Sideshow in Myanmar

The National League for Democracy celebrated its first year in power recently, and the record of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s young government, which succeeded decades of military rule, already is disappointing some ethnic groups and outside observers, notably when it comes to human rights. But these shortcomings also reflect the staggering challenges of pursuing the country’s transition to democracy, and some of the unexpected side effects.

Consider the conflict in Kachin, a northern state nestled between India and China. I last was in Myitkyina, the state capital, in February. Valentine’s Day was quiet in the city. Couples had gathered in tea shops for strawberry juices. Teddy bears wrapped in plastic were being sold in front of gift shops and churches. Yet just a few miles away, the Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw, was conducting a major offensive.
A small skirmish between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (K.I.A.) in June 2011 has degenerated into the most widespread and intense armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, the fighting has killed hundreds of people and displaced some 100,000 people in Kachin and neighboring Northern Shan State.

Like dozens of other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, the Kachin have been clamoring for more autonomy at least since the country’s independence in 1948. At first they demanded independence, too; today the K.I.A. wants Myanmar to become a federal union, with more power granted to regional authorities.

A village in Kachin State, Myanmar, controlled by the Kachin Independence Army, which was among the first groups to sign a cease-fire with the former ruling junta. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

The current conflict in Kachin erupted precisely as Myanmar was beginning its transition toward democracy, in 2011, after more than a half-century of military dictatorship. It has only worsened lately, even though during its year in power the government of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly said that peace and national reconciliation are its highest priorities. The Kachin crisis looks like a casualty of liberalization in Myanmar, or at least like one of its great paradoxes.

The K.I.A. was among the first groups to sign a cease-fire with the former ruling junta. That was in 1994, and for nearly two decades after that the main Kachin political group, the Kachin Independence Organization (K.I.O.), administered large swathes of Kachin and Northern Shan. It was a period of extraordinary cohabitation with the military authorities. The K.I.O., while waiting for a permanent settlement of its political demands, operated as a state within a state, providing health care, education and electricity to the Kachin people.

But problems remained. Accommodation brought the K.I.O. serious criticism. Some Kachin leaders became rapacious. Fundamental questions about the exploitation and management of natural resources in the area, which is said to host the world’s largest reserve of jade, were never settled. Neither were the specifics of any future political arrangement that might allocate greater power to local authorities.

Those issues were bound to flare up, and they have precisely as Myanmar has been democratizing. The specific challenges of the Kachin conflict are now hostage to the broader difficulties of seeing through Myanmar’s political liberalization.

Principal among those difficulties is the thorny task of redefining relations between civilian and military authorities.

Even under the nominally government of President U Thein Sein, the situation in Kachin occasionally seemed beyond civilian management: Twice, for example, the Tatmadaw ignored truces called by the president. Likewise, the current fighting in Kachin and the worsening humanitarian situation there are calling into question the clout of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration over the Tatmadaw.

Although the military has pulled back from some political institutions in recent years, under the junta-drafted 2008 Constitution it retains control of several critical ministries and, in effect, veto power in Parliament, among other prerogatives. There is still no civilian oversight of military activities.

Partly as a result, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has made very few inroads regarding any of Myanmar’s numerous ethnic disputes. Existing cease-fires in Southern Shan and Karen states are under strain. Military activity has increased against groups that haven’t signed any bilateral cease-fire deals with the army, such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

Another reason for this deterioration is the fact that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has taken it upon herself personally to lead the negotiations with various ethnic armed groups — replacing a team of seasoned high-ranking military officers who used to handle them. But she has none of their experience or their connections to local actors.

Over the years, the former junta had reached various more or less explicit cease-fire deals with some 40 armed groups. After the military government turned nominally civilian in 2011, some of these arrangements, many of which had been left unwritten, were formalized: Within a few years, some 14 ethnic armed groups signed individual cease-fire agreements. Then in 2015, shortly before the general election that would bring Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power, the Thein Sein government proposed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (N.C.A.), a comprehensive deal that would supposedly pave the way for a broader political dialogue about the eventual creation of a federal system and perhaps also constitutional reform.

Seven armed groups (and one student union) signed the N.C.A. But many more, including signatories to bilateral cease-fires, such as the New Mon State Party or the Karenni National Progressive Party, refused, balking at the lack of guarantees that political concessions would follow and at the government’s refusal to negotiate with insurgents who were still fighting. The peace process slowed down.

Under Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, it seems to have nearly stalled. At first she criticized the N.C.A., especially the Thein Sein government’s insistence that signing it was a precondition for participation in any future political discussions. Last year, she organized with great pomp a first grand meeting of her own peace initiative, the 21st Century Panglong conference. But it quickly became clear that she would struggle to achieve more than her predecessors, partly since she would need the cooperation of the Tatmadaw. She, too, now says armed groups must sign the N.C.A. if they hope to participate in the so-called political dialogue.

It has not been confirmed whether the K.I.O., and some of its allies among other ethnic armed groups, will attend the next peace conference, now scheduled, after many delays, for late April or early May. They are in an awkward position: dismayed by the government’s confusing signaling and shifting positions, but careful not to criticize Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi directly. Opposing her might be counterproductive because, despite mounting criticism, she still commands respect.

Gen. Gun Maw, the K.I.O.’s vice chairman, was asked by The Irrawaddy newspaper earlier this year what he thought of her administration’s relative silence on the Kachin crisis. “I don’t want to make any critical comments,” he said. “But as the government does not say anything, it appears that it is encouraging the offensives.”

Of the power dynamic between the administration and the military authorities, he said: “It is complete nonsense to say the government and the Tatmadaw are separate.”

At a minimum, the generals are still kingmakers in Myanmar.

Carine Jaquet, a political analyst and development-aid specialist, is an associate researcher at the Research Institute for Contemporary Southeast Asia in Yangon.

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