The fresh and fierce fighting in Burma’s Kachin and Shan states is a signal that Burma is on the verge of a civil war that may ultimately involve a large percentage of the country’s ethnic armed groups.
In Shan State, the Burmese Army—using around 1,500 troops, including artillery battalions—has launched a major offensive against the Shan State Army (SSA), which has about 1,000 troops defending its headquarters in Wan Hai, Mong Hsu Township. Injured Burmese troops were reportedly evacuated from the area to major cities using helicopters from Nam Hsan Air Force Base.
In Kachin State, the fighting is equally tough, with landmines exploding, bridges being blown up and soldiers being shot dead in ambushes. In addition, the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) claims that at least 18 female Kachins—aged between 15 and 50 years old—were gang-raped by Burmese soldiers during the recent armed conflict. As a result of the fighting and atrocities, the resulting humanitarian crisis is fast getting worse, with some 16,000 people recently forced to flee their homes.
The escalating ethnic strife facing Burma’s new government is threatening both internal and border security, and stands as a stark contrast to President Thein Sein’s call in April for peace and stability in the ethnic areas.
Thein Sein, it should be noted, is also the Chairman of the Central Committee for Progress of Border Areas and National Races. But despite his pledge and position of responsibility, the Alternative Asean Network on Burma (ALTSEAN-Burma), a regional human rights group, said in a statement that Burma’s “new” government has failed to take any meaningful steps towards political, legal and economic reforms.
In a five-page brief, ALTSEAN-Burma said that Burmese troops continued “to attack, kill and rape ethnic civilians,” while over 2,000 political prisoners are still being detained under atrocious conditions.
“If this is Thein Sein in his first 100 days, one dreads to think what the rest of the year is going to be like for the people of Burma,” said ALTSEAN-Burma’s coordinator, Debbie Stothard. “His actions and policies seem to be exactly the opposite of the promises he made.”
Armed conflicts have been a permanent challenge for Burma since the country won its independence from Britain in 1948. But a series of ceasefire agreements, signed following the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989, brought open conflict with ethnic militias to a halt.
Since then, the ceasefire groups, such as United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), have existed in uncomfortable peace with the Burmese army, maintaining self-administered fiefdoms in the areas under their control.
Over the past years, however, the situation has worsened following the introduction of the Burmese military leaders’ scheme to extend its control over the ceasefire ethnic groups. The so-called Border Guard Force (BGF) plan—tied to the timing of last year’s election—threatened to shake a fragile status quo in the ethnic areas, and the fighting many had predicted has now become a reality.
Some observers said that the huge investments by Burmese and Chinese businesses in both infrastructure and hydropower dams in the ethnic areas is a contributing factor—if not the root cause—of the renewed conflict.
They said that because there is no guarantee that the mega-projects will bring an improved standard of living for the average citizens of the border states—while the military and elite who rule the country will clearly benefit from the resulting foreign direct investment dollars and export earnings—the resentment of the local ethnic groups has boiled over into armed conflict to protect their turf.
In addition, the Burmese government is using the threats to their projects as an excuse to attack the ethnic armed groups and attain by military force what they could not achieve by coercion with respect to the BGF.
“By using the protection of the dams to justify military action, Naypyidaw tries to cover up its intention to eliminate the KIA and enlist Chinese support to squeeze the armed group out of its traditional territory,” noted Yun Sun, a foreign policy analyst in Washington D.C. who was a Beijing-based China analyst for the International Crisis Group from 2008-2011.
In an article published by CSIS Pacific Forum, she also said, “The KIA sees China’s desire for border stability and dam safety, and is using the conflict to force China into mediating a settlement.”
However, the military approach is risky for both sides, she argued.
By jeopardizing China’s border stability and vested interests, Naypyidaw may invite pressure from and intervention by China in its ethnic affairs,
And Yun Sun pointed out that KIA has even more at stake, because China has accused Kachin groups of harassing and blackmailing Chinese hydropower companies. Unlike the UWSA, which has refrained from colliding with the Burmese military, the KIA is openly challenging China’s bottom-line interests, and as a result is being seen as deliberately breaking the status quo and rejecting Naypyidaw’s offer of a ceasefire.
This may already have backfired on the KIA, because while the KIA had reached an agreement in April 2010 with other Sino-Burmese border-based groups such as the UWSA, Shan State Army (SSA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) to support each other if attacked by the Burmese Army, heavy pressure from China prevented the UWSA from helping in the Kachin and Shan state fighting.
Thus, KIA and SSA have formed an alliance with the ethnic Chin, Karen, Karenni and Mon armed groups that are based on the Thai-Burmese border, forming an umbrella alliance called the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).
“Amidst our differences and diversities over the past five or six decades, we have managed to establish an alliance through creating a common platform on which we all can come together and share as a family. We all agree to work together towards bringing democracy and federalism into Burma,” said Colonel Solomon of the Chin National Front (CNF), a member of the UNFC, according to the Chinland Guardian, an ethnic Chin news agency.
In a statement issued on February 17, the UNFC said that its basic principles and aims include working for better recognition of the ethnic armed groups, for ethnic equality, rights and self-determination, and for a genuine democratic federal Union of Burma.
Recently, ethnic leaders meeting with EU officials in Bangkok called for the EU to broker political dialogue between Burma’s government and its ethnic groups.
“All the government troops will have to retreat to their former bases if there is a ceasefire,” said Nai Hang Thar, the secretary of the New Mon State Party. “Also, the government must declare ceasefires with all the ethnic armed groups in the country, not only in Kachin State.”
Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of the Karen National Union, said, “We always welcome dialogue. But the dialogue must involve all ethnic groups, not on a case by case basis. Our aim is to establish a federal state.”