(Un)Stable Peace? Myanmar’s Ceasefire Agreement With Rebel Forces In The States Of Kachin And Shan

As the world’s attention is on the Rohingya crisis, the Myanmar military established a rare ceasefire agreement with rebel groups fighting in the Northern region of the country. The Tatmadaw – the name for the Myanmar military – agreed to cease all military operations in the States of Kachin and Shan from December 1st to April 30th. A notable, and arguably inevitable, exemption for this would be the Rakhine State, where the military continues its campaign against the Arakan Army (AA). The rebel groups in the North, however, referred to collectively as the Northern Alliance, have stressed the volatility of the agreement if the cessation of military operations does not encompass the Rakhine State. Consequently, reports have suggested that some rebel groups have since attacked the Tatmadaw and thus breached the ceasefire signed only 7 days ago.

The ceasefire agreement is praised by some as warranting cautious optimism in ending a decades’ long conflict. With regards to the ceasefire agreement, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing stated that the military would cease all military operations, “unless there is any attempt to… harm the lives and property of the people”. It is surprising then that following the alleged attacks on the Tatmadaw by the rebel groups, the military’s response was to stand by its ceasefire stance and instead react to such attacks with the rule of law; “ethnic affairs must be resolved within the framework of law only”.

Although a peaceful response to the conflict via the rule of law is welcomed, Marzuki Darusman highlighted within a UN Fact-Finding Mission in Myanmar that, “the reality is that there is no law and no institution in Myanmar that is above the Tatmadaw. Its supremacy is guaranteed in the Constitution”. In response, and like other countries that display human rights violations, such as the Philippines, the Commander-in-Chief rejected the findings as an infringement of Myanmar’s sovereignty.

Whilst reports claim that the rebel groups had attacked the military and not the other way around, it is important nonetheless to acknowledge the motives of the groups involved and the terms of the ceasefire itself. At the forefront, the National Alliance have stressed the importance of the ceasefire agreement encompassing the Rakhine State. It is difficult to understand in this regard how a sustainable peace can be achieved by advocating the rule of law in one State and continuing military action and its surrounding human rights violations in another.

The Kachin people, like the Rohingya, are a minority people in Myanmar. Predominately Christian, the population has been at conflict with the Myanmar government since 1961. The main aim of this struggle is for greater autonomy of the Kachin people in a Buddhist nation. Such awareness for the Kachin, however, has largely been overlooked, mostly due to the justified amount of attention given to the Rohingya crisis. Worsening this, the Myanmar military refers to the rebels as terrorist groups that seek only to destroy the integrity of the nation. Whilst not all actors view the rebels as terrorists, it certainly limits the available responses to the groups and disrupts international attention by simplifying a complex struggle for survival as merely a matter of counter-terrorism/insurgency.

Conflict in Myanmar, especially in the Shan and Kachin States, largely revolves around identity and autonomy. What makes the conflict in this Northern area of Myanmar so deadly is its relative invisibility compared to the Rohingya crisis. The UN report, commissioned by the Human Rights Council, has attempted to illustrate this. People are often targeted in the Shan and Kachin States purely because they share the same ethnicity as an armed group and subsequently, suffer from the human rights consequences of Tatmadaw operations. With Myanmar’s historical tendency to resort to violence in the face of threats, the military’s idealistic response to the ceasefire breach by advocating the rule of law, whilst is optimistic, is a step towards realising the protection of minorities in the region. This does not, however, justify the continued brutality to the Rohingya and the AA in the Rakhine State.