A Step Back For Burma?

Much has been made of Burma’s recent reforms. But old ethnic conflicts could undermine its efforts.

A Burmese military offensive against ethnic Kachin rebels is hitting the headlines, and non-governmental organizations fear the conflict will lead to a humanitarian crisis after 30,000 to 40,000 people fled their homes for the safety of a makeshift jungle camp.

Refugees International has warned tensions between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military has reached boiling point after a 17-year cease fire agreement broke down in June in Kachin, Burma’s most northern sate. The camps remain inaccessible to aid organizations and the United Nations from within. Access routes exist from China, but Beijing is reluctant to host any refugees as it doesn't want to be seen as dabbling in a neighbor's internal affairs.

The fighting also comes amid a well-publicized charm offensive by the government, which has announced a series of reforms that prompted an historic visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Burma’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to announce she would contest up-coming by-elections.

However, President Thien Sien has been quiet on the fighting that erupted around construction of a Chinese-backed hydropower project in June that shattered six years of relative peace amid reports of women being raped by soldiers and civilians killed. Instead, he has been touting the virtues of a civilian government that came to power after a widely discredited election, pleading with the international community and winning measured support.

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Encouraged, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to allow Burma to take its turn as host of the prestigious ASEAN summit in 2014.

However, it's a resolution to ethnic conflicts which have dogged the country for decades that could decide whether or not Burma wins any real international acceptance for its reforms and its bid to have Western sanctions dropped and relations normalized. This was a point emphasized by Clinton along with persistent reports of human rights abuses among the ethnic minorities and the plight of about 1,700 political prisoners who remain behind bars.

In the lead-up to elections 13 months ago, the junta attempted to unite the various ethnic armies under the Border Guard Forces, which would have allowed the ethnic communities to contest the elections. But this would have required them to surrender their weapons and allow Burmese commanders to take control of the militias. Broadly speaking, the response was half-hearted, while the KIA rejected the military offer outright saying this would have meant the decades of struggle would have been in vain.

The Kachin are just one of many ethnic groups in conflict with Naypyidaw. Others include the Shan, Karen, Kokang and the Chinese friendly Wa.

Previously The Diplomat authors, in particular Alex Ellgee in July, have warned of the dangers of internal conflict in Burma. It’s an important point that seems to have been overlooked during the scramble to embrace Burma for all it might be worth. And the current crisis in Kachin could be a simple pointer to Naypyidaw's true designs.