Since independence, much of the country’s borderlands with China have remained beyond government control. The KIA administered much of Kachin State while the powerful Communist Party of Burma (CPB) controlled large amounts of territory along the China border and supported an array of other ethnic armed groups. Securing control of the northern Shan and Kachin borderland region has been central to the statebuilding agenda of successive post-colonial governments in light of its geopolitical importance close to China, its strategic location on the main Myanmar–China trade routes, and its abundant natural resources. However, the region’s topography of remote hills and dense forests, and the back channels of cross-border support that ethnic armed groups have received, limited the effectiveness of the Myanmar army’s counter-insurgency campaigns. The government’s use of military force to achieve this has fuelled longstanding grievances and protracted armed conflict in the ethnically diverse borderlands, where the power and legitimacy of the central state has historically been weak and contested.
The false promise of ceasefires and transition
A series of ceasefire deals in the late 1980s and early 1990s – initially with the four main splinter groups of the CPB (which had collapsed in 1989) and culminating with the 1994 KIA ceasefire – gradually transformed the political economy of Kachin State and northern Shan State. By using ceasefire deals to stabilise one of the most contested regions, Myanmar’s military government was able to concentrate on restoring control in the rest of the country after nationwide pro-democracy protests of 1988 and continued insurgency elsewhere – including the launch of devastating counter- insurgency offensives in the Thailand–Myanmar borderlands of southern Shan State and Karen State throughout the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s.
Given the precariousness of the government’s finances, the ceasefires were also used to establish the stability required to accelerate resource extraction, especially of jade and timber, and expand formal cross-border trade with China. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the military government legalised cross-border trade through government-controlled trade gates – the most important of which was the Muse– Ruili crossing in northern Shan State which links China to Mandalay – and devised new foreign investment and land laws, allowing the government to allocate large-scale land and resource concessions.
For the KIA and other armed groups in northern Shan State, a ceasefire was more logical than continuing to fight in light of declining support from China and increasing threats from the Myanmar army; it also allowed them to capitalise on emerging economic opportunities. However, although the ceasefires in Kachin State and northern Shan State largely held until 2010, little progress was made in addressing longstanding political grievances, creating a ‘no-war-no-peace’ environment in this region.
The ceasefire period came to be defined by three dynamics: a prolonged process of militarisation in borderland areas which saw the number of Myanmar army units and military-backed militia groups proliferate in Kachin and northern Shan State; the opening up of borderland areas for economic ‘development’; and a stalled peace process in which government promises of political dialogue never materialised.
Over the next two decades, this region became central to the country’s crony-controlled economy as a result of the vast revenues generated from logging, jade mining (an industry estimated by Global Witness to have generated more than $30 billion in 2014, equivalent to 48% of Myanmar’s annual GDP), the region’s illicit drug economy (heroin and methamphetamines), hydropower dams, large-scale agribusiness concessions, expanding cross-border trade with China, and the construction of pipelines that transect former conflict zones to deliver offshore oil and gas to China. The region’s economic transformation has been underpinned by establishing and enforcing, often through violence, highly unequal control over land and resources which serve the interests of a powerful nexus of military and private sector actors, comprising military elites, local militias, Myanmar business elites, cross-border and international investors, and in some cases ethnic armed groups. The ceasefire period also saw the reinvigoration of nationalist tropes within the military, which have long acclaimed the army’s role as a safeguard against internal fragmentation and external subjugation by the country’s powerful neighbours.
Thus the very ceasefire agreements that served to reduce levels of outright violent conflict exposed borderland populations to an array of violent and destructive forces of militarisation, continued counter-insurgency, exclusionary nationalism, dispossession and destructive development that served to reinvigorate long-held resentment against the central government.
Distrust in the ceasefire process in Kachin and Shan States was also heightened by a number of events since the mid-2000s. In 2005, the military forced the surrender of smaller ceasefire groups and arrested a number of high-profile Shan political and military leaders. In 2008, the country’s new Constitution locked- in the military’s control over the political system by enshrining the military’s right ‘to participate in the National political leadership role of the State’ and providing it with effective veto power over any constitutional reform. This was followed in 2009 by a government declaration that all ceasefire armed groups were to be absorbed into the Myanmar army as Border Guard Forces (BGF). The government also declared that after September 2010 all ceasefires would be ‘null and void’ and groups which had not converted into BGFs would be deemed insurgents. Throughout the 1990–2008 period the military government consistently informed ceasefire groups that, as a transitional government, it had no mandate to enter into political dialogue until a new constitution had been enacted. The BGF proposal, therefore, marked a clear turnaround in which ceasefire groups were now told to surrender autonomy prior to any form of political dialogue. The government’s position also offered no acknowledgement of the systems of governance administered by ethnic armed groups that provided health, education and justice systems to large populations.
By the late 2000s, the military government’s increasing control over the country’s borderlands, the country’s improved financial position and the promulgation of the 2008 constitution encouraged military elites to instigate a transition to civilian rule and capitalise on the international support such a process would bring. The government’s decision to initiate a formal peace process in 2011 was underpinned by a belief among military elites that they were in a strong enough position to manage this process on their own terms.
However, for those living in Kachin State and northern Shan State there was deep distrust of government promises of ceasefires, peace and development. These terms have become dirty words, weighed down by experiences of continued violence, expropriation and insecurity. Myanmar’s ‘transition’ in 2010–11 therefore came at a time of crisis – from the perspective of many armed groups and borderland populations – in the ceasefire system of the previous two decades. This included a legitimacy crisis, in which the leadership of various armed groups, especially the KIA, became tarnished by claims that they were profiting from the exploitation of the people and environments they claimed to be protecting; a crisis of strategy, as the hope that ceasefire agreements would pave the way for more meaningful political dialogue faded away; and a military crisis, as ethnic armed groups faced increasing pressure from the Myanmar army.
The China effect
Centre–periphery tensions in northern Myanmar, and their impact on the peace process, have been further complicated by diverse cross-border influences from neighbouring China. China’s decision in the 1980s to decrease its support for ethnic armed groups and strengthen government-to- government relations was instrumental in shaping the military government’s ceasefire strategy. Weapons sales, protection in UN Security Council debates, and increased investment and border trade from China were all important in strengthening Myanmar’s military government throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Stabilising Myanmar government control over the country’s borderlands has also been viewed by some within China as a way to address security threats, especially the cross-border flow of drugs, and to provide a more secure environment for Chinese trade and investment. For business and political elites in Yunnan especially, cross-border trade and investment was viewed as an essential component of the province’s development strategy.
Yet, the Chinese government remains wary of Western influence in Myanmar’s borderlands, and continues to see the benefits of maintaining a buffer zone that limits Myanmar military presence along its border. The influx of refugees has also increased concerns in China about ongoing counter- insurgency offensives along its borders. Furthermore, the reliance of border-based armed groups on maintaining support from China arguably makes them more pliant to Chinese interests than Myanmar military elites, which remain wary of China’s influence in Myanmar. Chinese security forces and business elites have enduring formal and informal relationships with various ethnic armed groups and elites in northern Myanmar that remain important in enabling them to secure access to resources, intelligence and protection. And some border areas are much more closely integrated with China, reflected by their use of Chinese currency, language, time and SIM cards. Closer government-to-government relations therefore co-exist alongside a set of interests that have simultaneously empowered non-state armed groups and networks of power, communication and resources beyond state control.
The peace process in Kachin State and northern Shan State stands at the apex of three competing pressures: (1) the interests of Myanmar’s ruling elites who view the peace process as a mechanism through which to make ethnic armed groups compliant, rather than a reason to enter into genuine political dialogue with them; (2) powerful scepticism among ethnic armed groups and borderland populations towards the rhetoric of ceasefires, political dialogue, and inclusive development that surrounds the peace process; and (3) diverse – and at times conflicting – cross-border political, security and business interests.