The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Beginning of the End of Peace?

On Nov. 7, the day Burma was to hold its first general election in 20 years, Capt Thet Naing of the Burmese Military Operations Command based in Tavoy arrived in Myawaddy on the Thai-Burmese border to meet with the leaders of breakaway Brigade 5 of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). His purported mission was to negotiate with Brigade 5 and convince them not to initiate any armed clashes while the polls were open.

However, while Thet Naing was meeting with the Brigade 5 representatives near the Friendship Bridge connecting Myawaddy with Mae Sot, Thailand, his own troops opened fire, literally trapping him in the arms of the renegade militia.

Refugees flee to safety in Thailand following clashes between DKBA and Burmese regime troops in November. (Phto: The Irrawaddy)
Brigade 5 immediately seized Thet Naing and then took control of several government buildings in Myawaddy. Serious clashes broke out between government forces and DKBA troops in the town the following day and later at Three Pagodas Pass, about 100 kilometers to the south.

Within 24 hours, 20,000 refugees had streamed across the border to Thailand, and observers began speculating that the election-day shots fired by government troops toward the Friendship Bridge in Myawaddy may have marked the beginning of the end of a series of cease-fire agreements between the military regime and more than a dozen of Burma’s armed ethnic militias who have refused to join the junta’s border guard force (BGF).    

The BGF is part of the the junta’s strategy to create one armed force as required by the 2008 Constitution. Once the armed ethnic groups transform into members of the BGF, they will be trained in the Burmese language, provided a salary by the regime, have their military badges replaced with BGF insignia and, most importantly, be under Burmese military command. Most armed ethnic groups opposing the BGF said they rejected the plan because they will lose both their weapons and the ability to command their own troops. 

While tension between the government and the armed ethnic groups has mounted steadily since the junta introduced the BGF plan in April 2009, it seemed to spike in the run-up to the election as the junta attempted to use the polls as leverage to force acceptance of the plan.

Thus far, however, the DKBA (other than Brigade 5) is the only significant armed ethnic group to join the BGF. The strongest ethnic militias—such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with an estimated 30,000 troops, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), with an estimated 10,000 troops—have rejected the plan. And the generals seem to be chafing at their inability to muscle the ethnic militias into accepting their “proposal.”

Observers have been watching to see how the junta will handle the intransigent militias after the election. It now appears that the regime’s initial post-election strategy is not to take on the strongest militias first, but rather to tie up the DKBA Brigade 5 loose-end, selectively choose smaller battles they think they can win and put non-military pressure on other ethnic militias.

Left: Col. Saw Lah Pwe, the commander of the DKBA’s breakaway Brigade 5
Right: UWSA troops at the group’s headquarters in Panghsang, Shan State (Photo: Alex Ellgee/the irrawaddy)
Col. Saw Lah Pwe, the commander of Brigade 5, said the regime told him that his troops must leave their controlled areas in southern Karen State if they did not agree to join the BGF.

“They told us they will shoot us if we don’t leave our area,” said Saw Lah Pwe. “We told them this is our Karen land. There is no way we will leave.”

In early November, a series of clashes broke out in Mong Hsnu Township in southern Shan State between government troops and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North), another cease-fire group that rejected the BGF proposal.

“Fifty soldiers from the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] snuck up and attacked us,” said an SSA-North Brigade 1 official who requested anonymity. “The Burmese troops broke the cease-fire.”

Some sources said that the SSA-North is likely to split into two factions—as happened with the DKBA—due to a disagreement over whether to join the BGF plan.

The junta is currently using political and economic means rather than military force to pressure the KIA, the second largest ethnic militia. Prior to the polls, the Union Election Commission, which was handpicked by the junta, refused to allow political parties or individual politicians linked with the KIA’s political wing, the Karen Independence Organization (KIO), to participate in the election.

In November, the state-run press began ominously referring to the KIO as “insurgents” rather than a cease-fire group after blaming it for an October bomb blast in Kachin State.

In addition, the KIO is now being pressured by the government to shut down its estimated 30 liaison offices. And on Nov. 25, the regime banned all border trade passing through the Lajarya Gate near KIO headquarters in Laiza on the Sino-Burmese border, cutting off KIO revenues from border trade taxes, according to Kachin sources.

Similarly, on Nov. 22 the Burmese authorities banned trade at the Taping checkpoint in Shan State, which lies within the area controlled by the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) cease-fire group, according to a report by the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News.

“It seems that the junta wants to put pressure on the NDAA by cutting its supply route,” said Saengjuen Sarawin, the deputy editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News.

The NDAA, which was founded in 1989 when its leaders split from the Communist Party of Burma, has rejected the BGF proposal. The militia, which is also known as the Mongla Army, is based in eastern Shan State and has an estimated strength of 1,200 to 2,000 troops.

Many observers predict that the recent round of armed clashes and border closures are only the junta’s initial volley against the ethnic militias—both those that have signed cease-fire agreements and those that have not. They say that in the wake of the election, the junta will either launch a major offensive, outlaw all armed ethnic groups, or possibly both.

These dire predictions were sharpened when the regime purchased about 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia, indicating that the junta is preparing for war against the armed ethnic groups. Some believe the junta’s actions will become the equivalent of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“If the junta doesn’t stop fanning the flames of war, the situation will worsen,” said James Lum Dau, the KIO’s deputy chief of foreign affairs. 

Zipporah Sein, the general-secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), a non-cease-fire group, agreed and predicted that government offensives against non-BGF ethnic groups will intensify in the future.

If this happens and the junta resumes hostilities, some armed ethnic groups appear ready to employ new tactics.

A collection of ethnic militias, including the KNU, KIO, New Mon State Party (NMSP), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and Chin National Front (CNF), met in northern Thailand in early November to set up a “federal army” to respond to junta aggression.

“We will help each other improve military strength and implement tactics. The KNU has agreed to provide military training for the Federal Army,” said Nai Hang Thar of the NMSP.

Observers also predict that armed ethnic groups will employ guerrilla warfare tactics, targeting urban areas if the Burmese authorities cannot solve the ethnic conflicts peacefully.

If the regime does attempt a military campaign, many observers believe it is doomed to fail, saying that while the junta can temporarily halt military activities by armed ethnic groups, it can never totally defeat and eliminate them. 

David Scott Mathieson, a Burma researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the armed ethnic groups can regroup and become active at any time if they are unsatisfied with the military government, and ethnic militia leaders concur.

“Even though we have withdrawn our troops, we can retake the town [Myawaddy] at any time. This is our area. We know how to maneuver here,” warned Maj. Cha Mu Say of Brigade 5. “If they [the Burmese government forces] don’t do the right thing, their lands will never be peaceful.”

“Our resistance hero Saw Ba U Gyi [the founder of the KNU, from which the DKBA broke away in 1994] told us that our weapons must remain in our hands. We will uphold his command,” said Cha Mu Say.

One would think that, given the volatility of the ethnic situation, serious international attention would be focused on solving the problem. But recently, all eyes and ears seem to  be focused on the election and the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The ethnic conflict needs to be resolved, however, in order to bring about any lasting political solution in Burma, said Tom Kramer in a report titled “Burma: Neither War nor Peace” published by the Transnational Institute.

Kramer, who has spent more than 15 years working on Burma issues and has visited ethnic regions, claimed that the world has focused on the struggle of the democratic opposition led by Suu Kyi, who has become an international icon, while the ethnic minority issue and the relevance of the cease-fire agreements have been almost completely ignored.

Instead of isolating and demonizing the cease-fire groups, all national and international actors concerned with peace and democracy in Burma should actively engage with them and involve them in discussions about political change in the country, Kramer said in the report.

“Without a political settlement that addresses ethnic minority needs and goals it is extremely unlikely there will be peace and democracy in Burma,” Kramer said.

Thus far, however, armed ethnic groups have seen no signal from the regime that raises their hopes that a political solution can be found. Ethnic leaders said that the general election and the 2008 Constitution will bring neither democracy nor civil rights for Burma’s ethnic people, but will only legitimize the junta’s power and secure its cronies’ business interests.

In addition, Saw Lah Pwe said that during the 15-year cease-fire period the government has not been honest and has shown no respect for the cease-fire or the ethnic groups.

“They [junta leaders] are not honest with their people or the ethnic minorities. They will only try to manipulate and eliminate us,” he said.

Saw Lah Pwe said that armed conflict between ethnic groups and the government forces should be solved peacefully by political means—otherwise there will be never ending conflict and Burma will never be stable or peaceful. But he also is not optimistic about a peaceful solution.

“Under the junta’s rule, we can barely breathe. We need to unite to fight together for our survival, our rights and for democracy in Burma,” he said.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |