The Lingering Question
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, July 23, 2019


The Lingering Question

By Violet Cho and Shah Paung FEBRUARY, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.2


Why didn’t the ethnic groups do more to help the September protesters?

Nearly five months after the anti-regime demonstrations that shook Burma late last year, one central question is still waiting for a definitive answer: Couldn’t the ethnic groups have done more to support the protesters in Rangoon and other cities?

As monks and lay protesters filled the streets, there was some speculation that the armed forces of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Shan State Army—South (SSA-S) might at the very least launch offensives to pin down Burma Army divisions in Karen and Shan State. At the height of the brutal crackdown on the demonstrations in Rangoon it was reported that government troops had been sent from Karen State to help suppress the protests.

The Karen National Union (KNU), which has been fighting for Karen rights for more than 60 years, declared at the outset that it was prepared to help the protesters in any way it could. But no military assistance materialized.

Htay Aung, a researcher with the Thailand-based Network for Democracy and Development, pointed out that armed ethnic groups were in no logistical position to take action. They were ill-prepared and had no strategy to deal with the kind of crisis that occurred in September 2007, he said.

Burma expert Bertil Lintner said ethnic armed forces in border regions would probably not have been able to act without the approval of the government of neighboring Thailand.

Several leaders of ethnic groups did, however, participate in the demonstrations in Rangoon and Arakan State, lending some semblance of national unity to the uprising. They included the Zomi National Congress’s Cin Sian Thang, the  Chin leader Thawng Kho Thang and Thar Ban of the Arakan League for Democracy.

Soldiers of the Shan State Army—South go through a training exercise at Doi Taileang near the Thai-Burmese border (Photo: AFP)

The September 2007 demonstrations, however, will still enter the history books as an urban uprising that lacked truly nationwide backing, especially from ethnic groups.

Ashley South, an independent researcher specializing in ethnic politics, displacement and humanitarian issues in Burma, said the negligible role played by ceasefire groups and other ethnic organizations in the demonstrations did not mean they weren’t working for social and political change in Burma—“only that they have sometimes chosen different strategies.”

Mahn Sha, KNU general-secretary, conceded that the ethnic groups lack unity and cooperation. But, he said, “We are trying to build up the unity among our ethnic groups. We still have our weak points, and we need to do more about it.”

Sai Lao Hseng, the SSA-S spokesman, agreed with Mahn Sha. “What we need is for all ethnic groups and the Burmans to unite to reach our goal,” he said.

Unity, however, is difficult to attain under the divide-and-rule strategy of the military regime that took power in Burma after the last popular uprising in 1988.

From 1989 onwards, several ethnic groups reached separate ceasefire agreements with the regime, which came to prize among its trophies the Shan, Kachin, Pa-O, Palaung, Kayan, Karenni, Mon and Karen groups. The powerful Wa army, which once served the Communist Party of Burma in northern Shan State, also signed a truce with the government.

South said that despite the accommodations they reached with the regime, the ethnic ceasefire groups shared no common ground but were primarily motivated by “economic interests and maintaining positions of power and influence.”

Several ceasefire groups, such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a KNU splinter group; the United Wa State Army; and the Kachin Independence Organization are engaged in illegal car smuggling, logging and mining.  The Wa group is known to be involved in drug trafficking, and the DKBA in small-scale narcotics production.

Their varying interests keep the ethnic groups disconnected, and that suits the regime, whose military control is strengthened because of ethnic diversity and lack of unity.

Soldiers of the Karen National Liberation Army, the oldest rebel group, stand at parade arms at a base near the Thai-Burmese border (Photo: Reuters)

It wasn’t always so.

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