The military coup in Myanmar, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders detained in pre-dawn raids on 1 February, marked an abrupt end to ten years of democratization which had propelled the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. The Tatmadaw takeover has also dashed hopes of peace in border regions home to ethnic minorities, where rebel groups have fought the Tatmadaw for decades. Since seizing power, the army has moved to scrap the civilian peace negotiating mechanism.
It is true that the peace process was already faltering under Aung San Suu Kyi. Five years of discussions had resulted in only vague principles being agreed between Naypyidaw and ten ethnic armies based in the south. Major issues related to autonomy and self-governance remained untouched, while the most powerful armed groups in the north and west remained outside of a national ceasefire agreed in 2015. After decades of Tatmadaw oppression, peace under the new Junta now looks further away than ever.
Ceasefire signatories suspend talks
The day after the coup, the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST)—comprising the ten rebel groups that are party to the nationwide ceasefire—met virtually. After the meeting, Secretary General of the Karen National Union (KNU), Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo, said initially the groups would ‘‘work together to find a solution’’, and would stick by the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) to keep the peace talks alive. At the same time, a PPST statement condemned the coup and called for the release of elected leaders.
In the days before the coup, the Tatmadaw had extended its own suspension of military operations in some areas until the end of February on the pretext of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, and released a statement urging ethnic armies to continue on the path of dialogue with the government. Taking events that followed into account, the timing was likely aimed at reassuring ethnic armed groups and reducing tension in Myanmar’s volatile border regions, in anticipation of a tense post-coup scenario developing.
Events have quickly unraveled, ending hopes that the peace process might continue unimpeded. On 8 February the Junta disbanded the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC), which had been led by Aung San Suu Kyi as the coordinating peacemaking body in Naypyidaw. Going forward, ethnic armies are permitted to negotiate only with a Tatmadaw-formed peace committee, led by Lieut.-Gen. Yar Pyae. The PPST responded by announcing after a second emergency meeting, held on 19–20 February, that its members had ‘‘unanimously’’ voted to suspend all political talks with what it labelled the ‘‘coup Junta’’.
The PPST later declared ‘‘we strongly support all public mobilizations, including the civil disobedience movement’’, vowing its armies would ‘‘collaborate with all national and international actors, including the international community, to end military dictatorship and to seek a durable solution to the current political crisis’’. The strong rebuke reflected concerns by ethnic leaders, including chairman of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) Col. Khun Okkar, that participation in talks with the Tatmadaw would ultimately risk granting legitimacy to Junta chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and his military regime.
FPNCC and Northern Alliance position
Ethnic armed groups outside of the NCA process have largely remained silent on the coup. Neither the seven-member Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC)—led by the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) based along the Chinese border—or the four-member Northern Alliance have issued a statement. Members of these alliances had refused to participate the last major peace conference with the NLD last August after the Arakan Army (AA)—a group based in Rakhine that has engaged in clashes with the military since 2018—was labeled as a ‘‘terrorist group’’ by Naypyidaw.
A statement by the 10,000-strong Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—an influential member of both the FPNCC and Northern Alliance—on 17 February, indicates that informal dialogue with insurgents outside of the NCA process might also be disrupted. KIA General Secretary La Nan was quoted by VOA Burmese as having said anti-coup protests reflected the ‘‘will of the people’’ and were ‘‘on the side of truth’’. He added it would be ‘‘impossible to discuss issues such as peace and a ceasefire’’ in light of recent events.
Ethnic autonomy and democratization
As an eventual end point of the peace process, ethnic armies envision administering autonomous, self-governed regions within a new federal system. Under the NLD, there was at least a degree of hope. The peace initiative run by the government—dubbed the 21st Century Panglong initiative—was named after an accord signed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, and ethnic minority leaders shortly before his assassination in 1947, which pledged autonomy in border regions and respect for minority rights. Upon taking power, the NLD had promised to make resolving conflict a priority of its five-year term in office.
But with the Tatmadaw at the helm, ethnic minorities are fearful. During the period of Tatmadaw rule from 1962–2011, troops routinely raped, tortured and killed ethnic minority civilians as well as fighting armed groups. Such abuses persisted against the Rohingya and others, even under the NLD. The effect of decades of hostility and mistrust makes a peace deal with the new Junta near-impossible to foresee, while brutal crackdowns on protestors in recent weeks demonstrate the authorities’ willingness to use force. The use of water cannon and rubber bullets has quickly progressed to instances of live gunfire.
Ethnic minorities, despite mostly aspiring to self-governance rather than democratization, have joined demonstrations as protests have spread from major cities like Mandalay and Yangon to border regions. Signs of growing solidarity between ethnic minority groups and the Bamar majority are evident, and in rallying against a mutual enemy in the Tatmadaw, the protests offer a chance to foster a broad alliance across traditional ethnic divisions. This might, in a nation where elites in both the armed forces and the NLD have long viewed minority rights as a side issue, do more to advance peace than talks ever could.
One year ago, Thai negotiators had just engaged in direct peace talks with Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebels for the first time. That meeting, held on 20 January 2020, was considered a breakthrough in efforts to resolve separatist violence in Southern Thailand, marking the first time Bangkok had engaged in formal dialogue with the group in control of most fighters on the ground, thought to number 400. The initial talks, mediated by Malaysia, were followed by a second round in Kuala Lumpur from 2–3 March.
Both parties hailed early progress, with the Thai panel led by Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh labelling the talks as ‘‘constructive’’, while the BRN delegation, led by Anas Abdulrahman, indicated it would participate in future negotiations. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, stalling momentum. No talks have been held since. Yet it did have an initial positive effect: on 3 April, the BRN announced it would ‘‘cease hostilities’’ on humanitarian grounds to ease the situation for health workers tackling the virus in the Deep South.
Although that ceasefire was broken within a month, a local monitoring group found violence declined significantly in 2020, until a spike in roadside bombings and ambushes toward the end of the year. The uptick in violence creates a new imperative to resume talks but travel restrictions remain in place, amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Thailand and Malaysia, preventing dialogue panels from meeting in person. The pandemic, having scuppered renewed talks, now risks an erosion of trust at a crucial time.
Failure of Mara Patani talks
Past efforts to end the insurgency have made little progress. Separatists have fought for autonomy or independence for the four Muslim-majority provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla and Yala, which border Malaysia, for decades. Many residents in the Malay-speaking south, where Islam is the dominant religion and cultural reference point, reject full assimilation into Buddhist-majority Thailand, which has exercised sovereignty over the region since the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty marked the modern border.
In 2013, Bangkok initiated talks with Mara Patani, a political organization representing a loose coalition of rebel forces. The dialogue fell flat as the BRN continued its attacks, undermining the process. Adding to a string of local shootings and ambushes, the BRN at times launched more audacious attacks aimed at disrupting talks. In May 2017, rebels bombed a shopping centre in Pattani, wounding 56 people, while a November 2019 raid on a security checkpoint in Yala left 15 armed civilian defence volunteers dead. The inability of Mara Patani to prevent such attacks forced the government to enter dialogue with the BRN.
The first informal talks between the two sides took place in Berlin in late 2019, with back-channel talks also rumored to have taken place in Indonesia, ahead of the historic two rounds of formal negotiations held in Kuala Lumpur in early 2020. Both parties expressed cautious optimism last March. The Thai panel said early talks had gone well but called for ‘‘time, continuity and support’’ and a ‘‘reduction of violence in order to create a conducive atmosphere’’ ahead of future meetings. Yet after the onset of COVID-19, there have been no further rounds of talks and the fleeting peace process has been stopped in its tracks.
BRN restraint amid COVID-19
Despite talks being placed on hold, the BRN’s COVID-19 ceasefire reflected the goodwill brought about by the peace process. It held for four weeks last April, until a military raid in Pattani sparked retaliatory rebel attacks. Yet large-scale attacks last year were rare, with the pandemic generally resulting in lower levels of violence. Monitoring group Deep South Watch recorded 252 incidents, causing 96 deaths, from January–October 2020, compared to 350 incidents and 148 deaths in the same period in 2019. The last few months however, have seen an uptick in violence, indicating a gradual return to low-level warfare.
Rebel activity likely reduced last year because of travel restrictions and enhanced border controls put in place to combat COVID-19, preventing insurgents from crossing the Malaysian border to evade arrest by Thai forces after launching attacks. The military commander in the south, Lt.-Gen. Kriangkrai Srirak, said recently that his troops hoped to restrict rebel movements further by installing barbed-wire fencing and bright lights along the 595km border. Yet he also said ‘‘suppression and law enforcement’’ alone will not end the conflict, voicing his support for talks and the need to obtain the trust of the Muslim community.
A third round of talks in 2021?
If a third round of talks is able to be convened later in the year, there is plenty for both sides to discuss. Local journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn reported in the Bangkok Post in October that the peace negotiating panels of the government and the BRN had been in touch with each other virtually to discuss ‘‘issues of contention’’ during the previous meetings. The issue of immunity from prosecution for BRN insurgents, in the event that they agree to lay down their arms, is likely to top the agenda at any upcoming talks.
It has also been reported that leaders of Provincial Islamic Committees from the south have submitted their own proposal, covering social and religious issues. The proposal called for the creation of a Family and Inheritance Court and Community Police Force, and consultation with local Islamic committees over the appointment of provincial governors and judicial officials. It also advocated for its right to administer the Hajj pilgrimage and called for the use of Malay language on all public signs and government offices.
Softer, yet highly symbolic societal matters such as these, where the Thai government may be willing to offer concessions, would be an ideal starting point for talks, paving the way for discussion over the more contentious issue of the final political status of the southern provinces. Hardline factions within the BRN are sure to push for a comprehensive autonomous settlement, if not full independence. Yet so far only a ‘‘special administrative zone’’ has been offered within the constitution’s ‘‘one and indivisible kingdom’’.
Making peace amid a pandemic
Any hope that talks could resume in early 2021 have been dashed by rising COVID-19 cases in Thailand, which issued a ‘‘stay at home’’ order on 4 January, and Malaysia, which announced a new lockdown on 12 January and has declared a ‘‘state of emergency’’ to deal with the pandemic. As a result, there is little chance of the Thai government and BRN negotiating panels meeting face-to-face in the coming months.
Yet both parties remain willing to meet when possible, and Malaysia remains committed in its mediation role under new prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who assumed office on the same day the peace panels last convened in March 2020. Negotiations with the BRN represent the only realistic way forward, and if talks restart in 2021, the hope is that the south could yet see violence decline for a second year running.
Shortly before midday on 24 August, a bomb ripped through two military trucks parked outside a shopping area in Jolo, the capital of the southern Philippines’ island province of Sulu. As security officials responded to the blast, a suicide bomber detonated her device having been prevented from entering the cordoned-off area. The first explosion, initially reported to have been caused by an IED strapped to a motorbike, was later confirmed as another suicide bombing. The double blasts left 14 people dead and at least 75 injured.
The Philippine armed forces quickly blamed Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist militant group aligned with the Islamic State, which has been responsible for at least five suicide attacks involving eight bombers since July 2018. Three years ago, Abu Sayyaf had been dealt a major blow when its leader, Isnilon Hapilon, was killed after laying siege to the city of Marawi with fighters from another extremist group, the Mautes, for five months. It was hoped the militants’ defeat in Marawi might turn the tide on years of rising jihadism in the region.
Yet since then, despite a peace deal signed by Manila and moderate Moro Muslim rebels, intensified army operations targeting local Islamic State affiliates and sustained counter-terrorism support from the United States, the threat from Abu Sayyaf is alive and evolving rapidly. However, headline-grabbing tactics aside, its six-year-old pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State now matters little. As in most of its 30-year history, Abu Sayyaf’s violence is best explained by local dynamics, family ties and its ability to attract new recruits.
US-supported military offensives
In spite of recent Abu Sayyaf attacks, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claims it has made a degree of progress in stemming the tide of militancy. Martial law in Mindanao, imposed after the outbreak of the Marawi siege in mid-2017, was lifted on 31 December last year, while the army has persisted with regular patrols, ground offensives and aerial attacks on militant hideouts throughout 2020. In October, the AFP’s public affairs chief Capt. Jonathan Zata said 55 Abu Sayyaf members were killed from January-September, while another 78 surrendered. He revealed that 97 firearms, seven IEDs and nine camps were also seized.
Inroads were also made against other Islamist groups. The Mautes lost 24 fighters in clashes with the AFP, while 15 surrendered and five were arrested. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters lost 28 men over the same period, while 134 surrendered and 20 were detained. Abu Sayyaf suffered its biggest loss in mid-August, when notorious sub-leader Idang Susukan was arrested by police officers in Davao city, where he had reportedly travelled to seek medical attention for injuries to his left arm sustained in an earlier battle. Susukan was involved in lucrative kidnapping-for-ransom activities, making his arrest a significant setback.
Yet these markers of progress are tempered by the overall picture. In August, a US Department of Defense update on Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P), its counter-terrorism campaign in the country, said that ‘‘efforts to reduce extremism in the Philippines do not appear to have made a substantial difference.’’ Estimates from OPE-P indicate that since 2017, Islamic State-aligned groups in the region have maintained a fighting force of 300–500, remaining ‘‘about the same size and strength for the last few years.’’ This grim assessment comes despite annual US funding of $100m for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities. The report cited ‘‘COVID-19 restrictions’’ and ‘‘force rotations’’ as having an additional negative impact on assistance in 2020, along with relatively unchanged ‘‘economic, social and political conditions.’’
Abu Sayyaf suicide bombing spree
A prevalent feature of post-Marawi militancy has been suicide bombings – a phenomenon unseen before in the Philippines. Five separate attacks have taken place in the island provinces of Basilan and Sulu, where Abu Sayyaf operate, and were carried-out by radicalized Egyptian, Indonesian and Moroccan nationals, as well as at least one Filipino. The deadliest incident targeted the Our Lady of Mount Carmel cathedral, just across the street from the latest attack in Jolo, in January 2019, leaving 22 people dead and 81 wounded.
Abu Sayyaf have also persisted with lower-level criminal-type activities, kidnapping Indonesian fishermen for ransom off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state, ten minutes by boat from militant bases on Tawi-Tawi island. At least 39 Indonesian seafarers have been abducted by the group since 2016, when foreign sailors started to avoid the area after several Westerners were beheaded by Abu Sayyaf in absence of a ransom. An Indonesian captive, among five seized from a ship in January, died last month amid a shootout in Sulu.
Such activities, of both a criminal and terrorist nature, have rebounded under Abu Sayyaf’s current leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who commands a faction in the mountains around Patikul, on Sulu’s north coast. Reported to have narrowly avoided death at the hands of the military on several occasions, his leadership has been characterized by a mix of maritime banditry and headline-grabbing suicide attacks part-inspired by the Islamic State and its radical ideology. The tactic is more of a side effect than representing firm links.
Family connections and new recruits
For decades, blood ties and close family relationships within Abu Sayyaf have made the group particularly resistant to infiltration. In its current incarnation, the Ajang-Ajang faction led by Hatib also contains many of his relatives, notably his nephew Mundi Sawadjaan, who is a bomb-maker considered likely by the AFP to have constructed the devices detonated by the Jolo bombers. Abu Sayyaf is insular, splintered and non-hierarchical below its senior leadership, making connections difficult to track. Its members and supporters are loyal in part due to benefiting from the economic rewards of hostage-taking and the illegal drug trade. Hideouts on outlying islands and in Jolo’s densely-forested interior are often out of the authorities’ reach.
Suicide pacts among families have become a defining feature of Abu Sayyaf’s latest spate of terror attacks. The January 2019 cathedral attack was perpetrated by a married Indonesian husband and wife, while the two female suspects behind the latest outrage were found to be the widows of two deceased Abu Sayyaf fighters. Philippine Army chief Lieut.-Gen. Cirilito Sobejana identified one as the wife of Norman Lasuca – the first known Filipino suicide bomber – and the second as widow of Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Talha Jumsah. In a raid on 10 October, another Indonesian woman, Rezky Fantasya Rullie, was arrested in Sulu alongside two other women on suspicion of plotting a suicide attack. All three were married to Abu Sayyaf fighters. AFP soldiers reportedly seized IED components and a vest rigged with pipe bombs from their residence.
Although several of the bombers came from abroad, local recruitment enables Abu Sayyaf to replenish its ranks after battlefield losses. Estimates of its strength have remained consistent for years, supporting the narrative that a sizeable recruitment pool exists in Sulu, where young men have limited alternative options to make a living. Sulu, among the most impoverished areas of the Philippines, has a long history of conflict and was the only province to reject a peace deal between the government and moderate Moro insurgents in a referendum last year. Awash with firearms, Abu Sayyaf has drawn on local support in Sulu to fight for independence since 1990, in a region that sat at the heart of an Islamic sultanate prior to the colonial era. Many still wish for the revival of self-governance in the future, and accept militancy as a means to an end. The Islamic State, through social media, has only ever latched onto what has always been a local struggle.
Maute allies in Lanao del Sur
Remnants of Abu Sayyaf’s co-conspirators in Marawi, the Maute Group, remain functional across the Sulu Sea in Lanao del Sur province, on Mindanao’s largest island. Although its resources are stretched thin, the AFP last month identified Faharudin Hadji Satar, also known as Abu Bakar, as the new leader of the Maute Group. Its recruitment drive is reported to be ongoing in the Lanao municipalities of Balindong, Madalum and Piagapo, where displaced residents of Marawi city have received text messages enticing them to join.
The more moderate Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signatory of a peace agreement with Manila and highly influential in Lanao, has pledged to work with the AFP to combat extremism and persuade the Mautes to disarm. It is hoped that the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front leads, will eventually bring prosperity and displace the decades-old narrative that oppressed Muslims in the south can only find hope and livelihood opportunities by joining armed groups.
The Bangsamoro region, supported by most Moro Muslims, offers a chance for renewal, but the activities of Abu Sayyaf demonstrate how hard it is to get all factions on side. Abu Sayyaf retains a firm stranglehold in Sulu, as the Mautes look to entice decommissioned moderate rebels and capitalize on Moro frustrations over the slow rebuilding of Marawi, where 120,000 residents are still displaced three years after the siege ended. Abu Sayyaf and the Mautes failed in that past mission, but remain a thorn in the side of Mindanao.
From 19-21 August, Aung San Suu Kyi convened in Naypyidaw alongside army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and representatives of ten ethnic armed groups for Myanmar’s fourth Union Peace Conference. The event – initially scheduled for April but pushed-back amid the COVID19 pandemic – marked the latest effort to revive the Panglong peace initiative, tasked with ending 70 years of conflict in Myanmar’s border regions.
The delayed summit – which took place after two years of frozen negotiations – offered a final chance for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) to claim that progress had been made in resolving ethnic strife – a key policy objective – since it came to power in October 2015. With the next general election set for November, does Naypyidaw’s positive rhetoric after the latest Panglong meeting stand up to scrutiny?
Myanmar’s Panglong Initiative
The 21st Century Panglong initiative takes its name from a peace agreement signed in 1947 by Myanmar’s independence hero, and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San, promising autonomy for ethnic minorities.
The concept was revived after a dialogue process was initiated by the former military regime of Thein Sein in 2011, which resulted in the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with eight ethnic armies in October 2015. The NLD secured a landslide election win the following month, joining the army in power.
Upon assuming power, the NLD government pledged to hold a Union Peace Conference every six months, yet only four have been held during its five-year term. Progress has been slower than hoped, and only two additional ethnic armies have joined the accord since 2015, raising the total number of signatories to ten.
The process stalled in mid-2018, after the third summit was held. Yet informal talks gathered pace in early-2020 and the fourth summit was planned for April, before being moved to August due to the pandemic.
FPNCC alliance refuses to attend
The build-up to the rearranged conference was beset by problems. Organizers had hoped to persuade six non-signatory armed groups, all members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), to attend as observers. Yet they refused to attend after a seventh member of the FPNCC alliance, the Arakan Army (AA), was snubbed after being declared a ‘terrorist organization’ by Naypyidaw in March.
The FPNCC announced its members would not attend just six days before the summit began, after meeting on 13 August at the headquarters of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Panghsang. The 30,000-strong UWSA is Myanmar’s most powerful and best-equipped armed group, while the alliance also contains the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and several other groups operating out of Shan state along the border with China.
Despite this setback, the Union Peace Conference went ahead as planned. Owing to COVID19 restrictions, the meeting took place over three days instead of the usual five, while delegates were limited to just 230. No major decisions were at stake, but negotiators looked to add to 51 previously-agreed basic principles with the aim of setting-the-stage for post-2020 dialogue and charting a path to forge a democratic federal union encompassing all ethnic nationalities; the envisioned end point of the NCA-centred Panglong talks.
Among the new principles, it was agreed that the future federal system would be based on power-sharing between the Union and states. However, talks on allowing states to draft separate constitutions faltered amid a dispute over wording. Even among agreements inked, the language used was vague. For example, the forging of a single ‘union identity’ which respects the histories, traditions and cultures of minorities is open to interpretation, and minorities will likely be skeptical given their past treatment by the Bamar elite.
Aung San Suu Kyi strives to make a collective identity central to future talks, whilst presidential spokesman Zaw Htay recently voiced the need for a careful step-by-step process toward ‘national reconciliation’. Yet such inclusive language seems hollow given the mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims; denied citizenship for decades and forced to flee to Bangladesh after repeated army crackdowns since 2017. If talks go awry and violence ensues, other ethnic minorities fear the same scorched-earth tactics could be applied to them.
Longer-term barriers to peace
Many of the principles decided so-far are procedural, laying out approximate positions. Turning these into a final text, agreeable to all parties, will be difficult due to the scale and complexity of Myanmar’s conflicts.
Implementing a federal structure and drafting state constitutions may be relatively simple in states where just one or two armed groups are the dominant actors, such as in the southern states of Kayah, Kayin and Mon. In the larger Shan state to the north, home to multiple ethnic armies, often in competition with each other, such an outcome may be unworkable. This reflects a broader geographical divide in the peace talks.
The majority of the ten NCA signatories are based in Myanmar’s southern conflict zones where fighting is at a low level. The groups here are small and poorly-armed, accounting for less than 20% of rebel fighters in the country. The formation of a democratic federal union would likely boost the power of these groups, thus making it attractive for them to reach some kind of devolved settlement with the government.
In contrast, Myanmar’s northeastern conflict zones of Shan and Kachin are home to well-resourced ethnic armies, outside of the NCA process. Several groups, including the UWSA, already run their own relatively prosperous self-administered zones, while others control territories in which they are the main economic and security actor. If they join the NCA and accept state-based autonomy, they may stand to lose-out.
Even before weighing-up such outcomes, the nature of the peace process itself is unpredictable in a nation where a broader civilian-military power contest still has a long way to run. The NLD has failed in its efforts to revise the 2008 constitution, which affords sweeping political powers to the Tatmadaw, via parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi suggested in her opening speech at August’s Panglong event that the constitution might yet need to be ‘amended’ to facilitate any future agreement that emerges out of the peace process.
In an apparent rebuttal, military chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing warned-off approaching the peace talks with ‘ulterior motives’ and stated the NCA must be solely focused on Myanmar’s ‘national interests’. For now, the NLD and Tatmadaw have achieved a workable balance. Aung San Suu Kyi is satisfied with compromise and political maneuvering, rather than seeking radical reform. In the current system, 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the Tatmadaw, while it controls the defence and home affairs ministries. Aung San Suu Kyi meanwhile wields strong influence as State Counsellor and the NLD has remained broadly popular.
Whatever the outcome of November’s election, the quasi-civilian structure is likely to remain in place; yet the lingering potential of future political upheaval could derail or shift the direction of the Panglong talks.
A ‘one size fits all’ solution?
The central impediment to the Panglong process remains that Myanmar has so many active armed groups, each with distinct ambitions and varied levels of power, resources and degrees of leverage for bargaining. The peace process is already split in half: between the weaker signatories, and stronger non-signatories.
Yet even if more ethnic armies were to sign the NCA and partake in Union-level talks, division in non-state alliances, some with more to lose than others, may be inevitable as more contentious issues are discussed. The imagined end point, a democratic federal union, might not be enough to satisfy the strongest groups.
Yet what is the alternative? Bilateral talks between the government and non-signatories remain a possible path forward; yet at present, Naypyidaw insists such discussions would only be a pre-cursor to joining the NCA. After November’s election, giving the Panglong initiative another chance appears the safest option.
On March 22, a teenage boy was tending dry-season rice fields with his father on a quiet Sunday in the southern Lao province of Savannakhet when a bomb concealed beneath vegetation exploded. The 15-year-old did not survive the blast. Just days earlier, in a nearby district of Savannakhet, three men suffered the same fate after venturing into the forest in the heat of the afternoon in search of wild plants and food. The men died almost instantly, succumbing to devastating wounds inflicted by hidden ordnance.
They are among the latest victims of the 1964-1973 US bombing campaign, when at the height of the Vietnam War, more ordnance was dropped on Laos in the space of nine years than during the entirety of World War II in Europe. The onslaught resulted in over 30,000 casualties.
Yet since the last bomb fell from the skies, another 20,000, mostly civilians, have been killed or maimed by unexploded bombs left behind.
The number of blasts each year is falling, and with the help of modern medicine a higher proportion of victims are surviving. Out of 1,660 casualties since 1996, more than two-thirds were wounded, but lived. That presents a new challenge to modern-day Laos: how to provide the long-term care and assistance needed to help victims rebuild their lives.
Laos is thought to have 15,000 living survivors of accidents involving war remnants, with 13,500 having lost a limb since the air attacks ended. In the early decades after the war, amputees often fashioned their own artificial limb from wood, rubber and metal – even making use of discarded bomb casings. Although a badge of resilience, makeshift limbs might soon become a relic of the past.
“Prosthetics and assistive devices help victims move more freely, enable them to enjoy their daily lives and go back to participating in community activities,” explains Paphavady Keomeuangsene. Paphavady works for COPE, a non-profit organization based in Vientiane, that works alongside the Lao Ministry of Health to rehabilitate Laotians with physical disabilities.
COPE provides over 1,200 prosthetic and orthotic devices – designed to either replace or support a damaged limb – every year, with around one-third of the recipients having survived an accident related to unexploded ordnance.
Most accidents occur in Savannakhet, the site of the two fatal explosions in March, and Xieng Khouang further north. Both provinces are heavily-contaminated with unexploded ordnance and sit along what was once the Ho Chi Minh trail. In the mid-1960s, then-US president Lyndon Johnson grew concerned as American ground forces failed to halt the southward advance of the North Vietnamese Army down the trail, who had been using the jungles of neighbouring Laos, officially a neutral country, as an overland supply route to avoid US air power.
In response, the US began striking targets on the Laotian side of the border, aiming to weaken the country’s Pathet Lao communist group and prevent North Vietnamese troops using the country to smuggle weapons and equipment to aid the war effort against the US-backed regime in Saigon. The raids were made all-the-more urgent from the US’ perspective by the escalating Cold War battle against the Soviet Union, in which American leaders saw landlocked Laos as a vital buffer nation separating communist states, like China and North Vietnam, from Western allies in the region.
The first US bombs were dropped in December 1964, beginning a nine-year onslaught that constituted the most extensive aerial bombing campaign in history. US aircraft flew 580,000 sorties and dropped two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos, most in the form of cluster munitions. Each cluster bomb casing contained hundreds of smaller bombs – known in Laos as ‘bombies’ – which were released mid-air and dispersed over a wide area to cause maximum indiscriminate spatial carnage.
An estimated 260 million bombies were released in total, of which around 80 million failed to detonate on impact and now litter the countryside in 14 of Laos’ 17 provinces. More than 25% of villages are contaminated with bombies, each roughly the size of a tennis ball – but with a 30-metre killing radius.
Rivers, streams, forest paths, rice paddies, roads and settlements are all home to a hidden killer, laying silent but primed and ready to detonate five decades after their arrival from above.
In some areas of the country, every step brings a risk of death or life-changing injury.
Mr Mai, a 27-year-old construction worker from Xieng Khouang province, was digging at the roadside in 2015 when a device exploded, inflicting severe injuries which led to the loss of his arm.
“I’ve always been careful about unexploded ordnance, [but] one day, my arm was suddenly snatched away from me,” he told COPE after a mobile clinic team visited his village in June 2016.
Medical staff assessed his injuries and referred him to a regional rehabilitation centre, and a year after his accident, Mr Mai was fitted with a prosthetic arm, with the costs covered by COPE. After receiving the prosthetic, he said he had regained hope of being able to resume work and raise animals to support his children’s education.
Clearance work, conducted by the Lao People’s Armed Forces, a national clearance operator and a network of international NGOs, has been underway since the 1990s. Over 1.4 million remnants of war have been destroyed, but that represents just 2% of the total.
Katherine Harrison, programme coordinator in Laos for Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) – a demining group that has removed at least 68,000 explosive items since it began clearance activities in Laos more than a decade ago – says that ‘‘[local] estimates of the remaining contamination are indicative of areas where the risk is higher’’.
She adds that aside from Xieng Khouang and Savannakhet, which bore the brunt of the bombing, Laos’ four southernmost provinces of Attapeu, Champassak, Saravane and Sekong ‘‘are all heavily contaminated due to the location of the Ho Chi Minh trail through the southern part of Laos’’. NPA has deployed its own survey and clearance staff in those provinces since 2009, having provided technical assistance since 1997 to the national clearance operator, UXO-Lao.
Contact with unexploded ordnance is usually unintentional. Accidents continue to occur despite public awareness campaigns, each year adding to the 12,000 explosions that have taken place since the US air raids concluded in 1973. Activities central to human existence can even be high risk. Ploughing land to cultivate crops, digging to facilitate construction and lighting fires for open-air cooking all bring the danger of sparking a dormant bomb back to life. Children have also mistaken war remnants for toys.
Harrison says it is ‘‘difficult to generalise’’ when forecasting who among the civilian population faces the greatest threat, ‘‘as individuals and communities may, out of socio-economic need, interact [with unexploded ordnance] in different ways in contaminated areas with differing levels of risk’’.
Laos’ scrap metal trade encourages risk-taking with UXO. The price of scrap has risen over the last 15 years as regional demand for construction materials has grown, meaning the scrap trade in heavily-bombed areas has been fed by an expanding number of smelting mills and foundries along the Vietnam border.
Poor, rural communities, with limited access to cash, have greater incentive to hunt for scrap as, using a metal detector, large finds can bring a quick financial return. Yet digging to investigate signals is risky, with some even attempting to defuse or dismantle ordnance to sell its components, risking a deadly explosion.
In the event of a blast, about 200 metal fragments inflict devastating wounds to those at the site. The shockwaves from the explosion, and shrapnel penetrating the body, causes horrific injuries like blindness, hearing loss, and the loss of limbs. Most accidents occur in rural areas and on mountainous terrain, meaning immediate medical help is often unavailable, resulting in severe blood loss and infections of untreated wounds being major causes of death.
In addition to the facility in Xieng Khouang that treated Mr Mai, COPE, along with the government-run Centre for Medical Rehabilitation (CMR), runs another four rehabilitation centres across the country.
Supported by international donors and fundraising, all medical costs are covered, along with transport and food for victims and family members. Paphavady, who oversees the COPE-CMR visitor centre and supports their outreach from Vientiane, says amputee survivors are thankful for the chance to fulfil a “big dream; to have a chance to come back to walk again” when receiving a new limb for the first time.
While prosthetics manufactured in previous decades were made of leather, resin and aluminium, technicians now make use of polypropylene technology to ensure a more comfortable fit; essential to relieve pain and prevent pressure sores from developing.
Each prosthetic device is made-to-measure. Technicians forge an exact replica of the patient’s residual stump, before heating sheets of polypropylene to make the socket. Minor adjustments are then made by hand, according to the requirements of each patient.
Survivors of explosions are also in need of orthotics; small assistive devices which help support an injured body part and make it easier to carry-out daily tasks. Specially-designed fittings to hold a toothbrush, or cutlery, can make a huge difference in allowing survivors to live independently.
Most patients later need to attend physical and occupational therapy sessions; while their prosthetics and assistive devices need to be replaced after, at most, seven years – or every six months for children.
Amputees sometimes experience phantom pain, a sensation that occurs when nerve endings that used to serve the absent limb send signals to the brain.
Patients have reported feeling uncomfortable pain, itching and cramps. To alleviate this, patients use a mirror box. By sitting down at a table and placing an arm into the box, a mirror down the centre fools the brain into thinking the reflection is the missing arm. Moving, massaging or scratching the arm, with practice and in time, can help relieve symptoms.
The therapy was invented by Indian-American neuroscientist, Prof. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, in the late-1990s, and has been adopted widely in Laos by survivors of bomb blasts. The therapy can also be used for leg amputees.
Canadian Stephen Sumner, himself an above-the-knee amputee following a motorbike accident in Italy 15 years ago, has gone to great lengths to enable wider access to reflection therapy in Southeast Asia’s former conflict zones. Over several years, Sumner travelled Cambodia and Laos by bicycle, distributing mirrors to amputees and teaching recipients how to use them effectively.
But the challenges facing blast survivors are, of course, not only limited to physical mobility.
Each accident has reverberating social and economic impacts on the victim and their family. Farmers make up a high proportion of those involved in incidents, and their inability to work as productively as they once did, leads to a loss of income. Immediate family members, often wives, are forced to take-on the bread-winning role of their husband, while the children drop-out of school early to become full-time carers.
Assistance for victims of US bombs in Laos has greatly improved since the early post-war years. The uncomfortable, home-fashioned artificial limbs of previous decades have now been replaced, in most cases, with prosthetics made using the latest technology, and available for next to no cost to survivors.
Some of the improvised legs, still a symbol of pride for their wearers, are now on display in Vientiane. The prosthesis of one veteran survivor, who lost his left leg in 1972 and carved his first artificial limb from a single piece of wood, has been as far as Oslo and New York to advocate for a cluster bomb ban.
Prosthetics help give independence back to their recipients, but there is concern that despite the huge progress made, such life-changing support has not reached everyone.
Paphavady from COPE says the outreach project and mobile clinics hope to expand access to survivors throughout the country, some of whom may not know the service is available.
Paphavady also says continued funding of the project, and the ability to continue training technical staff, is crucial for victims to be able to access the support they need. The outreach programme, which also involves distributing leaflets to villagers, will be key as in some areas a lack of infrastructure and fear of the unknown may prevent victims travelling for help.
Sadly, there will be more victims, with the explosive legacy of the US bombing embedded in the soil. At the annual meeting in February of the government-led National Regulatory Authority, which oversees the de-mining sector, officials set a target to clear 10,000 hectares of land of ordnance this year. Yet up to 8.7 million hectares are still contaminated, emphasising the huge scale of the task ahead.
While deadly remnants of war are set to remain for generations, the resilience of those who have survived them is a mark of Laos’ efforts to move on from a time when it was the most bombed nation on earth.
On 30 March, separatist rebels opened fire on three employees of the Grasberg gold and copper mine near Puncak Jaya – the highest mountain in Indonesia’s remote easternmost province of Papua. One worker was killed and another two sustained gunshot wounds in the attack, which targeted an office and housing area of US-based firm Freeport-McMoRan. The company jointly owns the site – which is the largest gold mine and second largest copper mine in the world – with the Indonesian government.
The mine sits at the heart of a volatile region. The Papua region, which encompasses the provinces of both Papua and West Papua, has been the site of a low-level separatist insurgency since the 1960s. Seven years after the end of Dutch colonial rule, the region was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 via a disputed referendum, in which only 1,025 Papuans, carefully chosen by the Indonesian military, were permitted to cast a ballot. The poll remains a source of tension and drives separatism to this day.
While the conflict has persisted at a low level for decades, last year – the 50th anniversary of the vote – witnessed an uptick in violence. Protestors took to the streets across the two provinces last August, angered by an incident in Surabaya in which Papuan university students were arrested by police and suffered racial taunts from nationalists, over accusations they had desecrated an Indonesian flag. The ensuing street demonstrations soon turned violent, with deaths and injuries reported on both sides.
The recent shooting incident near Puncak Jaya was preceded by a series of clashes in the area between rebels and the Indonesian military, which prompted 917 residents to flee to the nearby city of Timika. Violence appears to be rising while the political campaign for Papuan independence stalls, leaving the status-quo intact and the future no-clearer for the region’s residents, who have long endured poverty and underdevelopment. As the stalemate persists, what makes the situation in Papua so intractable?
The roots of the independence movement
The origins of the dispute date to the mid-20th Century, when the area was under Dutch colonial rule. Indonesia gained Independence in 1949, yet the Dutch retained control of Papua through the 1950s. As calls for independence grew, Papuan leaders held a Congress in 1961 and raised their own flag, the Morning Star. Violence erupted between Papuans, Indonesians and Dutch forces until a UN-sponsored treaty – the New York Agreement – was brokered in 1962. The agreement facilitated initial Indonesian control with the promise of a future referendum to decide the final status of the disputed territory.
The ballot, labelled the ‘Act of Free Choice’, was held in 1969. The Indonesian authorities selected just 1,025 Papuan representatives to vote, by raising of the hand, on behalf of the entire population of the region, which at the time had almost a million inhabitants. Voters unanimously backed staying under the rule of Jakarta; yet did so within an atmosphere of intimidation and under the threat of violence. The result was controversially ratified by the UN, which voted by a majority 84-0, with 30 abstentions.
Angered by the perceived unfairness of the process, breakaway elements in the Papua region resorted to violence. An armed guerrilla group, the Free Papua Movement or Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) has carried-out attacks targeting security forces and multinational corporations since the 1970s. Other insurgent groups, such as the West Papua National Liberation Army or Tentera Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNPB) also operate in the region. The latter group claimed responsibility for the attack in late-March on workers of the Grasberg mine, which it views as diverting profits abroad and harming the environment. The Indonesian military has also been accused of rights abuses and arbitrary arrests.
While the insurgency has persisted away from the scrutiny of the international media spotlight, 2019 marked a turning point in coverage. The protests which started last August, spread to cities including Timika, Fakfak, Sarong and regional capital Manokwari. Mobile phone footage was shared around the world on social media platforms and made it into mainstream news in the West. Indonesia promptly cut internet access to the region, claiming it would ‘accelerate the process of restoring security’. Yet Papuan independence activists and human rights organizations suspected the move was designed to limit global media coverage, cover-up abuses and prevent protestors from co-ordinating their actions.
Why is the Papuan situation so intractable?
The conflict is resistant to resolution given the diametrically opposed positions of both sides. From the perspective of Jakarta, the region came under its control in the 1960s via a legitimate vote, backed by the UN and supported by its neighbours and allies. Even today, regional powers such as Australia are reluctant to sympathize with Papuan separatists or criticize Indonesian military actions in the region. Indonesian politicians and military leaders are keen to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in its outermost regions; while as a resource-rich area, Papua is vital to the national economy.
Papuan independence activists, such as exiled figurehead of the movement, Benny Wenda, present a different reality. They view the 1969 vote as flawed and unrepresentative of the native population of Papua. Indonesian rule is seen as being illegitimate and constituting a form of modern-day colonialism. A set of additional grievances have added to the Papuan narrative of unjust domination by Jakarta. Of particular concern to independence activists is transmigration; a policy which has seen mostly-Muslim Javanese settle in Papua, displacing elements of the culture of mostly-Christian Melanesian Papuans.
Economic grievances also feature highly on the list of concerns. Under Indonesian control, large multi-national companies have won contracts to extract Papua’s natural resources, diverting profits out of the region while much of the local population lives in poverty. Infrastructure also lags behind, leaving Papua underdeveloped and disconnected from more affluent sections of the Indonesian archipelago. Such companies also bring negative environmental impacts, such as pollution and the loss of forests. Many Papuans feel marginalized by the Jakarta elite and discriminated against by other ethnic groups.
An insurgency governed by stalemate
Indonesia shows little sign of budging from its long-term position on Papua, despite current President Joko Widodo pledging to listen to the concerns of Papuans after last year’s violent demonstrations. The Papuan independence movement – led primarily by Papuans exiled abroad – has made minimal progress amid internal divisions and a lack of coherence, despite the recent boost in global attention.
The UN – which ratified Indonesian control in the 1960s – is just as unlikely today to provide support for those intent on securing independence via political means. The principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity remain the two cornerstones of international diplomacy, while regional allies with similar concerns about breakaway regions and separatist struggles at home are certain to back Jakarta. For major powers such as the US, China and Russia, Papua is of little wider geo-strategic significance.
It is hard to see how Papua will escape the current impasse. A cycle of insurgent attacks, alleged state oppression, protests and military deployments continue to dictate the region’s security architecture. Papuan separatist groups are no match for the strength of the Indonesian military; while in times of increased tension the authorities are able to suppress information, denting the organizational ability of rebels and their supporters. For as long as there is no meaningful political dialogue, the status-quo in Papua – of a conflict frozen in time and largely hidden from view – will prevail long into the future.
Late last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte indicated a willingness to reverse his prior decision to terminate the peace process with the New People’s Army (NPA) – a communist rebel group at odds with Manila since the 1960s. On 26 December, Duterte appealed to Jose Maria Sison – the exiled head of the NPA’s political wing, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – to return home from exile in the Netherlands for one-on-one talks in an attempt to revive the peace process. Sison replied that while he was open to dialogue, he would only be prepared to meet Duterte in a neighbouring country.
This initial positive exchange was followed by a sense of growing momentum, when a 16-day ‘holiday truce’ agreed by the NPA and the Philippine military – covering the Christmas and New Year period – largely held firm despite several reported violations. In the early weeks of 2020, informal discussions have taken place and the government’s former chief negotiator, Silvestre Bello III, has even suggested Sison could return to Manila to sign an interim peace accord ahead of the resumption of formal talks. Duterte has sought to allay Sison’s fears over returning, stating on 11 January: ‘I guarantee his safety’.
Yet despite these steps forward, the window of opportunity for peace talks to resume may be limited. At the start of Duterte’s administration, talks with the NPA appeared to be moving forward until the peace process collapsed in early-2017 amid a dispute over a prisoner amnesty. All attempts to restart dialogue have since proven fruitless amid an atmosphere of rising hostility between the government and the CPP, typified by repeated tirades of insults exchanged in public between Duterte and Sison. This chequered history suggests the current receding of tensions may turn out only to be temporary.
A history of failed talks
The NPA and CPP have been led by Sison since he founded the rebel movement in the late-1960s. For five decades, the NPA has fought government troops in rural areas across the country, with the stated aim of overthrowing the Philippine state and replacing it with a political system predicated on Maoist ideology. While the insurgency reached its height in the 1980s during the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, the rebel movement has since held peace talks with six successive democratic-era presidents.
The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) – the negotiating body of the NPA and CPP – participated in failed talks during the administrations of Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino III before entering dialogue with Duterte upon his election in 2016. Talks initially progressed well, with a ceasefire being declared and four rounds of dialogue being held in Amsterdam, Oslo and Rome. Yet the peace process collapsed in 2017 amid Duterte’s refusal to release political prisoners and renewed rebel attacks. NPA activity has since rebounded in rural central and southern areas of the Philippines.
In 2018, several months of back-channel talks proved fruitless after the NPA refused to meet Duterte’s pre-conditions for the resumption of formal dialogue, which included an end to rebel attacks, an end to extortion and a political commitment from the CPP not to seek to form a coalition government. Last March, Duterte announced the peace process was ‘permanently terminated’ during his presidency – due to expire in 2022 – and disbanded his negotiating panel, which had been led by Silvestre Bello III. In its place, Duterte proposed localized talks with NPA commanders, bypassing the senior leadership.
Barriers to renewed dialogue
Duterte has rowed back on his decision, offering an olive branch in the form of a face-to-face meeting with Sison. Given this change in tone, what is the likelihood of formal national-level talks between the government and NDFP restarting, and ultimately succeeding, during the remainder of Duterte’s term?
Meaningful progress is unlikely for several reasons. First, Sison’s reluctance to return to the Philippines represents a firm barrier to dialogue. Duterte has long insisted that any future talks must be hosted in the Philippines, which Sison has described as ‘totally unacceptable’, arguing in December that agreeing to return would ‘put the NDFP and the entire peace negotiations in the pocket of the Duterte regime’. Alternatively, Sison has proposed holding informal talks in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, ahead of the resumption of formal negotiations in a third-party country – most likely Norway, which has served as a mediator between the two sides in the past. The Philippine government is unlikely to allow the CPP to dictate the timing or location of negotiations, leaving both sides at odds over their desired venue.
Second, the core areas of disagreement that have scuppered talks in recent years, remain unresolved. The government still requires the rebel movement to meet six pre-conditions, first proposed in 2018, before the peace process can resume. These conditions include an end to attacks, extortion and arson in addition to the encampment of rebel fighters, the signing of a bilateral ceasefire and an end to NPA recruitment. Given Sison’s lack of control over NPA commanders on the ground, from his base in the Netherlands, it is difficult to foresee these conditions being met, even if Sison and his advisors agreed. Sison also continues to call for ‘the release of political prisoners on humanitarian grounds’ as his own pre-condition for formal talks resuming. It is unlikely the government will deviate from its past stance.
Third, a lack of trust exists on both sides, with each suspicious of the other’s real intentions in seeking fresh talks. The CPP fears Duterte’s offer for Sison to return to partake in negotiations is a pre-text for his arrest. Despite Duterte’s reassurances, a court in Manila issued an arrest warrant for Sison just last August over his alleged role in the 1985 Inopacan massacre, while in September the Philippine police asked INTERPOL to issue a ‘red notice’ for the detention of Sison. These developments came after the arrest of several NDFP negotiators since 2017 and many previous threats from Duterte to detain Sison. Equally, the government is also suspicious of the CPP’s true intentions, having criticized NPA violations of past ceasefires and accused the group of using past peace negotiations as a cover for recruitment.
These suspicions have not been helped by an ongoing war-of-words between Duterte and Sison since the peace process first collapsed in 2017, typified by increasingly heated rhetoric and personal insults. After back-channel talks failed in 2018, Duterte derided NPA rebels as ‘robots’ fighting for a ‘bankrupt mind’ in reference to Sison, while the CPP leader retorted that Duterte was ‘very capable of violence’, labelling him as a ‘crazy guy in power’. Duterte has openly criticized CPP ideology as ‘outdated’, while the CPP has condemned Duterte’s authoritarian leadership style and argues he seeks to crush dissent. Tensions have been raised by the alleged ‘red-tagging’ of left-wing advocacy groups in recent months.
Fourth, even if the peace process resumes, the likelihood of a final peace accord being signed is slim, given that both sides have opposing visions of its end point. The CPP’s stated aim remains to replace the Philippines’ system of government with a socialist-style system lead by the working classes. Sison’s ideology, first outlined in 1974, argues this must be achieved through a prolonged guerrilla-style war, leaving little room for political negotiation. Many suspect that even in the event of a deal being signed, the NPA would refuse to disarm, with a spokesperson for Duterte’s peace process advisor arguing on 17 January that ‘never has it been the rebels’ intention to demobilize their armed wing, even if both parties sign a final peace agreement’. The Duterte administration, in line with the view of past Manila administrations, foresees a solution in line with the Philippine constitution and democratic processes. In such a case, no parallel armed forces would be permitted and the NPA would be required to disarm.
Another false dawn?
Despite Duterte’s latest peace overture being accompanied by more positive rhetoric by both parties, recent history suggests that events could spiral downhill quickly if disagreement on the core stumbling blocks persists. Since talks first collapsed in 2017, relations between the government and the CPP have been characterized by rising hostility and distrust. Even amid the recent détente, on 5 January the new chief-of-staff of the Philippine armed forces, Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos, vowed to crush the NPA before the end of Duterte’s term in 2022 – a threat which Duterte himself his repeated on multiple occasions.
Such mixed-messaging and Duterte’s unpredictable, shifting stance on his approach toward the CPP, may dissuade the CPP from returning to the negotiating table and leave Sison to conclude the risk of returning to Manila is too high. Unless a formal summit is agreed during this rare moment of calm, the revival of the peace process may – as Duterte stated last March – have to wait ‘for the next president’.
On 10 December, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced the end of martial law in Mindanao after opting against an extension, on the advice of military and police chiefs. The emergency measure, which was first imposed in the restive region in response to an ISIS-led siege of Marawi city in May 2017, had previously been extended three times and is now set to expire on 31 December. Two years after ISIS were defeated in Marawi, the jihadist threat has been reduced to a more manageable scale.
The ISIS-affiliated groups which led the siege have been pushed back and many of their leaders killed, leading Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to declare his preference for lifting martial law entirely in November. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) chiefs initially suggested extending the measure only in ‘selective areas’ where extremist groups still operate. The provinces of Maguindanao and Sulu have both experienced attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups this year.
With martial law lifted, what level of threat do ISIS’ surviving local affiliates represent in Mindanao? And despite ISIS’ declining global influence, after territorial losses in the Middle East and the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US raid in Syria, could its followers in the Philippines rebound?
ISIS remnants in Mindanao
The Maute Group, accused of planning the assault on Marawi in an attempt to carve out a Southeast Asian ISIS caliphate, are severely depleted after AFP operations in Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. While the group was 1,000-strong ahead of the siege, it is now thought to have fewer than 25 active members. Its founders, brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, were killed during the final gun battles in Marawi in October 2017; while its new leader, Abu Dar, was shot dead during a military operation in Tubaran on 14 March, leaving the Mautes without a main figurehead. After Abu Dar’s killing, the AFP said the Mautes were no longer capable of launching a Marawi-style raid, yet military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner warned that the group was still trying to recruit and remains a national security risk.
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which played a minor supporting role in the Marawi siege, emerged relatively unscathed and posed a larger threat in its aftermath. In 2018, they regularly fought government troops and carried-out a string of bombings, maiming civilians in restaurants and shopping malls, in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. However, AFP airstrikes and ground operations targeting BIFF hideouts in the rural Liguasan Marsh area of central Maguindanao have dented the group’s capabilities in 2019. In April, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the three BIFF factions – the most powerful of which is led by ISIS-affiliated militant Abu Toraife – had been forced into a tactical alliance and resorted to guerrilla-style tactics to survive while under growing pressure. In recent months, the group’s remaining fighters have lain low.
A smaller ISIS-aligned group, Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP), also remains active further south, in the provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato. However, since its leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid was killed in a firefight with police in 2017, AKP has been regarded by the authorities as more of a criminal nuisance than a transnational terror threat, having engaged only in a series of small-scale gun battles.
The threat from Abu Sayyaf
The Philippines oldest known jihadi group, Abu Sayyaf, which was formed in the early-1990s, currently represent the gravest threat of all Mindanao’s ISIS affiliates. After playing a leading role in the Marawi siege alongside the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf retreated from mainland Mindanao to their former maritime hideouts on the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. After regrouping and replenishing its ranks, Abu Sayyaf has rebounded in 2019. The most extreme faction, led by ISIS supporter Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, has perpetrated a wave of high-profile suicide bombings in Sulu this year. On 27 January, two militants detonated themselves inside a crowded cathedral in Jolo, leaving 22 worshippers dead and 81 wounded. A second double suicide attack killed eight people at a military base in Indanan on 28 June, while a fifth bomber blew themselves up at an AFP camp in the same town on 8 September.
The bombings were all claimed by ISIS via official statements. Several of the suspected bombers were revealed to be Indonesian and Moroccan nationals, adding to concerns that Abu Sayyaf is harbouring foreign fighters trained in bomb-making and willing to volunteer themselves for suicide missions. Back in July, Maj. Gen. Sobejana had warned that seven foreign terrorists were training Filipino militants in IED construction while another 42 suspected foreign fighters were being monitored by the authorities. He said many of these suspects were likely ‘embedded’ with Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF. On 5 November, government soldiers shot dead two Egyptian militants at a checkpoint in Jolo, confirming these fears.
Abu Sayyaf has around 400 fighters and continues to fight the army under the command of Sawadjaan in Sulu, while another ISIS-linked faction led by Furuji Indama remains active in Basilan. Smaller cells are active in the Tawi-Tawi islands, while Abu Sayyaf activity has been reported in Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah and along the coast of mainland Mindanao’s Zamboanga peninsula. Abu Sayyaf is also notorious for launching piracy attacks and kidnappings-at-sea, several of which have occurred in 2019.
Guarding against an ISIS resurgence
Although degraded post-Marawi, and contained to the remote southwest of the country, ISIS-aligned groups are still active and intent on forging a regional caliphate centred on the southern Philippines.
There is growing concern that the BIFF and Mautes may look to replenish their ranks by targeting the 66,000 residents still displaced from Marawi city, more than two years since the end of the siege. The government has been criticized by its opponents for the slow pace of rehabilitation, with the central Banggolo district still in ruin and needing to be cleared of unexploded ordnance before building work can begin. It is feared that young men with limited economic opportunities and their livelihoods placed on hold due to the ISIS-led siege, may ironically become prime targets for recruitment by jihadi groups. Tensions are rising, with the government’s 2021 target for rebuilding the city unlikely to be achieved.
An extension to martial law in Abu Sayyaf and BIFF strongholds would have helped the AFP maintain pressure on ISIS remnants; but the military and intelligence agencies will maintain vigilance regardless. The AFP will likely continue launching airstrikes and undertaking ground offensives in the ISIS hotspots of Sulu and Maguindanao; while also holding regular trilateral naval patrols alongside Indonesian and Malaysian forces in the Sulu Sea, to deter kidnappings and prevent the movement of foreign fighters. Guarding against the transition of Abu Sayyaf to mainland Mindanao is crucial in preventing a repeat of Marawi, when the Philippines’ four ISIS-linked groups were able to join forces to take-over the city.
Hopes are also invested in a peace deal signed between the government and an older, more moderate Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The accord, ratified in a referendum in western Mindanao earlier this year, will see former rebels govern a new Muslim autonomous region, encompassing the core territories where ISIS-linked groups remain active. If the deal brings economic development and enhances livelihoods, then ISIS – known to prey upon unstable and poverty-stricken regions to reinvigorate itself – may be denied a climate conducive to its resurgence in the Philippines.
An earlier version of this article, written before it was announced that martial law would not be extended beyond December 2019, is published on Geopolitical Monitor.
Since the crackdown on the Rohingya in mid-2017, Rakhine State, along the border with Bangladesh in Myanmar’s volatile west, has been the epicentre of violence in a nation where multiple civil wars have raged since the 1940s. While more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have remained encamped in squalid conditions across the border, the military – known as the Tatmadaw – has taken the fight to a band of Arakanese Buddhist militants active the area, known as the Arakan Army (AA), bringing further bloodshed to Rakhine. Yet in August, a spate of insurgent attacks 600km to the northeast re-opened a dormant front on Myanmar’s battlefield, threatening to alter the dynamics of the conflict.
On 15 August, three allied ethnic armed groups – the AA, along with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – launched a series of co-ordinated attacks in the Mandalay and Shan regions. In the township of Naung Cho, the groups’ fighters – collectively known as the Northern Alliance, or Brotherhood Alliance – attacked a railway bridge, killing seven Tatmadaw troops and three policemen. Elsewhere, a military training academy and several toll gates were attacked, while at least four strategic bridges were destroyed with IEDs.
The unexpected attacks drew an immediate response from the army and sparked weeks of intense fighting, triggering the most widespread violence witnessed since the height of the Rohingya crisis.
Yet the sudden deterioration in security pushed the two main perpetrators – the Northern Alliance and the government – to come to the negotiating table. Two rounds of informal talks were held in late-August and mid-September, leading the Northern Alliance to declare a unilateral truce until 31 December. Yet despite the positive rhetoric accompanying the ceasefire, the AA, TNLA and MNDAA have continued to launch attacks, prompting the military to respond furiously and call an end to its own unilateral ceasefire on 21 September, which had been routinely extended throughout the year.
Meanwhile, ten ethnic armed groups who had previously signed the collective Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government, initiated in 2015, met government negotiators in September with the aim of reviving the stalled national-level peace process. After a two-day meeting in Yangon, the signatories reportedly agreed to hold a fourth union-level Panglong Peace Conference early next year. If the summit goes ahead in early-2020 as hoped, it would signal the resumption of formal talks for the first time since 2018 and likely achieve more than was possible in recent informal discussions.
Yet with fighting ongoing and the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire now called-off, will recent signs of momentum in talks be sustained? And, what chance of formal negotiations being revived next year?
Myanmar’s divided peace process
The election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2015 brought fresh hope of a resolution to the decades-old ethnic conflicts which have raged since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. The NLD hoped to build on the pre-existing NCA, signed in October of that year, by holding a series of 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences, named after a peace summit held in the mid-20th Century by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San. Yet overall, the situation has worsened.
Little progress has been made through the NCA mechanism; which only a collection of smaller armed organizations have embraced. Most NCA signatories operate only in the less-active southern conflict zones of Kayah, Kayin and Mon. Violence elsewhere has surged. Since a spate of AA attacks on police border guard outposts in January, more than 65,000 civilians have fled their homes in Rakhine State, while hundreds of combatants are thought to have been killed on both sides amid escalating clashes. The townships of Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U and Rathedaung have been particularly hard hit. Paletwa township, in neighbouring Chin State, has also emerged as a conflict flashpoint.
While groups in the northeast had been largely quiet over the past year after holding tentative talks with the government, August’s bloodshed rapidly altered the picture. The Northern Alliance attacks – which it must be noted, did not involve insurgents from fourth member of the alliance, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – had a negative impact on the civilian population, trade and the regional economy. The destruction of key bridges and the burning of trucks severely impeded the vital cross-border trade with China, as the strategic border trading town of Muse became virtually inaccessible from the Myanmar side for a week in mid-August. In addition to the financial implications, the raids prompted a large-scale military crackdown, threatening to open up a deadly new front in the north.
Fragile ceasefires and informal talks
On 31 August, and again on 16-17 September, representatives of the government-directed National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NPRC) met Northern Alliance leaders in Shan’s Kengtung township. China – which has influence over the alliance members and an obvious strategic interest in ensuring stability and unimpeded trade along its border – pressured both sides to end the fighting. A Chinese delegation led by a senior official from Yunnan province, Guo Bao, attended the second summit. The meetings resulted a temporary reduction of tensions, as both parties agreed to hold further talks. On 9 September, in what initially appeared to represent a potentially major breakthrough, the Northern Alliance declared a month-long ceasefire to ‘build trust’, and later extended it until the end of 2019.
After the second meeting, there was even talk of a bilateral ceasefire, with local media stating that a seven-point plan had been agreed in principle. Yet nothing was signed, and in retrospect it is unclear if the rebel representatives at the talks were granted authority by their superiors to agree a concrete deal. Despite the positive direction of talks, armed encounters – with both sides accusing each other of initiating violence – have continued to occur on a near-daily basis in Shan and Rakhine. With little sign of restraint, the Tatmadaw has raised doubts over the sincerity of the Northern Alliance groups and opted on 21 September to terminate its own ceasefire, which had covered five army command regions. That ceasefire – which had been in place since late-2018 – had also been routinely violated.
Familiar obstacles to peace
The divided nature of Myanmar’s peace process continues to represent the most obvious barrier to progressive talks. While smaller, weaker and less-active groups are committed to the NCA, the more powerful Northern Alliance groups are intent on negotiating a bilateral ceasefire on their own terms. A third, wider coalition of ethnic armies, led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and united via the UWSA-fronted Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), are also seeking a separate arrangement. The ultimate end result envisioned by most non-state ethnic armed groups is expanded autonomy within a federal system of government. But with so many actors – with varying aims, motives and ideologies – a truly nationwide agreement will be hard to secure. The complexity of Myanmar’s overlapping wars has led to almost inevitable stagnation and deadlock in discussions.
More immediate, short-term obstacles, concern events on the ground in Rakhine and Shan. Both the military and Northern Alliance have accused each other of escalatory tactics. The AA and TNLA claim the Tatmadaw has moved troops into their areas of influence and opened fire on civilians, while the military maintains these groups have launched unprovoked ambushes and planted landmines near villages. An unrelenting cycle of violence since mid-August has eroded trust and fostered suspicion.
The Northern Alliance aside, a fourth Panglong conference in early-2020 with the NCA signatories, if it goes ahead, would represent a positive development. For the first time since July 2018, the parties to the NCA would all be around the same table for meaningful talks to discuss ways to move forward in the political arena. Autonomy and federalism would likely be the key talking-points. Regarding the Northern Alliance, halting clashes would be the priority, and further rounds of informal talks may aid in terms of limiting violence and ensuring communication channels remain open. These groups pose the largest threat at present. If a bilateral ceasefire could be agreed, perhaps with China as the third-party mediator, a more conducive environment for entry into the NCA mechanism may yet develop.
The government looks unlikely to waver from the NCA path, to which the military and NLD appear to be fully committed. Yet as long as the NCA remains ‘Nationwide’ in name only, fighting will continue. Only when the Northern Alliance and FPNCC-tied groups are brought on board – which would entail tough compromises on both sides – will the NCA represent an opportunity for meaningful progress.
On 10 July, a farmer in the rural township of Kutkai, in Myanmar’s northern Shan state, was working in his paddy field when a landmine concealed beneath vegetation exploded, inflicting severe injuries. The victim – a 39-year-old father of three children – was rushed to hospital with shrapnel wounds to his left leg, hand and stomach, but fortunately survived. The area where the blast took place is home to multiple armed groups, who have fought the military – known as the Tatmadaw – for generations.
The story is sadly a familiar one in volatile remote border regions around Myanmar’s long perimeter, which are heavily contaminated with landmines as a result of unrelenting violence since the mid-20th Century. The 2015 election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), after initial reforms introduced by the former ruling military junta in 2011, brought hope that insurgencies would die out and pave the way for landmine removal. Four years on, de-mining has still not started.
Since then, peace talks have stalled while hostilities in Shan state in the northeast, and Rakhine state in the west, have only worsened and made international headlines. Reports of indiscriminate killings, torture, ethnic cleansing and mass displacement have emerged, drawing frequent coverage in global media. Yet landmines have inflicted carnage under the radar. More often linked to former war zones elsewhere in Southeast Asia, mines are also a deadly hidden side-effect of Myanmar’s internal strife.
Myanmar’s landmine problem
Insurgencies have been waged by ethnic armies in Myanmar’s borderlands since the nation secured independence from Britain at the end of the colonial period in 1948. Landmines have been adopted as a vital tool of guerrilla warfare by rebels who have battled Naypyidaw for autonomy and resource rights in the remote, densely-forested and mountainous border regions of the northeast. Landmines are unsophisticated weapons; cheap to produce and easy to conceal along isolated roads and jungle paths, where they are planted to inflict casualties on the military without the risk of incurring losses.
Mines are regularly used by ethnic armies in rural ambushes against the Tatmadaw, and also for the defence of pockets of rebel-controlled territory in the countryside. Myanmar has not acceded to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, and government forces also regularly plant landmines during their offensives. The devices are allegedly used by the army to stoke fear and contain the spread of insurgent groups.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) has recorded at least 4,193 casualties due to landmines in Myanmar since data collection began in 1999, with 537 killed and 3,538 injured. As a result of media restrictions and lack of access to conflict zones in Myanmar, the true figure is likely higher, with one humanitarian group estimating as many as 40,000 victims since the late-1940s. In terms of annual casualties – 202 in 2017 and 276 in 2018 – Myanmar comes first in Southeast Asia and ranks as the third-worst mine-affected nation globally, behind only Colombia and Afghanistan.
Myanmar’s most heavily-contaminated regions are along borders with China, India and Bangladesh, in the active conflict zones of Shan, Kachin, Sagaing, Chin and Rakhine. Further south in Bago, Kayah and Kayin – where conflicts have receded in recent years – areas along the border with Thailand are also heavily minded. In all, nine of Myanmar’s fifteen states and administrative regions are affected.
A disproportionate number of landmine victims are ethnic minority civilians living in rural townships. Villagers and farmers often sustain injuries when tending crops, venturing into the forest in search of food or tending animals; while children are often struck after inadvertently triggering a mine while playing outside. The impact on livelihoods and economic development in the countryside is huge – many blast survivors are blinded or require the amputation of a limb, leaving them unable to work.
Political transition marred by violence
The November 2015 election win for the NLD coincided with the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) the previous month, between the government and eight armed groups. The NCA included a pledge to co-operate on removing mines and boosted hopes that de-mining work would start in areas controlled by the signatories. Yet the ongoing peace process with the NCA parties has since stalled, and hostilities have since reignited in the north and west, where non-signatory groups are based. As yet, no mines have been cleared and fresh mine use has been reported on both sides.
During the Rohingya crackdown of 2017, the Tatmadaw allegedly laid mines in the path of refugees fleeing northern Rakhine for Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch said soldiers planted anti-personnel mines along roads and at border crossing points, citing witness accounts and video footage. Ethnic armed groups including the Arakan Army (AA), Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have also continued to use mines in ambushes against Tatmadaw troops.
Just last month, the AA detonated a mine next to a military patrol in Mrauk-U on 23 July. The next day, KIA rebels ambushed an army convoy with landmines in Muse, killing two Tatmadaw soldiers.
What is preventing landmine clearance?
The halting of further landmine use, and the clearance of existing mines, is closely dependent upon the NCA-centred peace process. Since two more non-state armed groups signed the accord in early-2018, dialogue has broken down amid disagreement over constitutional changes, and rebel groups have split into a network of fractured alliances. A growing coalition of national humanitarian NGOs and international de-mining groups, ready to start work, have had to place clearance plans on hold.
To survey land and clear mines requires the permission of both the government and ethnic armies, which control territory in many contaminated areas. Yet with the peace process stalled, both sides are reluctant to de-mine. There remains a distinct lack-of-trust and hostility between the opposing parties, solidified by seven decades of fighting. Landmines have long been used by ethnic insurgent groups for defensive purposes; and in the absence of access to powerful conventional weapons to match the Tatmadaw’s firepower, landmines are deeply entrenched in local-level conflict dynamics.
Without the green light to start clearance work, efforts by humanitarian groups so-far have focused on victim assistance and risk education. A limited national-level infrastructure has been put in place to co-ordinate these programmes, with the Mine Risks Working Group (MRWG) being established in 2012. The MRWG is co-chaired by UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Welfare, and comprises several other ministries and around 40 humanitarian groups. Despite the initiative raising public awareness, the ICBL found in its most recent report that there is ‘no systematic effort’ underway to clear mines.
The administration in Naypyidaw has still not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, as 164 other nations have done, and shows little sign of committing in the near future. And despite nominally-civilian NLD leader and Myanmar’s de-facto ruler Aung San Suu Kyi calling for an end to mine use in the past, the Tatmadaw remains in control of defence and security issues and is unlikely to relinquish its ability to use the weapon. Given Suu Kyi’s failure to restrain the army, even her past words are now tarnished.
Civilians living in fear
Mine clearance on any major scale cannot begin until the nationwide peace process is finalized and a stable security environment prevails in Myanmar’s long-contested border regions. Given the current deadlock in talks and the resurgence of violence in 2019, such a scenario appears a remote prospect.
In the absence of unhindered access for international de-mining operators and the resulting lack of a detailed contamination survey, the full extent of the problem and priority areas for clearance remain unknown. Such work can make a difference: on the former battlefields of Vietnam and Laos, detailed surveys have vastly reduced annual fatalities since the mid-1990s despite much ordnance remaining.
Yet unlike in its neighbours, where the guns fell silent decades ago, Myanmar’s internal conflicts are still raging. For as long as the violence continues and for decades after a final peace accord is signed, civilians who have for so long lived in fear of violence between Tatmadaw soldiers and ethnic rebels must also face the explosive legacy of Myanmar’s intractable conflicts buried deep beneath the soil.