Myanmar’s Peace Accord: Meaningful Step Forward or Elaborate Smokescreen?


By Janice Freeman

Last October, a peace accord was signed in Myanmar with the aim of finally ending 60 years of violent civil war. However, this Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) has fallen quite short of its objective, as only eight of the fifteen ethnic groups invited to sign did so, and others were not even permitted to take part in the negotiations. Further troublesome, however, is that more than 5,000 civilians in Myanmar have been displaced in the past two weeks by fighting between two ethnic armies, one of which signed the NCA.


Violent clashes broke out on February 7 in the Shan State townships of Kyaukme between the Restoration council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). With regards to the NCA, RCSS signed the agreement while the TNLA was excluded. The TNLA claims that its rival, the RCSS, has increased its troop presens in the Shan State from 80 to 1,700 troops since signing the accord and the TNLA is fighting to ensure its claim on the territory. Even more disturbing is that Myanmar researcher, Tom Kramer, believes that the military “must have allowed the RCSS to reinforce its presence in the northern Shan State” and that these actions of the RCSS wouldn’t have been possible before the NCA.


While the NCA may seem like a positive step forward for Myanmar’s powerful military, the Tatmadaw, many critics say it has exacerbated tensions between the ethnic groups who signed it and those that didn’t, as exemplified by the conflict in the Shan State. Some have even gone so far as to say that the Tatmadaw is purposefully using the NCA to turn armed groups against each other and weaken their power against the state.


There may be hope, however. Aung Saan Su Kyi’s National League for Democracy was victorious in Myanmar’s historic elections last November and many are hopeful that a more democratic government will strengthen the peace process. The authority over the negotiations lies with the military, however, so for now it is unclear how Su Kyi and her party will try to quell the violence and instill peace between all the armed groups in Myanmar.


South China Sea tensions escalate from Chinese missile deployment


By James Mott

Mobile surface-to-air missile systems were discovered on Woody Island, also known as Yongxing Island, in the South China Sea. Part of the Paracel islands, one of the island groups hotly contested in the South China Sea alongside the Spratley islands, Woody Island has been the site of Chinese infrastructure development since the early 1960s. As one of the first instances of permanent arms installations on any of the contested islands, China’s move has worried others in Southeast Asia over their own sovereign claims to these islands. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines all hold territorial claims to at least one island in the South China Sea, while China’s claims encompass both the Paracels and the Spratleys. Currently, China has total control of the Paracel islands, with the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam controlling portions of the Spratly islands alongside China.

Leaders in Southeast Asia have taken China’s expansion seriously – Beijing is unlikely to be bluffing with the amount of investment into building artificial islands in the South China Sea. While none of the ASEAN states are likely to tackle China, whether head-on or as a bloc, parrying Beijing’s aspirations has been tackled diplomatically thus far. Using the United States as a foil, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called for ‘more practical and more efficient actions’ on behalf of the United States this past Tuesday. Washington has sent missile-equipped destroyers close to disputed islands in the past year, there have been no active confrontations between Beijing and Washington. Vietnam is also one of the keenest of the ASEAN states to avoid a prolonged dispute with China, as its trade ties and ideology are closest to Beijing than its other neighbors.


The United States also want de-escalate an increasingly militarized South China Sea – while at the ASEAN summit in California, President Obama reaffirmed commitment to ‘a regional order where international rules…are upheld’. While Obama did not mention China directly, the allusion to adhering to ‘a regional order’ was a thinly-veiled message to Beijing – stop escalation regional tensions, and contribute to a diplomatic outcome. No party in the South China Sea dispute has openly declared militarized intentions, nor does any party want to fire the first salvo; losses from trade and infrastructure destruction, not to mention severed diplomatic ties, are deterrent enough against any military movements.

Most worrying to the Southeast Asian community and the United States is the possible expansion and enforcement of China’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Beijing’s current ADIZ, surrounding much of the East China Sea, has already provoked immense concern from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The ADIZ’s proximity to the islands of Taiwan, South Korea’s Jeju, and Japan’s Kyushu, not to mention encompassing the disputed Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, sparked fierce reactions over the infringement of South Korean and Japanese sovereign territory.

Should China expand and enforce an ADIZ in the South China Sea, that may be the last move tolerable to Southeast Asia and the United States – joint military drills, sanctions, and other tangible diplomatic measures would surely follow. Whether or not direct military installments on behalf of the Philippines, Vietnam, or Malaysia would follow is a major uncertainty – none of these states have the economic weight of China, but it is likely that they would cooperate in order to jointly repel Chinese encroachment in presumably their waters. Should the United States openly back any of these proposals, China would be expected to distance themselves from Washington in order to keep momentum – the fallout of strained relations between Washington and Beijing may have serious repercussions on issues in the future, North Korea being the most notable.

Sub-Nationalism in Spain: Catalonia

By Je Ru Lee

The world has been giving much attention to the Catalonia region of Spain lately due to the rise of its independence movement. The region, which consists of the provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona, enjoys a high degree of autonomy with its own parliament and executive (Catalonia Profile, 2015). Despite its privileges, in November 2014, 80% of Catalans who voted in a non-binding referendum called by the Catalan government demanded Catalan independence from Spain (Catalonia Timeline, 2015). In September 2015, the Catalan parliament passed a bill for Catalonia to secede from Spain in 18 months (Catalonia Parliament Votes, 2015). Although the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled the Catalonia decision to secede unconstitutional, Catalan independence movement is still going strong and the new Catalan leader, MR. Puigdemont, is still going with the plan to secede (New Catalonia, 2016). There are many factors that contribute to the independence movement, including the Catalan ethnicity, the economic downturn, and football.


Pro-independence citizens hold up giant letters reading ”We are ready, Independence” during the final meeting before the 9N (November 9) consultation, in Barcelona November 7, 2014. (Reuters; Gustau Nacarino)

Catalonia has a rich history that started as a kingdom in the 12th century. The region then came under the rule of the kingdom of Aragon, and was united with the kingdom of Castile in 1469 with the marriage of Ferdinand II and Isabella. This alliance laid the foundation of Spain, and Catalonia had since enjoyed various degrees of autonomy and suffered political suppression (Catalonia Timeline, 2015). The Catalan identity revival is closely tied to its culture and language. Industrialization in the 19th century caused people to migrate from rural to urban areas, and people started to question their identity. The modern Catalan nationalism started to flourish around that time period (Barnes, 2013). However, under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, Catalonia suffered from political and cultural suppression. Catalan language use and cultural activities were banned (Catalonia Timeline, 2015). Nevertheless, Catalan identity and nationalism persevered.


After the fall of the Franco dictatorship and the establishment of democracy, the Catalan regional government was restored and the status of Catalan “nationality” was given. Although not recognized as a separate country, Catalonia is an autonomous region and its language is recognized as one of Spain’s official languages (Catalonia Profile, 2015). Things were good for a while, until the economic crisis that started in 2008 in Spain. The crisis spurred nationalist sentiment in Catalonia, and informal independence votes were conducted across the region (Catalonia Timeline, 2015). Catalans are discontent with the fact that it has been suffering from fiscal imbalance of between 7.5 to 10 percent, the highest number of fiscal imbalance of regions in the EU. This has impeded the Catalan development and angered Catalans, who are demanding to separate from Spain (Desquens, 2003).


Football is loved by so many people in the world that it has become uniquely intertwined in politics. FC Barcelona has become an important symbol of Catalonia, not only for its entertaining nature but also its cultural values. Catalan fans of the team project the fight between Catalonia and Spain to the matches between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, and they would hold up Catalan flag and chant for their Catalonia and their team (Tremlett, 2011). With the Catalan identity firmly established and outside factors that drive the Catalans to take more aggressive actions towards secession, the Spanish central government, the EU, and the international community will track the changing situations more closely than ever.

A Chance for Peace in The Central African Republic

By Janice Freeman

Rebel groups and militias in the war-torn Central African Republic signed a new peace pact in May 2015 with the goal of ending the terrible violence of the past few years. The Seleka, a coalition of northern insurgent groups, seized power in March 2013 and CAR has been ravaged by violence since. When the Seleka came to power and violence began, vigilante groups known as the anti-Balaka re-emerged and led to clashes between rival militias. The leader of the Seleka, Michel Djotodia, declared that the coalition had disbanded in September 2013, which led to the fighters dispersing throughout the countryside and committing violence against civilians. In January 2014, Djotodia stepped down for a civilian interim government led by Catherine Samba-Panza. The May 2015 agreement shows promise but similar accors have unraveled and the implementation of the agreement presents many challenges.


The agreement stipulates that members of all armed groups must end conflict  and assemble at agreed sites for the Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration, and Repatriation (DDRR) process. However, if they arrive to the sites unarmed, they will be sent back to their home communities and participate in programs with UN peacekeepers and the UN Development Programme.   There will also be opportunities to join the CAR army if certain eligibility tests are passed. Finally, foreign fighters will be repatriated if they have not committed any crimes.


While this agreement is a big step forward for CAR, there are still many points that require clarification. Power sharing has not been discussed in the agreement so it is not clear how the elections will play out and whether the leaders of various armed groups will be allowed to run in elections. Reintegration of former combatants also requires funding and available jobs. Vocational training and financial inceptives must be available in order to reintegrate combatants and provide a tangible reason to lay down arms and begin returning to a traditional workforce. Another challenge is repatriating the large portion of fighters from Chad and Sudan. Due to the conflict and limited opportunities in those countries, it may be difficult to convince those individuals to disarm.


It will take both commitments from CAR’s leaders as well as from the UN to ensure that his peace deal does not falter as previous accords have. The international community will have to watch closely has CAR’s rebel groups, militias, and interim government make decisions on the remaining stipulations in the deal.