Myanmar’s civilian government is coming under increasing fire on all fronts. Or so it would seem. The UN, the US and China have all chipped in, to make the Lady’s life increasingly difficult, in one-way or another.
But if the government was not facing enough trouble trying to arrange the return of nearly a million Muslim refugees — who fled to Bangladesh to escape the violence in the strife-torn western region of Rakhine — there has been intense fresh fighting in Kachin state causing thousands of civilians to flee the violence, and skirmishes in Shan and Karen states all adding to the government’s woes.
To make matters worse, relations between the country’s “dual leaders” – the State Counselor Aung Sa Suu Kyi and the army commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing are at an all time low. And now to make matters worse, the astrologers have joined in, predicting a power shift or change before the end of September.
These doomsayers say the thirty-year curse is about to befall the country again, pointing to the two previous cataclysmic years of 1958 – when fighting in parliament forced the then prime minister U Nu to effectively hand over power to the army chief General Ne Win that continued until 1988 – when mass pro-democracy protests led to a military coup and thousands of deaths. And now to 2018 when some earth-shattering event will transpire to topple the government.
But while these astrological predictions defy the current reality on the ground in Myanmar, the country has nevertheless reached a critical stage, with the country entering a dangerous and precarious period, with increased divisions, disappointments and frustrations that do not auger well for the future. And there are few signs that this situation is going to change soon.
The government’s much vaunted peace process is fast crumbling because of the government’s lack of vision and the ethnic groups’ escalating disaffection. Most ethnic armed organisations – both those who have signed the national ceasefire agreement and those who are yet to sign – are seriously thinking about not attending the next Panglong ‘peace’ Conference – tentatively scheduled to meet weeks from now, though it was postponed one already this year. “How can we attend a peace conference while the Myanmar military are attacking us, and are people are fleeing for their lives,” said an ethnic Kachin leader, who declined to be identified.
This apparent hypocrisy has alarmed many ethnic leaders – even those relatively unaffected by the current military campaign. And they have good cause to be concerned. Some 7,400 people have been internally displaced in Kachin State since early April, adding to the 100,000 already displaced there that have had no humanitarian assistance from the UN because the military refuse them access to this area.
About 2,000 of these civilians spent some four weeks trapped in the jungle after fleeing the fighting in the conflict zone around Awng Lat, though they have now reportedly relocated to other towns in Kachin State. Many more remain trapped in areas of active fighting, from where it is extremely difficult to escape — through mountains and forests – but are in urgent need of humanitarian support.
More recently Shan State, this weekend, some 20 civilians were reportedly killed and at least 20 others injured in attacks by armed groups, with the military mounting an offensive in response. Apparently three Chinese citizens were killed in the crossfire, prompting Beijing to call for an end to the fighting along their border. There are also reports that the military has used heavy weaponry and aerial bombing in the region – something the Kachin complained is commonly used against them. More than 600 people have been displaced in Namtu Township in northern Shan.
This fighting and the military’s disregard for the civilian population has incensed civil society and community groups, spurning a new spate of peace protests, in the Kachin capital Myitkina and Yangon. The draconian response of the security forces, especially in Yangon, has only enflame the protest movement. While significant numbers of civilians remain trapped in dire circumstances, these peace protests are unlikely to subside. Kachin activists, who have speared headed the protests predict that these marches are going to grow and develop into a nation-wide peace movement.
The government so far, has been slow to respond to these protests, and more importantly the situation on the ground in the north. Public anger amongst the ethnic groups, particularly the Kachin, is only going to continue to simmer until the government tackles the humanitarian crisis left in the wake of the military’s campaign and brings the army to heel. Though the ethnic communities understand the army is the key culprit, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation is now seriously suffering in these ethnic areas. “She is dead to us, completely dead to us,” a leading Kachin activist told SAM recently. And this does not augur well for the elections in 2020, where the ethnic vote could be crucial. There is no doubt that here the National League for Democracy will not win the electoral support of the voters, who are turning to ethnic political parties.
Aung San Suu Kyi seems paralyzed: besieged on all fronts and incapable of offering a vision for change, the political slogan that she put forward in 2015, which then captured the hearts and minds of the whole country. The government is like Don Quitote, the fictitious Spanish nobleman who famously does battle with a windmill, with token responses in all directions. Defending the country against allegations of human rights abuse – tantamount ethnic cleansing and with the hallmarks of genocide, according to a plethora of UN reports, working on plans for the repatriation and resettlement of the Muslim refugees, and trying to kick start the economy.
They are virtually doing this alone as the international community has turned its back on its once celebrated heroine. And while Myanmar is not friendless: the region, through Asean, China, India and Russia support them; this may yet prove to be a poisoned chalice. What is immediately needed is a comprehensive strategy and plan to deal with the most pressing crisis, at least as far as the international community is concerned, Rakhine. And concurrently, a serious peace plan for the whole country, that the military actively supports.
Certainly the government has a rudimentary blueprint for Rakhine – based on the recommendations of the Annan commission into Rakhine – in the Union Enterprise for humanitarian assistance, resettlement and development in Rakhine, it lacks vision and substance. Aung San Suu Kyi understands that the UN’s support and involvement – especially on the ground – is central to the success of the government’s effort to sort out the problems of Rakhine. The much-awaited MoU between Myanmar and the UN’s two main organisations that would be involved — the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – is days away from being signed according to government insiders.
But the appointment of the UN secretary general’s special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, a seasoned Swiss diplomat, could provide an important focus for increased cooperation between the UN and Myanmar in resolving some of the problems Myanmar currently faces, and help deflect international criticism. She is currently in New York discussing the terms of reference of her appointment and preparing for the long road ahead.
So far, according to diplomats in Yangon, she is facing a very tall order, as her mission at present includes Rakhine, the peace process, supporting the government in the run up to the 2020 elections, and eliminating poverty and inequality. She is expected to make her first official visit to Myanmar at the beginning of June. Much now rests on her shoulders to coax the Myanmar government to be proactive and imaginary in their efforts to solve the problems facing them.
Much rests on her shoulders, and expectations are high. The UN Security Council in endorsing her appointment, said they hope should could help “to resolve the crisis and create the conditions allowing the safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation of refugees to their homes in Rakhine State”. That of course remains a tall order, but substantial progress on this, could help Myanmar and its beleaguered leader, Aung San Suu Kyi gain some much needed breathing space.