The omens are far from rosy for a February meeting scheduled as a step forward in ending Myanmar's seven decades-long ethnic conflict.
The first meeting, held in September 2016, was named after the historic Panglong Conference in 1947 at Panglong in the Shan States between ethnic minority leaders and Aung San, the head of the interim Burmese government. Before significant progress could be made, Aung San was assassinated.
Troubling developments have come to the fore in recent months, beginning with renewed violence in Rakhine State, where about 145,000 people have been displaced by intercommunal violence since 2012. On Oct.9, assailants attacked three Border Guard Police posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships, stealing 62 weapons, over 10,000 rounds of ammunition and killing nine policemen, according to the authorities. A report by the International Crisis Group linked the operation to the Harakah al-Yaqin and argued that the group has connections with the Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia.
“The emergence of this well-organized, apparently well-funded group is a game changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine State,” the authors wrote, noting that the development is directly related to the hardships and the discrimination suffered by the Rohingya community in recent years.
The whole area is currently under lockdown and it is hard to verify information, but in their search for the attackers, security forces have deployed scorched-earth tactics against local civilians. A report by Amnesty International details allegations of ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and sexual violence, while both Amnesty International and Human Righst Watch reported the burning of as many as 1,500 buildings.
And Rakhine is hardly the government's only problem. Conflict is also dragging on in Kachin and Shan States, where the army is staging offensives against insurgents. An exception to the rule came on November 20, when the Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B) – a newly-formed alliance comprising the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – drew first blood, attacking police stations and military targets close to Muse, a town on the border with China.
According to one long-time Myanmar analyst, the operation ought to be seen as a sign of frustration. “This is a new strategy which has developed because the Burma army failed to accommodate the ethnic requests,” said the observer, who did not wish to be named. “They had no real choice but to try a new strategy. They really did not have a lot of options.”
If the goal was to show that new military offensives would cause retaliation, the Alliance seems to have failed to convince the Tatmadaw - Burmese for “military” - for clashes have continued ever since, culminating in the fall of the KIA's Gidon post on December 17. Sitting on a strategic hill, the post is located insurgents' capital of Laiza and their northern brigades.
Ongoing clashes are having an impact on civilians, with people fleeing their homes and in some cases scuttling across Myanmar's borders. According to the United Nations, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) stands at 218,000, including 87,000 in Kachin State and 11,000 in Shan State. Nearly 80 percent of those are women and children, some of whom have been displaced multiple times.
Fighting is also eroding confidence in the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi - who may not be the formal President, but is the de-facto leader of the government - both inside and outside the country, as became clear a few days ago, when 12 fellow Nobel Prize winners sent an open letter to the United Nations decrying her lack of resolve in Rakhine.
“Despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas,” reads the letter, which adds a chilling remark: “[the situation in Rakhine] has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies - Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo.”
As many observers have noted, the underlying problem is that whatever the government may think, its powers are limited, for the Constitution approved in 2008 grants control of security-related matters as well as a veto power over constitutional amendments to the armed forces, which may explain why civilian authorities have done their best not to anger the Tatmadaw.
By and large, Naypyidaw is sticking with the framework set up by the previous semi-civilian government when it comes to the peace process. Under such approach, the AA, MNDAA and TNLA – all of which are part of the Northern Alliance – have been singled out from the rest of the armed organizations and asked to sign a statement saying they will lay down their weapons before they are permitted to join in the peace process.
"The three groups expected the new government would allow them to participate in the peace process, but the government has followed the same pattern of their predecessors," says Yan Myo Thein, a veteran political analyst. "I think they are concerned with the recommendations of the army. The role of the army is very important."
The three bête noires have predictably refused to oblige. Without them, most other ethnic armed groups opted out of the deal, too, effectively sinking the National Ceasefire Agreement signed in 2015, which was “national” only in name. Things may change in February, but it is easy to understand why optimism is in such short supply – as the conflict persists in the north and violence flares in Rakhine State, chances that much progress will be made are ever slimmer.
“I think the one held in October was not a conference, it was a paper reading session and an exposure of the wounds suffered for more than five decades," says Yan Myo Thein. "This time it is very important not to repeat the paper reading session. We need an all-inclusive ceasefire, this is vital. But the fighting is ongoing and this is why we cannot expect a very high outcome.”
Michele Penna is based in Southeast Asia and is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel