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Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive
Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Rebel soldiers of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) gather at a military base in Kokang, Myanmar, on 11 March 2015. REUTERS
Briefing 146 / Asia

Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive

A ceasefire between Myanmar’s government and armed groups is tantalising close. It would end 60 years of armed conflict and ease the path of democratic transition. But time is short before historic elections on 8 November, and any failure to seal an accord could trigger renewed clashes that would be hard to bring back under control.

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I. Overview

After more than six decades of internal armed conflict, the next four weeks could be decisive for Myanmar’s peace process. The process, which was launched in August 2011, enjoyed significant initial success, as bilateral ceasefires were agreed with more than a dozen ethnic armed groups. But signing a nationwide ceasefire and proceeding to the political dialogue phase has been much more difficult. Four years on, with campaigning for the November elections already underway, a deal remains elusive. It is unclear whether a breakthrough can be achieved before the elections. Outside pressure will not be productive, but the progress to date needs to be locked in, and public international commitments to support the integrity of the process and stand with the groups that sign can now be of critical importance.

A delegation of ethnic armed group leaders met with President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw on 9 September, in what was widely seen as a last-ditch effort to sign a ceasefire agreement before the elections. While both sides showed flexibility and avoided deadlock, no conclusive agreement was reached. Further discussions among armed group leaders and with government negotiators will be needed to determine which groups will sign and to fix a date for the ceremony, foreshadowed for early October.

Hopes had risen on 31 March 2015, when negotiators finalised and initialled a proposed agreement that had been approved at the highest levels of government. However, a summit of armed group leaders rejected it on 9 June, proposing several further amendments and establishing a new negotiating team. They also decided that no group would sign unless all did, including three currently fighting the military in the Kokang region, who, the government insists, must lay down their weapons or agree bilateral ceasefires first.

Despite this, both sides subsequently worked hard to revive the process, and two further rounds of talks were held in July and August. A slightly revised ceasefire agreement was finalised, leaving the issue of which armed groups could sign the text as the last significant point of contention. Some armed groups signalled their willingness to sign, while others stuck to their position that any signing must be inclusive. The meeting with the president was intended to forge a compromise to overcome this last hurdle. But despite long and detailed discussions, doubts persist about which groups will sign, and when. Key will be the Kachin Independence Organization, which is in a particularly difficult position; a bold decision and strong leadership will be required if it is to overcome its concerns.

What transpires in the peace process has important implications for the elections in ethnic areas. A nationwide ceasefire would boost trust between the armed groups and the government. The lack of a deal would make it significantly more challenging to arrange voting in conflict-affected areas and mean polling is likely to be cancelled in more places, increasing the risk of clashes or electoral security problems. In addition, persistent legal restrictions regarding the election commission and political parties’ engagement with armed groups make it much harder to create the conditions of trust and security needed for credible, peaceful elections in areas they control or influence.

Medium- and long-term consequences are potentially extensive. If no deal is reached in the coming weeks, it will be many months before the peace process can be reactivated, and it is unlikely the text can simply be dusted off and signed. Many of the obstacles will remain: a mutual trust deficit and ongoing fighting raising further doubts. There will be an inevitable change in interlocutors, since the new administration will likely appoint a new lead negotiator, a military reshuffle has seen senior officers involved in the process retiring, and there will undoubtedly be new legislative representatives. Progress at that point is unlikely to be quick or easy.

This is not a perfect or even strong ceasefire agreement: military issues such as force separation, demarcation and verification are vague, not included, or require further agreement to come into force. It nevertheless represents a major success given the complex situation. If signed, it could pave the way for a more comprehensive political settlement. If not, the risk is that an inevitable loss of momentum in the peace process could precipitate an upsurge in armed clashes and less effective means to de-escalate them. Fighting in Shan and Kachin states and pockets of Kayin state could intensify and spread, possibly setting the process back further. Rising Burman Buddhist nationalism and the demands of a majority Burman electorate could also make it difficult for the next government to offer as many concessions.

The peace process is home-grown, without any international mediators, and it should remain so – this has been one of its great strengths. But the international community has been providing advice, and now is a critical moment for it to take a public stand – not in terms of pressure on the armed groups to sign the agreement, but rather public assurances of continued political support, close scrutiny of the process and appropriate assistance to affected communities. As one of two formal observers to the process (together with China), the UN has a particularly important opportunity, and obligation, to act.

Otherwise, there is a real risk that the best chance in over 60 years for a negotiated political settlement could be lost. This would not mean a return to the widespread insurgency of decades past, which is politically, economically and militarily unsustainable for many groups. But it would mean deep grievances remain unaddressed, borderland insecurity and militarisation persist, and the state-building project remains incomplete. All sides must work to avoid such an outcome, which would be to the great detriment of the whole country and all its peoples.

Yangon/Brussels, 16 September 2015 

Police officers and volunteers walk during the national census in a Rohingya village in Sittwe, on 31 March 2014. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Commentary / Asia

Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority

Large coordinated attacks hit three Myanmar border police posts in the troubled Rakhine State on 9 October. In this Q&A, Crisis Group Myanmar Adviser Richard Horsey warns that it could tip simmering tensions between the beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority and the government into wider, open conflict.

What’s new in the Rakhine State attacks?

At least 250 assailants, and perhaps as many as 500-800, launched simultaneous early morning attacks on 9 October on three border police posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships near Myanmar’s north-western border with Bangladesh, according to information released by the government. They were armed mostly with knives and slingshots, as well as about 30 firearms. Nine police officers were killed and the attackers fled with at least 50 guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. In subsequent days there have been further deadly clashes between this group and the security forces.

The attacks were carried out by Muslims, according to both government statements and local sources. An unverified video of the attackers, filmed in the wake of the attacks, has been circulating on social networks and seems legitimate. In it, one of the group calls on “all Rohingya around the world to prepare for jihad and join them”. This, the need for local knowledge to carry out the assaults, and the difficulty of moving large numbers of people around this area are all suggestive of local Muslim involvement – possibly organised with some outside support. However, many details of who exactly organised this and how remain unclear.

The attacks mark a major escalation of violence in Rakhine. The number of attackers and their sophisticated tactics – they used a diversionary attack to draw the defenders out of one of the posts before the main assault began – display an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that has to date seen little sign of organised violent resistance from the oppressed Muslim population.

Who do you think was behind the attacks? Are Rohingya forces to blame?

There is clear evidence that many of the attackers were from the Rohingya community, who make up over 90 per cent of the population in this area of Rakhine State. But it is not clear how they were organised.

Rakhine’s 1.3 million Muslims, most of whom identify as Rohingya, are effectively stateless in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Years of intercommunal tensions exploded into violence in 2012, leaving some 200 people dead and driving 150,000 into squalid camps where most still languish. There has been a sense of creeping despair among the Rohingya that nothing is going to change, although Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, recently announced that an advisory commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would look at possible solutions for the stand-off in Rakhine.

The Rohingya have not had any organised armed force for many years. Some local government officials are suggesting that an armed group called the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) is responsible, but this group is not known to have been active since the 1990s. Rakhine nationalists and state officials, and sometimes Bangladesh, have blamed this group in the past for such security incidents, usually without detailed evidence being provided.

There was a series of deadly attacks on Myanmar Border Guard Police patrols in northern Maungdaw in February and May 2014, including one on 17 May that left four officers dead. In the tense period that followed, there were firefights between Myanmar and Bangladesh border forces, including one in which a Bangladeshi soldier was killed. In mid-July 2014, a senior humanitarian official told Crisis Group that the authorities restricted humanitarian access to parts of northern Rakhine State on the grounds of unspecified “RSO activity” in that area.

In May 2016, some 35 armed attackers stormed a security post at a camp for Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh just across the border from Maungdaw, killing one camp commander and capturing eleven weapons. The attackers were allegedly led by a Pakistani national, along with others from Myanmar and Bangladesh, with the RSO being implicated, according to the Bangladeshi police.

Given the lack of clear evidence in all these cases, new claims as to the identity of any organisation behind the recent attacks should be treated with caution until further information becomes available.

Does the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation really exist?

The RSO is considered by most regional security analysts to have been long defunct as an armed organisation. The question is whether it has been reconstituted, or whether a new grouping with similar aims has now emerged. The RSO was established in 1982, along the lines of Myanmar’s many other ethnic insurgent organisations engaging in conventional attacks on military and strategic targets. The RSO never gained much traction and did not pose a serious military threat. In the 1980s and 1990s it had some small bases in remote parts of Bangladesh near the border with Myanmar; at least in recent decades it had none on Myanmar soil.

There may have been efforts, in the wake of the 2012 violence, to rehabilitate the RSO as an armed organisation, driven by a new generation of local-level leaders. According to a local Rohingya leader who claimed to be one of the leaders of this effort, whom Crisis Group met with in 2014, their aim was not separatist, anti-Buddhist or jihadi in nature; rather, it was for their community to live as citizens of Myanmar with their rights respected by the state. The objective was to reconstitute the RSO as an insurgent force focused on attacking the state security apparatus (police, border police and military). Crisis Group interviews at the time suggested there was a modicum of support for this among some members of the population, who saw it as the only path left open to them. But most of the population was and still is opposed to violent resistance.

At the same time, security forces and political actors in both Myanmar and Bangladesh may have their own reasons for invoking the RSO, including to raise the spectre of an organised radical Islamic group to justify crackdowns or restrictions on the Rohingya population.

It is not yet clear whether the RSO has been reactivated, or a new mujahidin group has emerged with similar aims, or the recent attacks are a local uprising without a permanent institutional structure. However, what is extremely worrying is that a new threshold of violence has been passed.

Is Myanmar about to see new levels of violence related to the Rohingya issue?

The fact that influential individuals have considered violence as a strategy for regaining Rohingya rights and citizenship does not mean that such a strategy can successfully take root. There remain serious obstacles to establishing and sustaining a militant Rohingya organisation capable of targeting the security forces, including the extremely restrictive environment in northern Rakhine State and a longstanding sense among much of the Rohingya population and many religious leaders that violence would be counterproductive.

The environment in Bangladesh is also not very conducive to cross-border operations of the kind the RSO used to mount in decades past, sometimes with the support of Bangladeshi militant groups. Bangladesh is cracking down on its own extremist organisations as part of a broader perceived terrorist threat against the country.

As for transnational terrorist networks, these have often expressed concern for and solidarity with the Rohingya, and made some general threats – including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Islamic State, and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. However, there have so far been no indications that Myanmar has been an operational priority for these networks.

How will these attacks change the situation in Rakhine State?

Regardless of who was behind the recent attacks, they are likely to have a serious impact on the political, human rights and humanitarian situation in Rakhine State. These impacts will be both short-term and longer-term.

A major security operation was launched following the attacks, to lock down the area in an effort to capture the attackers and recover the looted weapons and ammunition. There are already reports of multiple casualties over the past 48 hours as a result of that operation.

For the foreseeable future, increased security operations in northern Rakhine will attempt to prevent any further incident of this kind. Given the security forces’ history of bad treatment of the local Muslim population, this risks creating further tension, abuses and negative impact on livelihoods.

Violent incidents – or the possibility of them – have been used to temporarily restrict humanitarian access to parts of Rakhine State in the past, and temporary movement restrictions on international agencies have been imposed by the authorities in response to the 9 October incident; it remains to be seen how long these will remain in effect.

Security fears are part of the reason for the continued imposition of a curfew in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships under section 144 of the Myanmar Code of Criminal Procedure. The 11pm to 4am curfew order was most recently renewed on 8 August 2016 for two months and includes restrictions on gatherings of five or more people in public areas or at mosques. As a result of the latest incident, the curfew has been extended, and now runs from 7pm to 6am. This impacts people’s livelihoods and means that in practice attending Friday prayers is prohibited – a much-resented religious and social restriction.

Government worries about security are among justifications for tightened checkpoints and severe restrictions on the movement of Muslims in northern Rakhine State. These are a major source of vulnerability, limiting access to health and education services, jobs and livelihoods. Any possibility that these restrictions might be eased has now receded.

Overall, efforts to find solutions to the situation in Rakhine state, including the work of the Annan Commission, will now be very much more difficult.

Will there be any broader impacts on Myanmar?

The 9 October incident will have major ramifications across Myanmar.

It will amplify the general sense of insecurity about Islam and about an Islamic extremist threat in Myanmar; the radical nationalist monk U Wirathu has already taken to social media calling for the security forces to take all necessary steps to “protect the sovereignty of the nation and its citizens”. These events risk strengthening radical Buddhist nationalist groups that had been on the back foot since the elections. They can exacerbate intercommunal tensions across the country, and make it harder for moderate voices to be heard – with a potential spillover effect to other parts of Myanmar with a large Muslim presence.

This all represents a significant new challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempts to steer Myanmar in a more tolerant direction.