and Shan states, and building mutual trust between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar government, especially the military. The long-term strategy should focus on issues pertaining to the creation of a federal union and a federal army, and post-ceasefire period of political dialogue.
The post-dialogue will have to deal with several other issues, including militarisation and demilitarisation, self-reliance and sustainability, reconstructing the economy and involvement of citizens at grassroots level in the country's development.
The signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement and holding of political dialogue, similar to the 1947 Panglong conference, should be a priority — many had anticipated it would happen on the country's union day on Feb 12.
History has proven that resorting to military methods is not a solution to Myanmar's problems.
Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a political scientist and general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. He is the author of 'Democracy Movement in Myanmar: Problems and Challenges'.