Over the last three weeks, fighting has broken out in Myanmar’s northeast between the military and several ethnic minority militias, including the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and, allegedly, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA is one of the most powerful insurgent groups in Myanmar. At least 30,000 civilians have fled across the border into China, and the fighting has killed at least 130 people. The Myanmar military has attacked rebel groups with air strikes, and the fighting shows no sign of letting up.
The fighting began on February 9, when Kokang rebels attacked government troops in the town of Laukkai and the Myanmar army launched a fierce counterattack. The exact reasons for the clash on February 9 remain somewhat unclear. The fighting may stem from a personal feud between the Kokang group’s leader and the Myanmar armed forces’ commander in chief, or it may have been sparked by a desire by the Kokang militia to take back control of Laukkai. Or, the attack may have been retaliation for previous unreported attacks on Kokang fighters by the Myanmar military. Or, it may have stemmed from a dispute over drug trafficking and its profits; the northeast of Myanmar is one of the biggest producers of opium and synthetic methamphetamine stimulants in Asia.
Still, the broader security environment in Myanmar clearly has played a role in this recent outbreak of fighting. Indeed, the Kokang clashes with the Burmese army are reflective of several disturbing trends in Myanmar – trends that, if they continue, could undermine the country’s peace process and possibly lead to a wider outbreak of civil war. For one, it remains unclear whether the president has total control over the military. Did President Thein Sein order Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to hit back so hard against the Kokang, or did the military move essentially on its own? Any lack of civilian control of the military under a president who is a former general himself is hardly going to improve if the National League for Democracy (NLD) wins the 2015 elections and takes over the reins of government, since the NLD is even less trusted by senior military men. The lack of clear channels of control over the military remains a major impediment to a national peace deal that includes all insurgent groups.
In addition, this fighting reveals that, although the government is pushing for a nationwide, long-term peace deal with all the remaining insurgent armies, it is still far from gaining the trust of many insurgent leaders. Such trust is a necessary predecessor for any permanent peace. Naypyidaw wanted to announce a nationwide cease-fire, a step toward a permanent peace, by Union Day, a national holiday that takes place on February 12. That date was missed.
Yet many of the insurgents do not trust the government to follow through on any promises, and a nationwide cease-fire appears unlikely anytime soon. Naypyidaw has not helped the process of trust-building by repeatedly attacking the KIA in recent years and by demanding that insurgent groups make major concessions, such as disarming, before the government responds with reciprocal concessions. Although the Kokang insurgent group is relatively small, the KIA has been reported to have at least 8,000 fighters under arms. The KIA will be critical to any nationwide peace deal.
Finally, the conflict in northeastern Myanmar is a reminder that narcotrafficking remains a major source of income for several insurgent groups, including the most powerful of them all, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which reportedly has ties to the Kokang. Although it is unclear whether the Kokang battle is related to a dispute over drugs or drug profits, the leader of the Kokang insurgents, Peng Jiasheng, reportedly has a long history of involvement in the drug trade, according to journalist Bertil Lintner, the leading authority on narcotrafficking in northern and northeast Myanmar. The UWSA, meanwhile, has been cited by the State Department and many foreign diplomats in Myanmar as one of the world’s most heavily armed narcotrafficking organizations.
How will Naypyidaw address narcotics production in the northeast as part of any long-term peace deal? Narcotics have allegedly become the essential ingredient in the survival of the UWSA and several other groups, and in previous ceasefires the government in Myanmar essentially allowed the UWSA to keep producing drugs, as long as it refrained from attacking government forces. But this is not a model for a long-term deal.