Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

After Burma Poll, Conflict Looms

Burma’s history is marked by insurgencies and ethnic tension. Next month’s poll could see them bubble over into armed conflict.

By Sebastian Strangio for

MAE LA CAMP, THAILAND—Aside from the checkpoints, it could be any village in Thailand. The bamboo houses, bisected by dirt lanes and picturesque streams, are well-tended and strung with brightly-coloured laundry; in dirt-floored cafes, men in Burmese longyi (sarongs) chat over shots of sugary tea and chew betel nut, while nearby stalls stock the latest Thai cosmetics and DVDs. Children, their cheeks daubed with swirls of traditional thanaka face paint, chant lessons in Burmese and English in well-equipped bamboo classrooms.

But for the residents of Mae La refugee camp, life is in an ongoing limbo. Created in 1984, the camp is now home to an estimated 47,000 inhabitants, most of whom fled ethnic violence and other abuses inside the military-ruled country to the west. Around 65 percent of the camp’s residents are ethnic Karens, part of the tragic diaspora born out of the group’s 60-year-old insurgency in neighboring Karen State. The remainder also includes Shan, Kachin, Mon and Karenni refugees from across Burma, as well as a small contingent of exiled student dissidents.

As the Burmese military junta gears up to hold elections for the first time in two decades, few of the camp’s inhabitants expect things to change for the better. Byran Awng, a 68-year-old Shan, is pessimistic over the chances that the elections, scheduled for November 7, will bring peace and stability to his native Shan State. In August last year, the retired teacher experienced the brief outbreak of fighting between junta troops and ethnic militias in the Kokang Special Region, a Chinese enclave in Shan State along the border with Yunnan Province. He says the incident, which sent about 30,000 people fleeing into China, will likely be repeated after the poll.

‘After these elections, I think there’ll be more fighting, because the people don’t like the elections, or these generals,’ he says in the gravelly English he learnt as a schoolteacher. ‘(The election) will make it worse.’

Over the past year, the security situation along the Thai and Chinese borders has worsened following the introduction of a Burmese government scheme to extend its control over the raft of armed militias that signed ceasefires with the junta in the 1980s and 1990s. The so-called Border Guard Force (BGF) plan—tied to the timing of next month’s election—now threatens to unravel a fragile status quo in the ethnic states.

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Armed insurgencies have been a perennial challenge for Burma since the country won its independence from Britain in 1948. The early successes of groups such as the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the Karen National Union (KNU), who took up arms against the new government to satisfy a range of ethnic and political demands, did much to set the tone of repression that has followed in the decades since. The threat of ethnic instability provided a ready rationale for General Ne Win’s military takeover in 1962, and the military’s continuing supremacy is still justified in part on this threat of unrest.

A series of ceasefire agreements, signed following the collapse of the CPB in 1989, brought open conflict with over a dozen ethnic militias to a halt. Since then, the ceasefire groups, the largest of which include the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), have existed in uneasy peace with the Burmese army, maintaining self-administered fiefdoms in the areas under their control.

But last year’s fighting in Kokang, reportedly triggered by a rift between leaders of Kokang’s ceasefire militia—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army—over whether to accept the BGF plan, could foreshadow what’s to come in other parts of the country.

Since it was first announced in April 2009, the BGF plan, which would see ethnic leaders renounce their autonomous status, has proven a tough sell. The latest of several BGF deadlines expired on September 1, and Naypyidaw said that any group failing to join by then would automatically be considered ‘unlawful.’

The two sides have since been on heightened alert: earlier this month, six groups formed an alliance against the threat of attacks from the Burmese army. According to the proposal, each group agreed to assist any of the others if they came under attack.

At the same time, the Burmese army has stepped up its rhetoric against the groups still holding out. In a report on October 15, Burmese state media referred to the 8000-strong Kachin Independence Army—the KIO’s military wing—as ‘insurgents,’ the first time such a designation has been used since the group signed a ceasefire with the government in 1994. Three days later, troops led a raid on KIA offices and arrested at least two of the group’s soldiers. The KIA has since put villagers on alert and instructed them to fire at any approaching troops.

Meanwhile, the UWSA over the past six months has stepped up the production of illicit drugs in a bid to stockpile weapons in advance of an anticipated future conflict. According to a September 22 report in The Irrawaddy magazine, the UWSA has instructed administrative and military units to ‘prepare for the possibility of an end to the ceasefire’ and are using the trade in drugs—mostly heroin and methamphetamines—to fund its arms-buying spree.

Nerdah Bomya, the military attaché to the KNU, said the group expected a fresh campaign of ‘mopping up’ operations as the government tries to tighten its grip on ethnic insurgents. ‘They want to clean up all the ethnic groups who are fighting against them,’ he said in a recent interview on the Thai border. ‘The upcoming elections will be the same old thing and there’ll be more fighting. We know that there’s not going to be a change in Burma unless we do something to change the situation.’

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According to Mark Farmaner, spokesman for Burma Campaign UK, the 2008 Constitution that is set to come into force after the elections grants few rights to ethnic groups and would merely perpetuate existing grievances. ‘The failure to grant rights to ethnic people is the root cause of the instability which has afflicted Burma since independence,’ he says, adding that in drafting the new constitution, the junta rejected ‘every single proposal’ for rights, cultural protection and political autonomy.

After Burma Poll, Conflict LoomsWhile the election may provide the basis for the creation of regional parliaments that could allow some degree of ethnic representation, observers say that most of the ethnically-affiliated parties have close links to the regime and will do little to advance minority interests.

‘Parties which are more grounded in ethnic opposition politics have had their activities curtailed or in some cases…haven’t been allowed to contest the election,’ says Lian Sakhong, general secretary of the Chiang Mai-based Ethnic Nationalities Council.

Given the increasing tensions, restive areas have been excluded from the polls altogether. The country’s election commission announced last month that four townships in Shan State, mostly under the control of the UWSA and other ceasefire groups, would be excluded from voting, as they were in no position to hold ‘free and fair’ elections. Polls will also not be held in areas of Karen, Kachin, Karenni and Mon states, again in areas controlled by ethnic forces. ‘This effectively removes the ability of many ethnic voters to have a say in the coming election,’ Sakhong says.

According to a briefing released last month by the International Crisis Group, the Chinese government, fearful of instability on the country’s southern flank, has been forced to take an increased interest in the ethnic situation in Burma. As a way of securing stability in the border region, it may even force Burmese and ethnic minority leaders to the table, though to reach a positive outcome such talks would have to overcome decades of mistrust and suspicion.

Sakhong says that without a significant shift in attitude by the Burmese government, which has long taken a ‘myopic’ view of its ethnic diversity, there’s little doubt over the likelihood of armed conflict in the wake of the election.

‘Armed groups that still resist the government’s call to relinquish weapons, ceasefire or not, will have to be eliminated,’ he says. ‘The question is not so much will fighting occur, but rather for how long and at what cost to the people?’

U Antiza, a Karen monk who arrived at Mae La refuge camp in 2005 after fleeing Burma 15 years earlier, echoes the views of many refugees when he dismisses the prospects for any positive change following the election. ‘There will be peace if the government loses its power,’ he says. ‘But it won’t happen. I’ve known that since I was young.’