Myanmar’s army – the Tatmadaw – has a successful track-record of employing divide-and-rule tactics to counter ethnic armed insurgency in the country’s restive borderlands. Preventing the formation of a united front of ethnic armed groups has long been of major importance to the country’s military. The Burmese Communist Party (BCP), a former umbrella group that encompassed various ethnic armies, has proven how dangerous unity among the country’s numerous ethnic rebel movements can be. Since the BCP’s breakup in the late 1980s, the Tatmadaw has done everything it can to single out individual armed groups. While it struck ceasefire deals with some, it concentrated its firepower on others.
These ceasefire accords have mostly been accompanied by lucrative business concessions, which had another divide-and-rule effect. It sparked factionalizing within armed ethnic groups, with some leaders getting rich and corrupt while others held on to their revolutionary principles. It also created an ever widening divide between rebel organizations and local ethnic minority communities. While rebels turned into businessmen, exploiting their territories’ natural resources in collaboration with the Tatmadaw and foreign companies, little wealth trickled down to the ordinary populace. These internal splits often created turmoil within ethnic armed groups and significantly weakened their military strength.
While divide-and-rule tactics have worked to curtail insurgency, it has been argued elsewhere that they might actually be detrimental to the country’s peace process. This is because divided interests among armed groups have repeatedly complicated the finding of a common stance towards negotiating with the government, as was evidenced by the latest marathon armed ethnic conference in Karen State. This stands in the way of a nationwide ceasefire accord, on which peace negotiations need to build upon. Moreover, agreements that might eventually be reached at the negotiation table between Naypyidaw and ethnic insurgency movements need be implemented afterwards. If armed group leaders do not enjoy the full support of their movements, this will be impossible.
The international community commonly assumes that the new semi-civilian government in Naypyidaw endeavors a sincere settlement of the decades-old civil war. And why shouldn’t it? Even if one attributes Myanmar’s renewed charm offensive towards ethnic armed groups solely to economic rationale, the pacification of its conflict-ridden borderlands should be in the governments own interest. This is where most of the country’s natural resources are located. Foreign investors – mainly from China and Thailand – have also started to construct strategic infrastructure in these territories, including hydropower dams, highways, and gas and oil pipelines. The significance of border trade with its neighbors should be another economic imperative for peace.
Yet, it seems wrong to assume that Myanmar’s new civilian government actually controls the peace process. Myriad tea-house political analysts across the country would certainly agree that real power still lies with the army. Many claim that the country’s former dictator Than Shwe, who stepped down in 2011, keeps on pulling the strings of a puppet government. Whether this is true or not, the Senior General enshrined his legacy in the 2008 constitution, which assigns 25 percent of seats in parliament to the military and gives ultimate veto powers to its Chief of Staff. Moreover, he placed his confidants in all key positions of government. Should one expect an institution which formerly commanded absolute power to give up on its supremacy voluntarily?
Lieutenant General Myint Soe of the Ministry of Defense recently announced that one should not: “The main duty of the Tatmadaw is to preserve the 2008 constitution.”
The old and new rulers of Myanmar seem to have an outlook towards peace that is different than stated by their semi-civilian counterparts. In fact, the Tatmadaw sabotages the peace negotiations. Just ahead of nationwide ceasefire negotiations this month, it once again escalated the conflict with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) under the pretext of cracking down on illegal timber logging. Leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU), which entered into a ceasefire in 2012, have continuously complained that the Tatmadaw reinforces its troops in Karen State despite the deescalation rhetoric of President Thein Sein. That Myanmar’s civilian government cannot control the army has become most obvious with the Tatmadaw’s ongoing attacks on the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), despite a truce accord.
But why are the generals not interested in achieving peace if it makes so much sense from a political and even economic perspective? The simple answer is that it just doesn’t make sense to them. They are among the main profiteers of the country’s extensive war economy, deploying their troops to guard gigantic jade stones rather than protecting the local population. According to the Harvard Ash Center, jade is indeed the country’s most profitable resource. It estimated that jade production in 2011 amounted to about $4.3 billion. Yet, only $34 million worth of exports were officially declared. The Tatmadaw’s investments in illicit exploitation of timber, gold, and other minerals – as well as its reported involvement in the trade of narcotics – further consolidate the army’s interest in perpetuating a controllable state of disorder.
Despite the Tatmadaw’s constitutional privileges, the military is careful not to lose control over the reform process at a time of rapidly liberalizing media and a highly politicized population demanding a genuinely civilian constitution. Manufacturing insecurity seems to be well suited for keeping an inflated security apparatus as well as emergency powers in place. While the old divide-and-rule tactics of the Tatmadaw might be counterproductive for achieving peace, they are well qualified to maintain power and profits by keeping armed conflict simmering without the risk of it boiling over. The ultimate target of contemporary divide-and-rule politics might, hence, not be the ethnic armed groups but Myanmar’s population as a whole, whose democratic aspirations the generals try to keep in check.
David Brenner is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His thesis traces the effects of transforming border economies on armed conflict in Myanmar/Burma, specifically examining their impacts on the internal politics of armed groups and their negotiations with the government.