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In an emergency session on Wednesday, the Shan State legislature passed an urgent proposal to designate as “terrorist organisations” the four ethnic armed groups fighting with Burmese government forces in the state’s north.
Prior to the vote, the regional assembly debated the pro-designation proposal put forward the previous day by the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s Lashio township MP Aung Thu. With 61 votes in favour and 45 opposed, the motion passed, putting the legislature on record as having declared members of the Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Arakan Army to be terrorists. Seven lawmakers abstained.
The four groups, calling their collective forces the Northern Alliance-Burma, staged coordinated attacks on police and military positions on November 20 in Muse and Kutkai townships. Fighting between the alliance and the Burma Army has continued in the weeks since.
In pre-vote deliberations, seven state MPs — two military appointees and four USDP lawmakers — voiced support for the proposal, while a lone National League for Democracy lawmaker spoke against it.
Sai Tun Nyan, a Shan Nationalities League for Democracy MP in the state parliament, said the legislative motion’s passage could be seen as giving the Tatmadaw a green light to continue military operations in the war-torn region.
“The Union Parliament recently shot down a similar proposal [to designate the Northern Alliance terrorists] but the Shan regional parliament approved it, which I think is a way of showing they also have some authority over the issue,” said Sai Tun Nyan, referring to a failed Lower House vote late last week.
“There have been ongoing military operations by the Tatmadaw even before the proposal and they may feel more encouraged now that it has passed.”
Deputy Minister of Defence Lieutenant-General Sein Win recently recommended the terrorist designation during a session of the Lower House, responding to an urgent motion concerning the Shan State crisis.
He said given the Northern Alliance’s recent offensive and continued hostilities against government troops in northern Shan State, parliament should weigh in by officially labelling the alliance’s members terrorist organisations.
At the same session, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant-General Kyaw Swe said that while the actions of the Northern Alliance had rendered the terrorist label justifiable, his ministry would not pursue the designation out of concern for the damage in might do to the country’s ongoing peace process.
Lower House lawmakers did not approve the proposal, deciding instead to put the matter on the record for possible discussion at a later date.
Other than a potentially symbolic delegitimisation of the groups’ claims to a seat at the negotiating table in the peace process, the implications of the Shan State legislature’s vote are unclear.
A similar tussle between state and Union assemblies played out in September, when a proposal in the Union Parliament to withhold recognition of the Kofi Annan-led Arakan State Advisory Commission was voted down but was later approved by the Arakan State legislature.
The Arakan State vote appears to have had little practical bearing on the commission’s activities and access in the state, other than perhaps to have dampened ethnic Arakanese participation in its consultations.
None of the four groups that make up the Northern Alliance is a signatory to the nationwide ceasefire agreement, though the KIA has taken part of the formal peace process and was invited to sign the NCA last year, but abstained.
For the other three groups, the terrorism designation could be more consequential: They were shut out of the ceasefire negotiations and were not deemed eligible to sign the resulting accord by the previous government. They have since been in protracted negotiations with the National League for Democracy administration about joining the formal process, but outstanding barriers to that remain, with Wednesday’s vote likely to further complicate the matter.