Thousands Have Been Displaced And Fled Due To The Escalated Tensions In Northern Myanmar

As tensions between Myanmar’s military and ethnic militant groups escalated in northern Myanmar, thousands of Myanmar people have been displaced or fled their homes. As reported by CCTV and the Dhaka Tribune, 2,600 people have been displaced and are temporarily living in monasteries in the town of Muse, and over 3,000 people have fled across the border into China due to the escalated conflict since 20 November 2016. Earlier this week, Geng Shuang, the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, expressed that the local government in China’s southern province, Yunnan, has made the appropriate arrangements for the people who fled across the border into China. In addition, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called on conflict parties in northern Myanmar to deescalate the tensions immediately. Concerning about border security, China expressed its willingness to help by offering a constructive resolution to the prolonged Myanmar ethnic conflicts.

Myanmar’s dilemma

Despite the international community’s high expectation, Aung San Suu Kyi has not brought peace to Myanmar yet. In September 2016, the Myanmar government and military organized a new round of peace talks in NayPyiTaw, but the procedures and the results were mixed. Only 17 out of 41 ethnic militant groups have attended the meeting and some of them, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), have left the peace talks without reaching an agreement.

Witnessing the escalated tensions, oddly, the responses offered by the Myanmar government and the military are different. On the one hand, Aung San Suu Kyi has condemned the ethnic armed groups by conducting armed operations to achieve political goals. In addition, Suu Kyi also urged all the ethnic armed groups to attend the so-called 21st-century Panglong Conference to peacefully resolve the prolonged conflict. On the other hand, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) insisted that ‘the fighting will not stop.’ Colonel Mong Aik Kyaw of the Tatmadaw also stated that the military is changing the front from the rural areas to the town areas to continue the fighting against the ethnic armed groups.

Interestingly, the Kachin Independence Army explained the reasons why four ethnic armed groups launched military operations against the government and the military last week. According to the statement, the Tatmadaw is the main reason that triggered the escalated tensions. The Kachin Independence Army expressed its willingness to protect national reconciliation by explaining that the renewed operations launched by the ethnic armed groups were only aimed at fighting against the Tatmadaw’s pressure.

The responses offered by the Myanmar government, the Tatmadaw, and the ethnic armed groups have indicated the obstacles in Myanmar’s peace talks. The military operations and repressions of the Tatmadaw have certainly become a major issue in achieving national reconciliation. The government’s weak response to the military also shows that the government of Myanmar could not generate an effective control over the military. Indeed, the Tatmadaw controls 25% of the seats in Myanmar’s National Legislature. The 25% of the seats granted to the military is a constitutional veto to any potential government’s proposals that may hurt the military’s interests. In this situation, the civilian government of Myanmar may find itself in a dilemma that it could not control the military and, in turn, could not effectively initiate the peace talks.

Could China help Myanmar to resolve the ethnic issues?

Worrying about border security, China expressed its willingness to help by offering a constructive solution to the prolonged Myanmar ethnic conflict.

Although China has traditionally been reluctant to be involved in other nation’s domestic issues, the top officials of China expressed their supports for Myanmar’s peace talks. China has sent an envoy to help to facilitate the peace talks in late August and early September 2016.

However, China could not solve the Myanmar ethnic issues alone. From this writer’s point of view, to effectively de-escalate Myanmar’s ethnic tensions, the central government should decentralize the political power and grant ethnic minorities more autonomy. The consideration has come across the fact that the ethnic armed groups have effective controls over natural resources and economic activities, legally or illegally, in the border areas. If the government could not offer a substantial stake to the ethnic groups, it is not likely that the ethnic minorities will sacrifice more to join the Myanmar Union.

However, China may not open to the idea of political decentralization. Concerning internal security and stability, China will not be willing to publically help Myanmar to achieve political decentralization because that strategy may encourage China’s domestic ethnic groups to fight against the central government to achieve political autonomy.

Possible Solution

The international community should actively intervene into the conflict zones in northern Myanmar if the conflict keeps escalating. Given the fact that the Myanmar government could not generate an effective control over the military, the presence of the international community in the conflict zone may force the military to halt its operations. In addition, because the ethnic minorities have a deep distrust towards the Myanmar government and the military, the presence of the international community could also ease the tensions between the ethnic minorities, the government, and the military.

Despite the presence in the conflict zone, the international community should also play a constructive role in persuading different interest groups in Myanmar to come to the negotiation table. With the observation and facilitation of the international community, Myanmar may deescalate its prolonged ethnic tensions and the peace agreement may be achieved.