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Myanmar tilts towards civil war

Asia Time - June 29, 2011

Brian McCartan Myanmar moved closer to civil war in recent weeks after fighting broke out in Kachin State, a former ceasefire area in the remote northern region. Myanmar's newly elected government now faces ethnic insurgencies on three separate fronts, threatening internal and border security.

There is also the potential for more insurgent groups to take up arms and push their claims against the government. The escalating conflict is not going all the military's way and risks further stunting Myanmar's development and international confidence in its supposed democratic transition.

In the southeast, a revolt by formerly allied troops of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) on November 7, 2010, election day, resulted in the temporary seizure of two important border towns and the some 20,000 refugees fleeing into Thailand. Although the government was able to retake the towns, fighting continued in the area and the group allied itself with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU).

The operations of DKBA commander Major General Lah Pweh, better known as N'Kam Way or "The Mustache", have added new energy to the Karen insurgency through stepped up ambushes and attacks on army camps both in rural areas and in towns and villages.

Hitherto, fighting in Karen State was a largely low-key affair with the occasional skirmish and heavy reliance on landmines to deter army operations. Lah Pwe's forces, together with the KNLA, have attacked towns and army camps, interdicted supply and reinforcement convoys and carried out "urban guerrilla-style" bombings and shootings in towns.

In Shan State, increasing government pressure against the 1st Brigade of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) resulted in open conflict in early March. The 1st Brigade was the largest unit of the SSA-N and it refused to join the government's Border Guard Force (BGF) plan to incorporate the military units of the ethnic ceasefire armies into the Myanmar armed forces ahead of the 2010 elections. Other brigades of the SSA-N also opted against joining the government's scheme.

The Myanmar military apparently believed it would be able to crush the 1st Brigade in a few weeks of fighting. However, fighting continues after three months and the 1st Brigade has expanded its area of operations from central Shan State into its pre-ceasefire area in northern Shan State. Much of the Myanmar Army's operations have been geared toward cutting off the SSA-N from support from the neighboring area of control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and its connections to China.

On May 21, the SSA-N combined with former adversaries in the still-insurgent Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) to form the Shan State Army (SSA). The move creates a zone of insurgent activity from the Thai border north through central Shan State to just south of the important city of Lashio.

A third front opened up on June 9 when negotiations over the release of several Myanmar Army soldiers captured by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State broke down amid army moves into KIA territory. The fighting was initially localized near the sites of two hydropower dams being constructed by the China Datang Corporation on the Taping River.

Fighting has since expanded into areas west and south of the dam sites as KIA units carried out attacks and destroyed strategic bridges to prevent army reinforcements reaching the area. On June 22, the conflict spread to northern Kachin State when fighting broke out in the Putao area.

The KIA, like the SSA and the DKBA, have proved resilient and any hopes by Myanmar army officers for a repeat of their swift victory over Kokang insurgents in August 2009 have been dashed. Instead, the conflict has expanded as former ceasefire groups have allied themselves with existing insurgent armies.

In Karen State, meanwhile, the BGF plan appears to be unraveling with several battalions taking over their former headquarters of Myaing Gyi Ngu on May 24 and reverting to their old DKBA uniforms. They have allied themselves with Lah Pwe's fighters and the KNLA.

Indications are that if the government chooses to continue pushing these conflicts fighting could continue for years. Myanmar army casualties, if insurgent and exile media reports are accurate, have been high while insurgent casualties remain low.

Although the KIA's and SSA-N's forces have not fought since their ceasefires 17 years ago, they have clearly used the time to re-equip and stock ammunition and other supplies. Morale reportedly remains high among the Kachin, Karen and Shan, who see themselves as fighting against an outside oppressor.

Popular fighters

They also remain popular among the local civilian populations in the border areas who perceive the new government as simply a new manifestation of the previous military dictatorship.

Those counter-insurgency campaigns were often accompanied by gross human-rights abuses, including burning of villages, forced labor and forced relocations. The Kachin Women's Association Thailand has already accused the army of raping 18 Kachin women in four different townships during the recent fighting. Shan and Karen human-rights monitoring groups have reported similar abuses.

Many Myanmar Army units have not seen combat in many years, especially those from the regional commands responsible for the ceasefire areas. Low morale is a major problem among government troops and the subject of several leaked secret army documents. Units are hugely under resourced and desertion is rife.

Although it has rearmed in recent years, much of the emphasis has been on artillery, tanks and armored personnel carriers that are all but worthless in the mountains and jungles where the insurgents operate. The army will also be stretched thin to fight against three widely geographically distant groups, while keeping up pressure on the UWSA and NDAA and providing security in the towns and cities of central Myanmar against possible civil unrest.

To continue operating, the insurgent groups will require safe havens and access to supplies and ammunition either through the direct or tacit approval of neighboring governments and militaries in China and Thailand. Thailand has increasingly turned its back on the ethnic groups along its border as it has emerged as Myanmar's top trading partner.

Formerly accepted as buffers against an ostensibly socialist Myanmar, since 1988 successive Thai governments have placed more importance on commercial relations with the country, including rising shipments of natural gas. In moves to discourage fighting in Karen State, both the DKBA and the KNLA have been warned by Thailand about fighting near the border. Recently arrived refugees have been quickly repatriated once the shooting in their areas has stopped.

China's involvement is more complicated. It has a historic connection with many of the groups along its border from their days as part of the Burmese Communist Party (BCP). Chinese support for the BCP declined in the 1980s and the group imploded in a mutiny in 1989.

However, Beijing maintained relations with the ethnic mutineers who subsequently formed the UWSA, National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and other groups. The groups were viewed as a way of maintaining leverage against the Myanmar regime and provided a buffer in case of unrest in the country.

This relationship, too, may be changing as China's investments in Myanmar expand, including strategically important energy projects such as the Shwe gas project and a vital oil and gas pipeline scheduled to run from the Indian Ocean to China's southern Yunnan province across Myanmar. Chinese government statistics indicate it has become Myanmar's largest investor with investments totally US$12.3 billion in 2010. Beijing has also become the country's second-largest trading partner after Thailand.

Beijing has played host to several senior Myanmar officials since the formation of the new elected government in March, including a visit by President Thein Sein in late May. During that visit, Thein Sein and Premier Wen Jiabao forged a "comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation".

However, some analysts see the Kachin conflict as part of a larger plan by Naypyidaw to seize control of areas where there is substantial Chinese investment and influence. Speculation is rife that China may have given its approval to these operations in order to safeguard its investment interests and an unknown number of Chinese working on projects in Kachin areas and elsewhere in Myanmar.

Chinese and Thai attitudes may be influenced by the historic inability of ethnic armies to forge productive alliances or to effectively link up with the opposition in central Myanmar. To Beijing and Bangkok, the government in Naypyidaw offers better guarantees for their rising trade and investments. A succession of ethnic alliances since the 1970s have foundered or become impotent over issues of trust, competition for leadership, and an inability to cooperate across the long distances that separate the groups.

A new alliance of 15 insurgent and former ceasefire groups, including the KNU, KIA and the SSA, offers new hope. Formed in February 2011, the so-called United Nationalities Federal (UNFC) is a military and political alliance. It remains to be whether they can coordinate operations on the battlefield or maneuver politically with internal ethnic political parties or internationally.

Continued military operations, especially if they result in a spread of hostilities, threaten to destabilize Myanmar and the border areas. Army operations threaten large-scale displacement as villagers flee their homes and abandon fields, livestock and personal belongings. The economy of the areas will be severely affected through the destruction of infrastructure, travel restrictions, and the heavy regulation of trade routes to prevent support for the insurgents. The KIA has already destroyed several bridges including a railway bridge connecting Myitkyina with Mandalay.

Should the insurgency spread, diminished border trade could affect central Myanmar's already fragile economy. The country is largely dependent on outside supplies of consumer goods as well as high-tech items for construction and manufacturing. It may also deter investment in ethnic border areas where lucrative natural resource extraction takes place and several multi-million dollar hydropower projects are scheduled for development.

Failed experiment

A spreading civil war also raises the political risk of an early end to the military's experiment with "disciplined democracy" for reasons of national security. It wouldn't be the first time: Ethnic Shan pressure for discussions on instituting a formal federal system were a major factor contributing to the military coup of 1962 and the 48 years of military rule that followed.

Recent calls by several ethnic parties for a second Panglong Conference to discuss a federal system have been supported by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, but have been derided by the military. Rising hostilities could provide the military with an excuse for reinstating direct military rule, which is allowed for legally through a provision enshrined in the 2008 constitution.

Security risks are fast internationalizing. Kachin sources estimate around 10,000 people have recently fled to internal refugee camps set up by the KIA along the border with China. Beijing has so far been wary of allowing them into China, accepting only some of the elderly and children. China is keen to avoid accepting a large refugee population which could have potentially destabilizing effects on its ethnically mixed Yunnan province.

Around 30,000 refugees fled to China in the wake of the Myanmar army's offensive against the Kokang in 2009. Thailand is also unwilling to allow the expansion of refugee camps on its border which currently hold some 100,000 refugees. Fighting around Myawaddy in November 2010 drove some 20,000 refugees into Thai territory, most of whom were quickly repatriated when the fighting subsided.

Fighting close to the border also brings the risk of stray artillery shells and spillovers of fighting as insurgent and army forces maneuver for advantage. Neither Thailand nor China want to see their border areas morph into battlefields.

Several Thai soldiers have been killed or wounded by mortar shells and landmines along the border since November. During the late 1990s there were repeated incursions into Thailand by army and allied ethnic militias resulting in the looting of shops, deaths of several Thai citizens and the burning of several refugee camps.

Another destabilizing influence could be an increase in narcotics and black market smuggling as insurgent groups attempt to finance their struggles and replenish stocks of weapons and ammunition. The UWSA and NDAA have been blamed for an influx of narcotics into Thailand since last year, flows believed to be inspired by a need to prepare for war.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in its recently released World Drug Report 2011 noted a 5% increase in poppy cultivation in Myanmar. Jane's Intelligence Review in April reported a large shipment of weapons and ammunition originating in Cambodia to the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the possibility of the purchase of weapons stolen from Thai army armories in March 2011 and September 2010.

As Myanmar's conflict widens, the stability and development promised by Thein Sein in his post-inauguration speeches in April now seem a far way off from reality. Unless his elected government can come to a sincere agreement with ethnic insurgents, the country seems poised to spiral into the type of widespread civil war not seen in its ethnic territories for over two decades.

[Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.]

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