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A well-laid war in Myanmar

Asia Times - February 1, 2013

Bertil Lintner, Chiang Mai After heaping praise for the past year on Myanmar's supposed new democratic direction, the international community has grappled for a coherent and credible response to the military's recent ferocious offensive against the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

In recent weeks, heavy artillery has been used to pound KIA positions while Russian-built Mi-35 Hind helicopter gunships and Chinese-produced Hongdu JL-8, or Karakorum-8, attack aircraft have strafed military and civilian targets in an unprecedented barrage of firepower in Myanmar's decades-long civil war between government forces and various ethnic resistance armies.

Western think tanks and other international organizations, many of which have touted the virtues of President Thein Sein's reforms, have alternately forwarded the government's line or offered other explanations to salvage their credibility amid the onslaught. Human-rights groups estimate the fighting has displaced at least 90,000 civilians and have strongly criticized the government for denying humanitarian aid to areas controlled by the KIA.

In stumping for Thein Sein, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) argued in a January report that "The KIO is not blameless. It has not reciprocated the President's announcement of a unilateral ceasefire and has continued offensive actions against military and strategic targets." (The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is the KIA's political wing.)

"At peace talks on October 30, the Myanmar military sent senior commanders to participate, but the Kachin sent only lower-level representatives, meaning that military discussions on separation of forces could not be held. It was interpreted as a snub by the military and left government negotiator U Aung Min undermined as he had worked hard to convince the army to send a very senior army commander to attend the talks in China only for him to be stood up," wrote the ICG, which announced it will give its annual "In Pursuit of Peace Award" to Thein Sein.

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), meanwhile, suggested in a January 10 report that "Regional commands in Myanmar have long acted with an unusual degree of autonomy; many commanders treated their areas of responsibility as personal fiefdoms. In a junta-run country usually facing at least a dozen active insurgencies, this is understandable. But in an emerging democracy seeking national reconciliation, it undermines fragile trust in the government and allows a minority of the military to act as a spoiler." Other foreign analysts have argued that the outside world needs to support Thein Sein's "reformist" government against so-called military "hardliners".

Myanmar military insiders interviewed by this writer view such analyses as misguided and argue that the massive assault on the KIA's bases near the Chinese border in December and January came as no surprise. They say that the decision to launch a major offensive against the KIA was actually made more than three years ago when the KIA still had a ceasefire agreement in place with the previous military government led by Senior General Than Shwe. Than Shwe retired with the installation of Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government in March 2011, but is still viewed by many as have the final say in matters concerning national security, which includes the military and the civil war.

From Than Shwe's perspective, the KIA's "sin" was to lobby for a federal system when its representatives took part in a constitution-drafting assembly the government convened as part of his "seven step roadmap" to democracy.

At a meeting with all of the Myanmar Army's regional commanders in mid-2009, Than Shwe said that "We, the Tatmadaw [army], have to fight the KIA because they have not accepted our terms," according to a former Myanmar army officer who was on active duty at the time.

The same year the KIA had refused to become a "Border Guard Force" under the command of the Myanmar Army as central authorities had requested as long as the issue of federalism was not settled. The former army officer says he "remembers all this very clearly" and that there was little doubt at the time that the central government intended to break the ceasefire it had maintained with the KIA since February 1994.

During meetings held in the old capital Yangon to discuss a new constitution, Kachin representatives presented in July 2007 a 19-point proposal for a federal union. The proposal outlined in detail what the responsibilities of the center should be and which powers should be vested with ethnic-governed states. It also referred to Myanmar's first 1947 constitution, which, the Kachins said, "specified a Union... of states, [but] what actually transpired was a system where all political power was centralized as in a unitary system instead of a federation."

Unitary vision

That clearly was not what the ruling military elite had in mind, and in a blatantly rigged referendum in May 2008 a new constitution was adopted that perpetuated a unitary system. The Kachins were probably unaware of what Than Shwe said at the meeting a year later, and some of them tried to contest the November 2010 election to "work within the system".

The Kachin State Progressive Party, established by Manan Tu Ja, a former KIO vice chairman, was not allowed to participate in the polls, reportedly because military authorities thought it would press demands for federalism if elected to national or regional assemblies.

In June 2011, three months after Thein Sein assumed the presidency, the Myanmar army broke the ceasefire and attacked KIA positions along the Taping river east of Bhamo. In late December 2012, the fighting escalated dramatically as government forces began to push for control of Laiza, a town on the Chinese border where the headquarters of both the KIA and the KIO are situated.

Than Shwe's statement at the closed meeting in 2009 was recently echoed by Hla Swe, a former army commander and now Upper House representative of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), in an interview with the independent TV station Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) on January 28: "It is said that if the [KIO] can't be extended an olive branch, then we should send them bullets instead... So I said: how did the Second World War end? Because two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, forcing them to come and sign a peace treaty on an [American] boat."

That threat was clearly not delivered by a renegade regional commander acting autonomously of central control, as the Washington-based ISIS has suggested. Moving tens of thousands of troops, artillery, helicopter gunships and aircraft across regional command boundaries can only be done by the Supreme Command of Myanmar's Armed Forces. Moreover, the assumption that the latest bombardment was caused by the KIA's ambushes of Myanmar Army supply convoys, as suggested by think-tanks and even Western diplomats, was actually refuted albeit indirectly by military proxies long before the present offensive began.

On May 2, 2012, "Hla Oo's Blog", a website that often conveys the views of the Myanmar military, stated: "On March 6 this year Burmese [Myanmar] military staged a large-scale operational exercise involving a light infantry division and tanks and heavy artillery in Meikhtila. And the Commander-In-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing had attended and watched the war-game. The replicated field and the sand model used as the enemy target was clearly the close replica of KIO headquarters at Laiza on the Chinese border." The blog entry was presciently headlined "Min Aung Hlaing Taking Laiza Soon?" The interpretation that the recent fighting was in retaliation for KIA ambushes, or because high-ranking Kachin representatives did not show up at the October 30 talks (which, they say, was because the government army attacked their forces as they were about to leave for the meeting in Ruili across the border in China) is as ill-founded as the notion that the Kachin war reflects a rift between "reformists" and "hardliners" within Myanmar's military-dominated ruling elite.

Both President Thein Sein and military supremo Min Aung Hlaing owe their positions to Than Shwe. It is often overlooked that Thein Sein, a former general and commander of the Myanmar Army's Triangle Command in eastern Shan State, was selected by the then ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta to serve as prime minister in April 2007. He was formally appointed in October that year and served in the position until he was appointed president after the 2010 elections in March 2011.

According to sources familiar with high-level Myanmar military thinking, Thein Sein was selected by Than Shwe because he had "no ambitions" and would not pose a threat to the former strongman as he slipped from public view in supposed retirement. In June 2010, Than Shwe picked his trusted colleague Min Aung Hlaing to become head of the armed forces, another soldier who could be trusted not turn against his former mentor.

It is still an open question to what extent Than Shwe is directly involved in the Kachin war operations. According to a source close to Than Shwe's family: "He is still active, the word 'retirement' is not how I would describe it." Other sources say Than Shwe confines himself to key strategic policy "mentoring" rather than the management of day-to-day issues related to the military campaign.

Either way, he is still the most powerful military man in the country as its only "senior general"; current army commander Min Aung Hlaing was appointed "vice senior general" on April 3, 2012, representing the second highest rank in the Myanmar Armed Forces.

It is an open secret that Than Shwe sees Myanmar's ancient warrior kings as his role models. When Myanmar's annual Armed Forces Day was celebrated for the first time in March 2006 at the new capital at Naypyidaw, where the government was formally moved in 2005, Than Shwe proclaimed before a crowd of 12,000 soldiers: "Our Tatmadaw should be a worthy heir to the traditions of the capable Tatmadaws established by noble kings Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya." Those were the three most celebrated warrior kings in Myanmar history and Than Shwe apparently would like to be viewed historically as a similar "unifier" of the country.

Standing at the parade ground's then newly erected, larger-than-life statues of the three warrior kings, Than Shwe spoke of a unitary state that is fundamentally different in nature from the concept of "unity in diversity", federalism or some kind of parliamentary democracy as formulated by Aung San, the founder of independent Myanmar and the father of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Rather, in Than Shwe's "Myanmar" everybody is a "Myanmar" and subject of the present rulers. Building a new capital was a major prerogative of the rulers of all three previous Myanmar empires and the founder of the envisioned "Fourth Empire" under Than Shwe is no exception. The size of the new capital's buildings and width of its avenues reflect the strongman's vision of grandeur.

New allies, old foes

But will Than Shwe's master plan work? So far Myanmar's highly touted political transition has been positively received abroad.

The 2008 referendum on a new constitution and the 2010 general election may have been rigged and fraudulent, but by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, allowing opposition icon Suu Kyi and her party members to take seats in parliament through by-elections, and permitting unprecedented freedom of expression through a once highly censored media, Myanmar has graduated from pariah to darling of the international community.

World leaders, including United States President Barack Obama and United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, have recently visited Myanmar, sanctions have been suspended and the country once again has a functioning relationship with multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank after past debts of nearly US$4 billion were forgiven earlier this week. Foreign investors, meanwhile, are queuing up to pursue opportunities in one of Asia's last "frontier" markets.

To the satisfaction of Myanmar's military and quasi-civilian rulers, Suu Kyi has morphed from a once fiery opposition leader to a now avid supporter of their new order. In her most recent praise for the military, Suu Kyi said in a speech at the East-West Center in Honolulu on January 25: "I've often been criticized for saying that I'm fond of the Burmese [Myanmar] Army, but I can't help it it's the truth."

Such statements have been widely perceived as insensitive and have cost Suu Kyi support among the country's many ethnic minority groups, many of which looked to her for inspiration during the darkest days of military rule. While Suu Kyi spoke in Hawaii, thousands of Kachins, mostly women and children, were hunkered down in newly-dug bunkers around Laiza while the army and the air force ramped up their indiscriminate bombardment.

In government-held towns in Kachin state, civilians feel the brunt of old-style military repression. Sources in the state capital of Myitkyina say that young people no longer dare to venture out after dark because many have been apprehended by the military and sent to the frontlines of the battle for Laiza as porters and human mine-sweepers. According to one source, 500 inmates from Myitkyina prison have recently mysteriously gone missing and have presumably been sent to the war's front for the same purpose.

Few if any independent observers believe that the ethnic issue, of which the Kachin war is only one manifestation, can be solved through military means. On one hand, the military has been successful at playing divide-and-rule politics with ethnic resistance armies. In January 1995, less than a year after the government had concluded a cease-fire with the KIA, it went on to attack and capture the Manerplaw headquarters of the insurgent Karen National Union (KNU).

This time, the government concluded a ceasefire agreement with the KNU in January 2012, which was formalized in September, before launching its latest intensified wave of attacks on the KIA. According to a long-time observer of Myanmar's civil war: "This shows again that the army is still the only body deploying and enforcing countrywide strategies to its advantage. Even with the change in government, the long game continues."

On the other hand, the government has not been as successful as some have claimed at resolving the country's various ethnic conflicts. The Economist newsmagazine, for instance, wrote on January 16: "One of the most laudable achievements of Myanmar's ongoing process of democratic reform has been the ceasefire agreements the new government has signed with all of the major ethnic insurgent groups all but one, that is: the Kachin, under the banner of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), fight on."

Yet Thein Sein's government has done little more than reaffirm about a dozen ceasefire agreements, some of which were concluded up to two decades ago. Agreements were already in place with the former Communist Party of Burma, now known as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Shan State Army (SSA) and smaller armies representing the ethnic Pa-O, Palaung, Padaung, Karenni and Mon before Thein Sein became president. Indeed, the only new cease-fires brokered on his watch have been concluded with the KNU, a southern faction of the SSA, and some smaller Chin and Arakanese groups.

With the breakdown of the KIA ceasefire, those deals should not be viewed as major milestones on a path to national reconciliation. The United Nationalities Federal Council, a coalition of 11 ethnic groups some with and some without ceasefire agreements with the government recently expressed solidarity with the Kachins at a meeting in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai on January 1.

The UWSA, a militia with tens of thousands of fighters and by far the country's strongest and best-equipped ethnic army, and two allied forces issued a statement the following week in support of the Kachins. Those groups are no doubt aware that they may be the next targets in the government's attempt to "unify" the country by force. The ethnic Shans, meanwhile, are known to be recruiting and training in anticipation of a possible future government assault. In Karen areas controlled by the government, authorities are believed to be preparing assassination squads, infiltrating intelligence teams and re-enforcing concrete landing pads along the border to support helicopter gunships in preparation for future battles.

The choice presented to Myanmar's various ethnic armies is increasingly clear: either accept the 2008 constitution, integration into the command structure of the government's army and centrally-led economic development schemes, or face a military assault similar to the one now underway against the Kachins. Without addressing underlying political issues of federalism and constitutional change, many cease-fire groups are likely to resume hostilities rather than acquiesce to the government's centralized vision for the country. Those opposed views will lead to more human misery in Myanmar's frontier areas in the months and years ahead.

Far from securing a place for himself in history as a great national unifier, Than Shwe's peace through war policy will only deepen ethnic divisions. The brutal onslaught on Laiza has engendered immense hatred against the central government and radicalized the Kachins to the point that many see no future for themselves in the country.

The KIO was previously perhaps the most ardent proponent of federalism in Myanmar and for years its leaders tried to persuade other ethnic armed groups that separatism was not a viable option. Now, amid the worst government assault ever on an ethnic resistance group, "relations between the center and the ethnic groups have been set back by at least 50 years," said a Kachin lady who is not a member of any political or armed group.

[Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (published in 1994, 1999 and 2003), Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China, and The Kachin: Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.]

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