Myanmar’s military and its proxy armies
In the north and near the Thai border, ethnic groups have been recruited and are fighting rebel groups alongside the country's regular troops.
Karl Marx’s celebrated reflection over the twists of 19th century French politics had it that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce.
Had he had the chance to consider recent events in Myanmar he might have been surprised to learn that sometimes history repeats itself as both forms of drama at the same time.
The latest act in the long-running tragedy of Myanmar’s ethnic conflict features the intervention of a major armed group, which only last October committed to a so-called Nation-wide Cease-fire Agreement (NCA), in what’s looking remarkably like a new war. Only now the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) is not fighting the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, but rather alongside it against another ethnic faction which declined to join the NCA.
Amid a lacklustre line-up of eight mostly minuscule factions that finally signed up to the NCA, the RCSS was the only group that could actually claim to field a significant military force. Commanded by Yawd Serk, a wily former lieutenant of drug-lord Khun Sa, the group fields an estimated 6,000-7,000 fighters, mostly based along Thailand’s northern border, along with a small contingent in the north of Shan State near the Chinese border.
In recent years the RCSS hasn’t been doing much fighting. While in central parts of the state, their ethnic cousins of the Shan State Army (SSA) — also known as the SSA-North — have been the target of repeated offensives by the Myanmar military, Yawd Serk’s men have been focused on business interests in the south centred on gold mining and logging. The RCSS has also come under scrutiny from both the UN and western counter-narcotics agencies for its suspected role in the rampant narcotics trade along and across the Thai border.
The NCA appears to have opened the door for wider business opportunities. Shortly after the lavish October 15 cease-fire ceremony in Nay Pyi Taw, a contingent of some 200 RCSS fighters left the group’s headquarters on the Thai border and headed north to reinforce the small outpost in Namkham on the Chinese border. In late November in Namkham and nearby Mantong townships, the Shan expeditionary force clashed with local units of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). Not coincidentally, the ethnic Palaung TNLA is one faction in a loose alliance of northern insurgents including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the SSA-North and Kokang rebels, which had refused to join what they saw as a deeply flawed NCA.
Almost immediately, the TNLA claimed that the RCSS force had been supported by elements of the Tatmadaw’s 77th and 88th Light Infantry Divisions — an accusation RCSS chieftain Yawd Serk was quick to dismiss as “totally false”. But reports of RCSS-Tatmadaw cooperation did offer one explanation as to how a force of more than 200 Shan fighters had managed to travel the length of Shan State between the Thai and Chinese borders without being stopped by a military which maintains garrisons in every township along the way.
What began amid accusations and denials in late November became a lot clearer last month. Reports reaching Chiang Mai in mid-January indicated a second and larger RCSS contingent of 300 troops had also moved north, this time in Tatmadaw army trucks. Further clashes between the RCSS and TNLA followed with the area of conflict spreading west to Namhsan, Hsipaw and Kyaukme on the Mandalay-Lashio highway.
Beyond Yawd Serk’s initial denials, no public statements have been made about these events by either the RCSS or the Tatmadaw. But the weight of evidence suggests that RCSS participation in the NCA might have had less to do with peace and rather more with an alliance of mutual convenience with Myanmar’s military.
Such an alliance makes sense for both parties. Since early 2015 when the war in Kokang erupted, the Tatmadaw has been severely overstretched on multiple fronts across northern Myanmar. Encouraging the RCSS to move north in force and take on the recalcitrant TNLA brings a significant force into the fight on its side, while sowing further discord among the state’s patchwork of ethnic communities.
A second and parallel prong of a strategy of out-sourcing counter-insurgency has recently involved the Tatmadaw apparently setting up and arming a new group called the Shan-Ni (Red Shan) Nationalities Army (SNA) among ethnic Shan communities in southern Kachin state. Again, the objective is clear: fan local ethnic tensions and, in this case, undermine the dominant KIA.
The use of ethnic proxies is history repeating itself. The Tatmadaw turned to the same divide-and-rule strategy in the 1990s when it encouraged the United Wa State Army to go south to the Thai border to fight the Shan; and when it armed the break-away Democratic Karen Buddhist Army against the Karen National Union.
For the RCSS, meanwhile, extending its footprint from the Thai border to northern Shan State also offers real benefits. Some of these are political: Yawd Serk’s group will almost certainly seek to project itself among the Shan population as the successor to the SSA-North, which since 2010 has all but collapsed in the north-west of the state and is now under constant Tatmadaw pressure close to its headquarters near the Salween River in the central region.
Cynics are inclined to suspect there may also be commercial opportunities for the RCSS given the large quantities of both heroin and methamphetamine produced in the north. Over the last two years, local pro-government "people’s militia forces" (PMFs), responsible for most of the production but weakened by mounting TNLA attacks, could well be overshadowed by the intervention of RCSS forces.
But while tragedy was repeating itself in Myanmar, a charming element of farce was playing out in Europe. Even as his troops headed north in army trucks to open a new front in a new war, Yawd Serk, along with an RCSS entourage, was enjoying the hospitality of the Swiss government as a champion of peace and dialogue. Evidently a reward for his commitment to the NCA, the low-key trip to Switzerland offered a retreat from the cut-and-thrust of ethnic politics to study the intricacies of cease-fire mechanisms and federal democracy.
History does not relate how much this all-expenses-paid flight of fancy cost the Swiss taxpayer, though it was doubtless small change in the wider picture of the tens of millions of dollars being thrown at the "peace process" by western governments eager to declare Myanmar finally and officially open for business.
It is not clear how much Yawd Serk benefited from exposure to Swiss models of good governance. What is certain though is that now he’s back on home turf, the cease-fire poster-boy will be turning his attention to an expanding war and the business opportunities that will come with it.
Anthony Davis is a security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane’s.