Myanmar army pauses operations in north in rare conciliatory action

The army would “stop military operations in respective military regions” in the north and east of the country until April 30, 2019, the office of the military’s commander in chief said in a statement. (AFP)
Updated 21 December 2018

Myanmar army pauses operations in north in rare conciliatory action

YANGON: The Myanmar military on Friday announced a more than four-month cessation of its activities in northern areas where it is fighting ethnic minority insurgents, in what appeared to be a rare conciliatory move aimed at kick-starting peace talks.
The army would “stop military operations in respective military regions” in the north and east of the country until April 30, 2019, the office of the military’s commander in chief said in a statement.
The cessation would allow military negotiators to conduct talks with insurgent groups that have refused to sign up to a nationwide cease-fire agreement, with the aim of completing a peace process by 2020, it said.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay said the military had informed the civilian administration led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi ahead of the announcement, and that the two sides were “cooperating” on the peace process.
“We hope there will be good results,” Zaw Htay told a news conference in the capital, Naypyitaw.
Suu Kyi prioritized ending the conflicts on coming to power in 2016, but talks have failed to make significant gains.
The Myanmar military has been engaged in multiple conflicts for decades with groups who say they represent the interests of ethnic minorities that want more autonomy in their regions.
The military said its commands in the northern Kachin State and Shan State to the northeast would be affected by the cessation, after a coalition of groups fighting there asked for a pause in the conflict this month.
More than 100,000 people have been displaced by clashes between the army and insurgents since a cease-fire with the Kachin Independence Army broke down in 2011.
Maung Maung Soe, a political analyst based in Yangon, said it was the first time in at least three decades that the military had unilaterally announced a stop in fighting.
“Peace for the whole country will depend on further discussions with each group,” he said, noting that there would be concern that the announcement does not cover the troubled western state of Rakhine.
The Friday announcement did not make specific reference to Rakhine, where the military has battled both Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim insurgents in recent years.
The military launched a crackdown in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August 2017, which claims to represent the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority. Myanmar considers the group “terrorists” and they are not included in any negotiations.
UN-mandated investigators said the military committed killings, gang rape and arson in a campaign carried out with “genocidal intent” that pushed more than 730,000 Rohingya across Myanmar’s border to Bangladesh.
Myanmar denied that saying it conducted a legitimate counter-terrorist campaign.
In recent weeks, fighting has flared up between the army and a Rakhine Buddhist group, the Arakan Army, in mountainous parts of the western state.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs received reports that more than 700 people had been displaced by that fighting since Dec. 8, said Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the agency.


‘Terminator’ Rajapaksa storms to victory in Sri Lanka

Updated 18 min 49 sec ago

‘Terminator’ Rajapaksa storms to victory in Sri Lanka

  • Gotabaya Rajapaksa conducted a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and a vow to crush religious extremism
  • His triumph will, however, alarm Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as activists, journalists

COLOMBO: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who spearheaded the brutal crushing of the Tamil Tigers 10 years ago, stormed to victory Sunday in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, seven months after Islamist extremist attacks killed 269 people.
Rajapaksa conducted a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and a vow to crush religious extremism in the Buddhist-majority country following the April 21 suicide bomb attacks blamed on a homegrown militant group.
His triumph will, however, alarm Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as activists, journalists and possibly some in the international community following the 2005-15 presidency of his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Mahinda, with Gotabaya effectively running the security forces, ended a 37-year civil war with Tamil separatists. His decade in power was also marked by alleged rights abuses, murky extra-judicial killings and closer ties with China.
Gotabaya, a retired lieutenant-colonel, 70, nicknamed the “Terminator” by his own family, romped to victory with 51.9 percent of the vote, results from the two-thirds of votes counted so far showed.
“I didn’t sleep all night,” said student Devni, 22, one of around 30 people who gathered outside Rajapaksa’s Colombo residence. “I am so excited, he is the president we need.”
Rajapaksa’s main rival, the moderate Sajith Premadasa of the ruling party, trailed on 42.3 percent. The 52-year-old conceded the race and congratulated Rajapaksa.
On Sunday three cabinet members resigned — including Finance Minister Mangalar Samaraweera.
The final result was expected later on Sunday with Rajapaksa due to be sworn in on Monday. Turnout was over 80 percent.
Premadasa had strong support in minority Tamil areas but a poor showing in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese heartland, a core support base where Rajapaksa won some two-thirds of the vote.
Saturday’s poll was the first popularity test of the United National Party (UNP) government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Wickremesinghe’s administration failed to prevent the April attacks despite prior and detailed intelligence warnings from India, according a parliamentary investigation.
Premadasa also offered better security and a pledge to make a former war general, Sarath Fonseka, his national security chief, projecting himself as a victim seeking to crush terrorism.
He is the son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa who fell victim to a Tamil rebel suicide bomber in May 1993.
But Gotabaya is adored by the Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy for how he and Mahinda ended the war in 2009, when 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly perished at the hands of the army.
Under his brother, Gotabaya was defense secretary and effectively ran the security forces, allegedly overseeing “death squads” that bumped off rivals, journalists and others. He denies the allegations.
This makes the brothers detested and feared among many Tamils, who make up 15 percent of the population. Some in the Muslim community, who make up 10 percent, are also fearful of Gotabaya, having faced days of mob violence in the wake of the April attacks.
Under Mahinda, Sri Lanka also borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects and even allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014, alarming Western countries as well as India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday that India looked forward to “deepening the close and fraternal ties... and for peace, prosperity as well as security in our region.”
The projects ballooned Sri Lanka’s debts and many turned into white elephants — such as an airport in the south devoid of airlines — mired in corruption allegations.
Unlike in 2015 when there were bomb attacks and shootings, this election was relatively peaceful by the standards of Sri Lanka’s fiery politics.
The only major incident was on Saturday when gunmen fired at two vehicles in a convoy of at least 100 buses taking Muslim voters to cast ballots. Two people were injured.
According to the Election Commission the contest was, however, the worst ever for hate speech and misinformation.