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Complex Negotiations on the Frontlines of Northern Myanmar’s Long-Running Civil War

By 14/02/2020 No Comments

Local population crossing a river in Kachin State in northern Burma. (Photo: Viviana Holbrooks/UN Photo)

CCHN supported last year a listening tour to identify the key dynamics, challenges, and dilemmas associated with humanitarian negotiations in northern Myanmar. This research was used to inform peer learning and a two-day workshop for frontline negotiators. Some of the key findings are outlined below.

Fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIO) and Myanmar’s Armed Forces (the Tatmadaw) has persisted for more than half a century, making it one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. The UN and various international NGOs scaled up their activities after fighting resumed in mid-2011. But operations have faced increasing movement and operational restrictions that require agencies to enter into protracted, multi-party negotiations to maintain their presence and relevance in the country’s north.

I was asked by CCHN in late-2019 to research these dynamics. I began by producing a background paper on the key challenges and dilemmas facing frontline negotiators in Kachin, based on desk research and a series of interviews with frontline staff and key observers. This research informed the design of a ‘Specialised Session’ in late 2020 to support negotiators working in and on Myanmar, which I jointly facilitated with other CCHN staff.

The negotiating environment

Conflict in Kachin first erupted between the KIA and Tatmadaw in the early 1960s, characterised by its low intensity and sporadic clashes. By 1994 the two parties had agreed to a ceasefire that lasted for 17 years. But fighting resumed in mid-2011, forcing around 100,000 civilians from their homes – most of whom remain displaced today.

Humanitarian operations were hampered from the outset by ongoing fighting, landmines, poor roads, severe weather, and bureaucratic delays. National authorities also required that international agencies request travel approval for international staff wishing to move outside specific areas in which the KIA was active – or non-government-controlled areas (NGCA). National staff have been freer to travel throughout Kachin but have also faced increasing movement and operational restrictions over recent years.

UN-led humanitarian negotiations from the beginning of the conflict focused primarily on permission for crossline missions (or convoys) intended to bring relief goods to IDP camps in NGCA. Most humanitarian agencies also pursued bilateral negotiations with national and local authorities, with varying degrees of success.

Local humanitarian and civil society organisations continued to implement programmes in both government-controlled areas and NCGA throughout the conflict, often supported by international agencies and international donors. But their activities have also come under increasing pressure over recent years.

Negotiation dynamics

Frontline negotiators routinely described bureaucratic obstacles as the greatest challenge they face in Kachin. Humanitarians have had to engage with opaque and complex decision-making structures that stretch from the capital, Naypyidaw, the state capital, Myitkyina, and to various levels within the Tatmadaw, as well as the KIO.

Humanitarian agencies reportedly struggled in northern Myanmar to balance collective approaches to negotiation (historically led by the UN’s most senior official, the Resident Coordinator) with bilateral negotiations. The former approach was largely seen to be effective during the first years of the conflict, but proved to be time-consuming, costly, and negotiations ultimately broke down. But bilateral approaches had exposed agencies to being played off against one another and risked reducing their bargaining power.

Kachin has also typically been perceived as low on the international agenda. This has reportedly reduced advocacy opportunities and limited international funding for the response. Negotiators also described how the influence of external political actors reduced humanitarian access and the space for negotiation in northern Myanmar. Trust with national authorities was also perceived to be low, further undermining prospects for negotiation.

Participants at the Specialised Session late last year built on these challenges, among others, to develop a rich analysis of the negotiating environment. From this shared understanding we tested and presented a number of tools and approaches for frontline negotiators to deploy upon their return to Kachin. The Specialised Session marks only the beginning of CCHN’s peer support to Myanmar.

About the Author

Dr Ashley Jonathan Clements is a consultant and researcher, currently based in Sri Lanka. He has spent over fifteen years working in the humanitarian sector with the UN and NGOs. His latest book (Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups: The Frontlines of Diplomacy. London: Routledge, 2020) investigates the compliance of armed groups with international humanitarian and human rights norms. Ash continues to research and support frontline negotiations and conducts negotiation training for a range of audiences.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of CCHN nor any of its Strategic Partners.