A leaked government memo in Myanmar warned of the possibility of an attack by separatists in cities across Myanmar, including the capital, Naypyidaw.
– Myanmar’s government and the military, known as the Tatmadaw, continues to favour military crackdowns in place of negotiations with ethnic insurgent groups
– Ethnic insurgent groups are responding to the government’s crackdown with bolder offensive guerrilla actions
– Peace negotiations are continuing to stall and could be abandoned, resulting in greater conflict
On September 25, the US embassy in Yangon — Myanmar’s largest city — issued a warning that suggested attacks could occur in the country’s capital of Naypyidaw and other major cities sometime between September 26 and October 26. The warnings were released after the leak of a Myanmar Presidential Office security memo, which stated that members of the Karen National Union (KNU), the Chin National Front (CNF) and the Northern Alliance group “have planned for an attack in Naypyidaw on September 16 or 26, or on October 16 or 26.” Despite the lack of incidents on September 26, similar warnings were issued by the Australian, British and Canadian embassies.
Although the government has not publicly confirmed the existence of the memo, an anonymous police source confirmed that bomb squads were conducting random security checks in crowded areas, looking for explosive devices and other suspicious objects.
The KNU and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) — two of the most prominent separatist movements in Myanmar and both considered terrorist groups by Naypyidaw — denied plans for attacks. They claimed that they are following the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, signed by the government and eight ethnic insurgent groups in October 2015 to ensure peace and greater political dialogue in the country.
Conflict between the Myanmar government and different ethnic insurgent groups has raged for decades. Ethnic minorities in Myanmar make up 40% of the population, yet the ethnic Bamar people have dominated government since the country gained independence from British rule in 1948. This dominance was entrenched with the military coup in 1962, as the rank and file of the military (known as the Tatmadaw) is dominated by Bamars.
In October 2016, ethnic violence in Myanmar gained greater international attention when conflict with Rohingya insurgent groups in Rakhine state in the country’s north-west led to a brutal intervention by the Tatmadaw. This also led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. After facing global criticism from human rights groups and the UN over the crisis, Naypyidaw has since attempted to present the country as being united and stable.
The rumoured plans for attacks in Naypyidaw suggest the country is on the cusp of another wave of ethnic violence. On August 15, attacks on Myanmar military elite academies, army bases, police stations and locations around the northern Shan state capital of Lashio killed at least 16 people. The attacks came after a lull of violence in Northern Shan since December 2018, where the Tatmadaw had imposed a unilateral operational pause. The perpetrators were members of the Northern Alliance, which is a composition of four ethnic insurgent groups: the KIA, the Palaung Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the ethnic Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army based in the Kokang region, and the Rakhine Arakan Army (AA). Each of these groups has been engaged in bloody and lengthy conflicts for separatism and autonomy for their respective ethnic minority.
The other main suspects named in the leaked memo were the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Chin National Front (CNF). The KNU is a political organisation that claims to represent the Karen people, an ethnic minority group in the eastern state of Karen. It has been fighting the central government since 1949, a year after the nation declared its independence. Initially seeking an independent Karen State, the KNU’s goals are to achieve federalisation, which would give the Karen people greater autonomy. The CNF militant group, which formed in 1988, has been fighting for greater autonomy for the Chin ethnic group and, like the KNU, for federalism.
Tatmadaw reports said that the planned attacks in August were part of a ‘counter-attack’ to draw attention away from the Rakhine conflict, where there is bitter fighting between the Tatmadaw and the AA. According to Amnesty International, the Tatmadaw have deployed five light infantry divisions into the Rakhine state and the adjacent region of Chin state. There has also been a region-wide internet shutdown in place since June. These rumoured bombings may have been part of a strategy to draw Tatmadaw’s and government’s focus away from Rakhine, where the Tatmadaw claims the AA are at the end of their tether.
IS THERE A WAY OUT?
No attack occurred between September 26 and October 26, possibly because insurgents were deterred by fears of enhanced government preparedness in the wake of the leaking of the memo. It is also a possibility that there was no planned attack at all and the government had acted on false intelligence. Unless and until the government publicly acknowledges the threats and releases more information, the public will continue to be left in the dark and will be unable to fully understand the security threat levels in Myanmar’s main cities.
Information about the possible attacks is scarce, coming only via leaks on social media and from anonymous sources. Despite these rumours, the government has been seeking to present a position of strength and security in the capital. Had any bombings occurred, they would have marked the closest that the insurgent groups have been able to penetrate the centre of Myanmar in over a decade. The attacks in August have already raised serious questions about of the government’s claim that it is containing the violence. The lack of official response could be a sign that officials are concerned about causing panic and losing the public’s confidence. Yet the lack of transparency may itself breed greater mistrust in the government.
The threatened escalation is a sign that the Tatmadaw’s latest attempts at peace negotiations may soon collapse. Since December 2018, the Tatmadaw had imposed a pause of violence and attempted to broker peace with the Northern Alliance. However, talks have frequently stalled or never materialised, and the Northern Alliance condemned the negotiations as “one-sided and un-negotiable”. The connection between the planned attacks and the Northern Alliance, as outlined in the leaked memo, is suggestive of the group’s frustrations with the peace process. If this is the case, the Northern Alliance may be preparing to abandon negotiations, which would likely signal a resumption of violence will soon occur. Already on October 26, the AA carried out a daring raid in Rakhine, during which 40 police officers and soldiers were taken hostage.
Despite the uncertainty, it is clear that, for the moment at least, violence in Myanmar will continue. Until the government and the Tatmadaw engage with the insurgent groups and move away from retaliatory practices, the threat of attacks in the country’s major cities will remain.
Evan is an analyst on the risk analysis team. He focuses on political and developmental concerns in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly China.