Myanmar’s President Thein Sein on Thursday requested the country’s parliament to extend martial law by three months in Shan state’s Kokang region, where fierce fighting between ethnic insurgents and government troops has displaced tens of thousands of civilians since February.
Speaking on behalf of the president, Minister of Defense Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin asked lawmakers to approve an extension of martial law in the region, which was declared shortly after the conflict began three months ago and is set to expire on May 17.
“On behalf of the president, I would like to submit a proposal to extend the state of emergency and imposed martial law in Kokang for an additional 90 days, as fighting continues in the area,” the minister said.
Speaking to reporters outside of the legislature, Wai Lwin called the military situation in the Kokang region “hard to define,” and said it was unclear how long the conflict might drag on.
“We can’t do anything to stop the fighting alone—it depends on the other side to stop it,” he said.
“I have just submitted a proposal to extend martial law in the area, but we don’t know what parliament will decide. We will find out what its decision is tomorrow.”
Led by ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), or Kokang army, on Feb. 9 launched a bid to retake the rugged and mountainous Kokang region, a corner of Shan state which it had controlled until 2009, beginning in the Kokang regional capital Laukkai.
Hundreds of soldiers have been killed in the Kokang conflict, and tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced.
MNDAA officials told the Associated Press last month that about 700 government soldiers had died and 1,500 were wounded since the fighting began in February, while Kokang casualties number 30 dead and more than 60 injured.
Lawmakers weigh in
Lawmakers on Thursday were united in their desire to end the conflict, but had varied opinions on how to do so.
Sandar Min, a member of parliament with Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), told RFA that the government should not bow to Kokang demands for an independent state.
“We don’t agree and won’t accept the request for a Kokang state,” he said.
“We want peace, but my opinion on the fighting in the Kokang region right now is that the military is protecting the country.”
Sai Maung Tin, a lawmaker with the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) party, called for talks between the MNDAA and the military.
“I want the government army to negotiate with the Kokang patiently, as they are one of our ethnic groups,” the lawmaker said.
“We have had more than 60 years of civil war and the people are suffering,” he added, referring to the numerous conflicts Myanmar’s successive central governments have fought with various armed ethnic groups since attaining independence from Britain in 1948.
Wary of peace
Aung Thein Lin of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said the government had offered to hold talks with the MNDAA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Front (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA)—two allied ethnic insurgent groups that have been fighting alongside it—but had been rebuffed.
But he said that his stance on the conflict was not related to politics or nationality, “it’s about the drug trade.”
U.S. officials have long suspected Peng Jiasheng of playing a major role in drug trafficking, initially in opium and more recently in methamphetamines, and while he claims to be fighting for ethnic rights, many in Myanmar view the current struggle as part of a bid by the insurgent leader to retake control of an area that supports lucrative trading and smuggling because of its location on the border with China.
Aung Thein Lin also expressed doubt that the MNDAA would honor any peace deal with the government, after a bilateral cease-fire agreement between the two sides faltered in 2009 when the ethnic army resisted pressure to transform into a paramilitary Border Guard Force under the control of the military.
“We had a cease-fire with the Kokang and were celebrating peace, but then they broke their promise and left us,” he said.
“How can we know that they won’t break their promise again if we agree to peace?”
The ongoing conflict in Shan state has broader implications for the state of peace in Myanmar, as Thein Sein seeks to forge a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with more than a dozen ethnic armies ahead of elections planned for later this year.
In late March, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) coalition of 16 armed ethnic groups signed a draft peace deal with the government’s Union Peace-Making Work Committee (UPWC), but while the two parties agreed on most of the accord’s content, some areas of disagreement remained.
As negotiations continue, Naing Han Thar, leader of the NCCT, warned Wednesday that efforts to finalize the NCA could founder if the government insists on excluding the MNDAA, TNLA and AA from the process.
Reported by Win Naung Toe, Win Ko Ko Lwin and Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.