The decision to temporarily hand power in the Kokang region to military authorities has provoked a mixed response, with some expressing concern that it could lead to human rights abuses.
On the night of February 17, President U Thein Sein announced the introduction of martial law in the Kokang Self-administered Zone – comprising Konkyan and Laukkai townships – for 90 days.
It was the first time he had exercised this option under section 412(a) of the 2008 constitution since taking office.
A curfew had been introduced on February 12, but the president said it had not been effective to “control chaos and to manage administration sector [while] lives and property of civilians are under threat from conflicts”.
To ensure “community peace and tranquility and prevalence of law and order” in the zone, the president granted administrative and judicial power to Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing under section 413(b) of the constitution.
The following day, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing gave Colonel Saw Myint, the commander of Regional Control Command (Laukkai), administrative and judicial powers in the region. These powers include the right to summarily try suspects in a military court and potentially hand down the death penalty for a range of Penal Code offences, including high treason, libel against the government, murder, manslaughter, rape, mugging, robbery, corruption and offences under eight other laws.
National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the parliamentary rule of law committee, said she believed the decision was warranted in the circumstances.
“The Tatmadaw has to defend [the country]. I think [the order] is necessary to fulfil military objectives” in the Kokang region, she said.
However, she warned that the military must not deviate from legal procedures while exercising its authority in Kokang. “Whatever administrative system is in place, you cannot ignore law and order,” she said.
Political analyst U Sithu Aung Myint said granting administrative power to military was unnecessary and could lead to human rights violations.
He also expressed concern that relations between Myanmar and China could be harmed if the military misuses the strong powers granted it by the martial law order.
“The military has suffered many casualties in the fighting so they will probably exercise their powers vigorously. For example, if they just shoot whatever they see, it will send more civilians fleeing over the border,” he said.
“There will also be no mechanism to investigate [the actions of the Tatmadaw] while martial law is in place.”
Already reports are emerging of civilian casualties at the hands of the Tatmadaw, although they are difficult to verify because of restrictions on access to the area. According to U Haw Shauk Chan, a Pyithu Hluttaw representative for Kunlong, which is next to the Kokang zone, nearly 50 civilians have been killed and almost 90,000 have fled clashes in the Kokang Region. At least 30,000 have crossed the border into China’s Yunnan province.
Chinese state media in Yunnan province have reported that the Tatmadaw fired on civilians while fighting Kokang soldiers on February 16.
Meanwhile, Yangon-based 7Day Daily reported on February 17 that one elderly Kokang resident of the Kokang region arrived at a refugee camp on the Chinese border after being wounded in a Tatmadaw attack.
However, a Tatmadaw official said the reports were untrue. “We never attack civilians. It is very clear that we are now trying to save their lives and help them go back to their homes,” said a military official, who asked not to be named.
But while some political observers have criticised the introduction of martial law, others have been more supportive.
“We absolutely agree with the decision to put in place a military administration,” said U Kyaw Ni Naing, the Pyithu Hluttaw representative for Laukkai.
He added that ethnic Kokang will cooperate with the Tatmadaw to preserve the stability of the region.
“We understand that we can get peace and stability as soon as possible if we cooperate with the Tatma-daw for these 90 days,” U Kyaw Ni Naing said. “We rely on the Tatmadaw and stand ready to cooperate with them. We plan to form a foundation for rehabilitation projects.”
He dismissed concerns about potential human rights violations under the military administration.
“There won’t be any harm done to local residents,” he said.
Clashes broke out on February 9 between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which has received support from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army. The MNDAA launched the offensive to win back ground that it lost to the Tatmadaw in 2009.
Fighting has been fierce, with the state media reporting on February 13 that 47 Tatmadaw soldiers had been killed and another 73 wounded. In the past the government has rarely acknowledged Tatmadaw losses in its battles against armed ethnic groups.
Both President U Thein Sein and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing have made it clear from the start that they view the offensive as an infringement of Myanmar’s sovereign territory that will not be tolerated.
The president has vowed not to “lose an inch” of territory to the MNDAA, and both have toured hospitals in Pyin Oo Lwin and Lashio filled with injured Tatmadaw soldiers.
During a meeting with armed ethnic groups who attended the Union Day celebration in Nay Pyi Taw on February 12, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the Tatmadaw has strong evidence that some ethnic armed groups have been involved in this fighting. He warned that those groups must take responsibility for their participation.
“We will never give up,” the senior general said when he met soldiers in Lashio on February 16 who had been injured in the Kokang fighting.
The government has also rebuffed an MNDAA offer of peace talks. In an open letter sent to President U Thein Sein on February 16, the group said the Kokang region is the home of the ethnic Kokang people and it will continue to fight to regain its territory.
“We understand the return journey will take so long and be very difficult but we will go until we reach our goal in cooperation with other ethnic groups,” the letter said.
Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who has been writing about ethnic issues and Myanmar politics for decades, said he did not think the Kokang or any other ethnic conflict could be resolved through military means alone.
“There are reasons why some people resort to armed struggle against the government, and those reasons would have to be addressed before any solution can be found,” Mr Lintner told The Myanmar Times last week.
The conflict has also prompted questions about China’s role in the border area. The government has refused to openly criticise China, saying only that it will continue to maintain the stability and security of border areas in accordance with the so-called “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” agreed upon by both sides.
On February 18, presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut said on Facebook that Minister for Foreign Affairs [U Wunna Maung Lwin?] called the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar on February 17 and discussed ways to work together to prevent more violence inside Myanmar.
While the government appears determined to resolve its border issues through diplomatic means, Mr Lintner said it would also be aware of the fact that the United Wa State Army, a 20,000-strong fighting force located just south of Laukkai, has been supplying the MNDAA with arms and ammunition.
“The conflict is bound to have repercussions on China-Myanmar relations. Almost the entire arsenal of the UWSA has been obtained in China, and now some of those munitions are being used in the Kokang war,” he said.
However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said any accusations against China must be backed up with evidence. “If not there will be unnecessary problems,” she said.
Meanwhile, China has promised to continue to play a constructive role in promoting the peace process in Myanmar. State agency Xinhua quoted Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying as saying at a press briefing on February 16 that China will never allow any organisations or individuals to use Chinese territory to undermine China-Myanmar relations or the stability of the border areas.