SINGAPORE – As the ousted head of the semi-autonomous Kokang regional government traveled along a highway in northern Myanmar last week, his motorcade came under fire from assailants perched on a nearby hillside.
The official, Bai Yingneng, was unhurt in the Friday attack, but 12 people were reportedly killed, including three teenage officers of Bai’s security force and nine civilians.
The apparent assassination attempt came a day after Bai – who had cultivated ties with the Myanmar army as chairman of the Kokang regional government – was forced to step down and hand power to the military, which seized power in the Feb. 1 coup.
The military takeover has been met with growing protests in Myanmar’s main cities – including in Mandalay, where police fired warning shots and water cannons Tuesday against crowds defying a ban on demonstrations. But the ambush in Kokang, a hilly region near the Chinese border, illustrated the threat of fresh instability in far-flung areas that are home to minority ethnic groups and armed militias that have long agitated for greater rights.
Analysts say the coup likely marks the end of a complex peace process involving the military and the armed factions, which has made little progress despite tens of millions of dollars in foreign funding. The result could be greater fighting across wide parts of the Southeast Asian nation as the army and militias battle to reestablish influence over areas rich in resources and awash in weapons.
“It’s the coup de grace for the peace process,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst who studies Myanmar, also known as Burma.
In little more than a week, the junta has dismantled key elements of the peace process, including the National Peace and Reconciliation Center, the agency tasked with facilitating negotiations under the now-deposed civilian government. The agency’s chair and former head of the government, Aung San Suu Kyi, now sits in military detention.
The disposition of the agency’s funds – including at least $38 million supplied by the European Union since 2012 – is unknown. It is unclear whether the document underpinning negotiations, a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement ratified by parliament last August, is still valid.
The army, known as the Tatmadaw, said it would form a new committee to handle peace talks and pledged to halt military operations against groups involved in the peace process until the end of the month.
Many armed groups have condemned the takeover. This week, the Karen Peace Support Network, an influential coalition of ethnic Karen civil society groups, released a statement saying that “the current peace process is dead” and called on all armed groups to suspend negotiations with the junta.
The Tatmadaw has a long record of truce violations and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, including its 2017 offensive in Rakhine state that drove out more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, who are not part of the peace process.