SPDC Divided on Peace
By Naw May Oo & Min Zaw Oo
Mizzima News (www.mizzima.com), January
The Karen National Union (KNU) delegation left Rangoon on
Thursday, 22 January 2004, without signing a formal agreement
while military clashes and
human rights abuses are still occurring in Karen areas. Some
observers speculate that the military is using a good-cop-bad-cop
strategy to suppress the KNU under the guise of the ceasefire
talk. Further speculation is that the KNU might have been
politically ‘co-opted’ by the State Peace and
Development Council (SPDC) and that the talk is a political
defeat for the Karen resistance movement.
Careful analysis based on the information from the sources
close to the parties involved indicates that the SPDC’s
leaders are likely to be divided on the ceasefire issue with
the KNU. The peace initiative is indeed a set of two games
played between both the opposition and the SPDC, and among
the military’s factions.
Gen. Khin Nyunt, the Prime Minister, and his associates are
the prime authors of the current ceasefire initiative, according
to the sources close to the talks. Brig. Kyaw Thein, head
of the Information and Intelligence Bureau under the Directorate
of the Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI), led the SPDC’s
delegation. Thein Swe, Minister of the Prime Minister’s
Office, Brig. Than Tun, a member of the Domestic and International
Information Department, Brig. Kyaw Han, head of the Counter
Intelligence Department, were part of the SPDC’s delegation.
Gen. Khin Nyunt attended the meetings on the first and last
day and communicated key concepts of the ceasefire to the
KNU delegation. Gen. Kyaw Win, who is reportedly close to
Sen. Gen. Than Shwe, also came only on the first and last
days merely to greet the delegation. All attendees from the
side of the SPDC were senior officials from the DDSI.
Although it is naturally necessary to have senior officials
of field operations present to discuss the technical details
of a ceasefire agreement, none of the senior officials from
the War Office, the Burmese version of the Pentagon, was present
at the talk. Four Bureaus of Special Operations are responsible
for coordinating operations in various Regional Commands.
Lt. Generals Ye Myint, Aung Htwe, Khin Maung Than and Maung
Bo command four bureaus respectively, in coordination with
regional and divisional commanders. None of them attended
According to sources, a senior official from the SPDC delegation
confessed that it was “extremely difficult” to
implement the peace initiative with the KNU because some elements,
especially field commanders, seem to believe that the Burmese
Army is capable of wiping out the ethnic insurgency. The SPDC
delegation had to report to the War Office with the notes
from each day’s meeting for further discussions and
The SPDC delegation, on many occasions, returned to the talks
with sullen faces the next day just to scrap the preceding
day’s agreements because the War Office struck them
down. “We also have to do many things on our side [to
accomplish the peace initiative],” said Gen. Khin Nyunt.
DDSI’s Role in Ceasefire
Gen. Khin Nyunt’s role within the SPDC was revitalized
through a promotion
to Prime Minister after the Depayin violence that killed scores
of the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) supporters.
The Depayin massacre consequently put intense international
pressure on the SPDC, including new economic sanctions by
the United States. Gen. Khin Nyunt apparently was allowed
to gain new power in order to orchestrate political maneuvers
amidst the crisis emerging out of the Depayin violence.
It is important to note that Gen. Khin Nyunt and the DDSI
advocated for and initiated ceasefire arrangements even before
the military takeover in 1988. The initial strategy of the
ceasefire tactics was intended to strangle the Communist Party
of Burma (CPB) by manipulating the ethnic sentiment among
the rank and files of CPB’s military units.
The military intelligence has established a connection with
Kokang leader, Phone Kyar Shin, since December 1987 when many
ethnic-based units became disenchanted with the CPB’s
Burman leadership. After the Kokang group (MNDA) broke away
from the CPB in March 1989, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, personally
met with Kokang leaders to implement a ceasefire agreement.
This ceasefire with the Kokang sparked a domino effect on
other CPB-breakaway ethnic groups in the Shan State and one
group after another has been enticed to sign agreements since
1989. Currently, fifteen armed groups have agreed officially
to a ceasefire agreement with the SPDC while it unofficially
has made deals with six splinter groups that are still armed.Not
surprisingly, the ceasefire tactic has paid off for the intelligence
faction, as it has been able to strengthen its power base
inside the military leadership to compete with the field commanders.
The intelligence faction in the military continues to utilize
the ceasefires with the opposition groups to overcome the
field-commander faction in the intra-military power struggle.
Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt and his associates have earned credit
for the ceasefire agreements, which has granted them respect
and also made them a powerful asset in the SPDC leadership.
However, the intelligence group’s ceasefire arrangements
seem to go beyond the intra-group power struggle.
It is apparent that the SPDC’s ceasefire agreements
with the armed ethnic groups were not really necessitated
by military stalemates or crises for the SPDC. Unlike the
current Sri Lankan ceasefire that was largely made necessary
by the military stalemate, the Burmese military did not encounter
serious military pressure from the oppositions.
The military managed to repel the initial phase of the oppositions’
offensives right after the 1988 uprising. The Burma Army,
after the 1988 uprising, had lost only one major tactical
base, Mae Thawaw, which was later recaptured by the regime.
The army, again, has stepped up its campaigns against the
resistance movement since 1993 and currently occupies over
90 percent of the active rebel bases.
Within the SPDC’s current internal power struggle,
some elements in the regime seem to view the civil war as
unnecessary in order to control the ethnic rebellion. At the
same time, the SPDC’s intent in pursuing further ceasefires
is not solely to reunite with ethnic rebels as it continues
to commit apparent human rights abuses. The SPDC is still
constantly pressuring the existing non-ceasefire groups such
as the Chin National Front (CNF), the Karenni Progressive
Party (KNPP), and the KNU to enter ceasefire agreements. (The
SPDC-KNPP ceasefire collapsed three months after signing.)
Nevertheless, some elements in the regime seem to rationalize
the civil war as an undesired by-product of the development
of the country. Some military leaders seem willing to de-escalate
the violent conflict to a non-fighting stage if such de-escalation
benefits the SPDC politically. The SPDC still refuses to address
the political settlement of ethnic issues despite the existing
Under the ceasefire agreements, the rebels are allowed to
keep their army and limited territorial control in addition
to the privileges of extracting natural resources and drug
trafficking. The regime has made ceasefire agreements even
with small groups, like Kayan National Guard that had only
about 50 armed troops.
Peace Needs Both Levels
Even though some KNU senior officials are doubtful of the
military’s intention for peace, the KNU leadership as
a whole and the military commanders are willing to respect
the ceasefire agreement if both sides ratify it. In contrast,
SPDC’s commitment to the agreement seems unsettled among
Field commanders of the SPDC are defiant of Gen. Khin Nyunt
at the operational level. They perceive the intelligence officials
as opportunists who receive privileges without sacrifice.
When Gen. Khin Nyunt issued an order to stop using forced
labor in 2001 because of the pressure from the International
Labor Organization (ILO), the field commanders ignored it.
Although the War Office issued operational expenses for ‘porters,’
the military units never utilized the money to hire people.
Past decisions allow field commanders to act autonomously
today. In 1996, Gen. Maung Aye instructed military units to
be prepared to be self-reliant without depending on the central
command to support them logistically. The deteriorating economy
and the sky-rocking price of basic goods do not have any effect
on the military personnel.
Essentially, field commanders become small warlords in various
regions. Many battalions depend on funds secured by each company.
Battalions in the northern and eastern border regions reportedly
have to send a certain amount of funds to divisional or regional
Gen. Khin Nyunt insisted that both sides be “serious”
about the current peace initiative, sources close to the recent
ceasefire talks said. While the KNU officials raised questions
on the ongoing operations and human rights abuses in Karen
areas, Gen. Khin Nyunt acknowledged that some elements, who
do not agree on the peace initiative, were undermining the
ceasefire. Although a ceasefire agreement was not officially
signed, both delegations seem to be satisfied with the process.
The KNU delegates received handsome treatment from the SPDC
Nevertheless, it will still be, undoubtedly, difficult to
fully implement the ceasefire and peace deal between the KNU
and the SPDC even if the truce is ratified. The hard-line
faction and disgruntled field commanders are less likely to
be duped by the truce.
At the moment, a formal agreement to a ceasefire between
the KNU and the SPDC apparently demands much patience, sincerity,
and political willingness.
Naw May Oo is the Director of Communications and Min Zaw Oo
is the Director of Outreach and Strategy at Washington-based
Free Burma Coalition.