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The Karen Conflict: Divisions Challenge Myanmar’s Peace Process

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By Courtney Weatherby and Robert Hutton: 

Renewed fighting in Myanmar’s Mon and Karen States between factions of the Karen resistance and the Burmese military broke out in late September 2014, posing a new challenge to the already-foundering nationwide ceasefire negotiations. The immediate causes of this conflict can be traced to the failure to clearly delineate and agree on actual lines of control and a code of conduct, but the situation has been complicated by internal division within the Karen movement and suspicion that the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, is intentionally disrupting the peace process. The recent outbreak of violence highlights the serious trust deficit between ethnic groups and the government, as structural challenges and internal divisions pose obstacles in reaching an end to the civil war that has plagued Myanmar for decades. If the government is serious about negotiating a nation-wide ceasefire, it will need to address these structural challenges and moderate the Tatmadaw’s behavior.

The Karen are one of many ethnic groups which make up approximately 40% of Myanmar’s total population and like many other ethnic groups have been waging armed conflict against the central government since 1949 in an attempt to protect their autonomy. Most ethnic groups signed ceasefires in the late 1980s and early 1990s but breakouts of violence have continued. It was not until 2012 that Myanmar’s newly installed civilian government began nation-wide ceasefire negotiations with representatives from the most influential ethnic groups. The success of these talks is viewed as essential to the future of the country, with both ethnic groups and leaders within the central government seeking to find common ground on creating a federal system.

The latest outbreak in hostilities began after a September 26 confrontation between a detachment of the Tatmadaw and guerillas from the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) near the latter’s base in Mon State. The details of this incident remain unclear: the DKBA claims the soldiers entered its territory without prior authorization, while the government says its forces were attending pre-scheduled talks with rebel leaders. Both accounts indicate that the guerillas forcibly detained the soldiers and repelled a rescue attempt by nearby army units. Although the hostages were released, the fighting quickly spread to other areas in Mon and Karen States.

The conflict originally involved only the relatively small DKBA and Tatmadaw units, as the largest Karen rebel organization, the Karen National Union (KNU), was unwilling to get involved. Discord among the competing Karen groups has deep roots: prior to the early 1990s, the KNU was unchallenged in its leadership of militant Karen nationalism. However, the KNU’s overtly Christian ethos did not sit well with many Buddhist Karen. This disconnect led in 1994 to the formation of the DKBA, which accepted financial and military assistance from the Tatmadaw to fight the KNU. The two rival Karen groups have signed several reconciliation agreements, though in practice they operate autonomously.

The lack of clear demarcation between government-controlled areas and those held by guerilla forces — and in the case of the Karen, between various rival groups — has been a major obstacle to negotiating ceasefires. As a result, what one group views as routine and innocuous activity in an area they control can lead to unexpected clashes. This was the case on September 27 when the Burmese army clashed with the KNU’s Third Brigade in Karen State. This lack of clarity over territorial claims also complicates emergency negotiations: when Tatmadaw patrols are ambushed by gunfire or roadside bombs, suspicion falls on all factions operating in the immediate vicinity. If a crisis escalates, there is no single actor with which to negotiate. Agreement on a code of conduct would greatly enhance stability, but Myanmar’s government has said this must come after a nationwide ceasefire.

Somewhat ironically, the recurring violence between ethnic groups and the Tatmadaw may be strengthening cooperation and unity among the resistance: in early October the Tatmadaw launched an attack on DKBA territory near Kawkareik, a vital link on the highway between Yangon and the Thai border. This offensive provoked some members of the KNU’s military wing into meeting with the DKBA, and on October 14 these leaders unilaterally concluded a military cooperation pact between the two factions. The extent to which the Karen will successfully implement this pact is unclear, given signs that the highest echelons of the KNU reportedly disagree with the decision, but the Tatmadaw’s recent actions have clearly been a major factor in driving cooperation among some elements of the rebellion. This trend will likely continue unless the Burmese military exercises more restraint.

The structural problems the Karen face in dealing with the Tatmadaw — and the intermittent crises that result — are present in many of the country’s ongoing ethnic conflicts. Fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin in 2011 was partially sparked by the intrusion of Burmese troops into areas near the Dapein Dam, which was under the control of the Kachin Independence Organization at the time. The Tatmadaw’s intrusions ultimately strengthened the unity of the Kachin. Following an October 3 attack on a Shan State Army-North base, Shan factions also stepped up political cooperation, with many indicating that they feel the Tatmadaw is deliberately attacking groups to disrupt the peace process.

Both the government under President Thein Sein and the Tatmadaw have long insisted that they view a nationwide ceasefire as a vital prerequisite for political and economic development. The regular eruption of fighting in various states is detrimental to these efforts, due both to the disruptive impact for individual ethnic groups’ ability and willingness to participate in the ceasefire process and because it reinforces concerns that the Tatmadaw is not serious about changing the way it interacts with minority groups. The stalemate of negotiations between the Tatmadaw and ethnic groups over the creation of a federal army and the absence of political solutions compound these concerns. If the government and Tatmadaw do not adopt a coordinated, peaceful approach, a national ceasefire will remain little more than a dream.

Follow Stimson’s Southeast Asia program and Stimson on Twitter.

Photo credit: Prachatai via Flickr

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