Wed 30 Sep 2009
Filed under: Opinion,Other
As the October deadline nears for ethnic cease-fire groups to capitulate to the Burmese regime’s demands to join its border guard force, it appears unavoidable that, sooner or later, major fighting will break out between government forces and the Wa army.
About 50 government battalions have been deployed around the regions where units of the United Wa State Army (UWSA)—the strongest ethnic cease-fire army with an estimated 20 to 25,000 troops—are based in southern Shan State, according to Shan and Kachin leaders.
Burma analysts say military preparations for the inevitable showdown have been ongoing since the regime’s troops seized the Kokang capital, Laogai, on August 24.
The government seizure of Laogai is considered a strong military location. Analysts say that it strategically cuts off the route for communications and transportation of troops and supplies between the UWSA units in southern Shan State and their headquarters in Panghsang in northern Shan State.
Apart from a direct military offensive against the cease-fire groups—in particular the UWSA and the Mongla-based National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA)—the Burmese generals will typically employ their tried and tested policy of “divide and rule”—a successful tactic in the recent offensive against the Kokang when they seized upon rumors of a split in the Kokang ranks and ousted leader Peng Jiasheng.
Another policy the junta can be relied on to use is discrediting their enemies through national media, mostly by broadcasting accusations of drug trafficking against them.
After the fall of Laogai, the government media reported drug seizures which they linked to the cease-fire groups, particularly the UWSA, whose name has become synonymous with drug trafficking in Burma, despite the close drug-related relationship the Wa enjoyed with the military government just a few years ago.
Htay Aung, a Burmese researcher with the exiled Network for Democracy and Development, said that “double pressure” will apply on the cease-fire groups after the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct 1.
Beijing would not want a refugee crisis on its borders during its celebrations and has undoubtedly warned Naypyidaw to refrain from causing bloodshed until after the party.
Thailand-based observers, such as Htay Aung, say that—provided they are given the green light by China—the Burmese generals have given themselves little option but to launch military operations against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the UWSA and the NDAA.
The next question is: what will Beijing do if and when war breaks out along its southwestern border?
Burmese dissidents and the exiled media have stated that the Chinese government has dual interests—its trade and gas pipelines with the Burmese junta, and its arms sales and blood ties with the Wa and other border-based groups.
David Mathieson, a Burma analyst with Human Rights Watch, said that it is very clear that China is unhappy with the prospect of an armed conflict on its border and certainly does not want an influx of refugees. (In August, 37,000 Kokang and Chinese refugees fled across the border to China after the Burmese army seized Laogai.)
China will be putting pressure on the Kachin, the Wa and the Burmese regime to avoid conflict, said Mathieson.
Thakin Chan Tun, a former Burmese ambassador to China, said, “If China backs only the Wa, this will damage its image [given the Wa reputation as drug traffickers].
“It also has to consider the relationship between Burma and India. If Burma turns its attention fully to India, China will lose out,” he said.
As well as having India to turn to, the Burmese regime has also opened up recently to the US.
Saeng Juen, an editor with the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News, said, “To be able to play with the Chinese government over the cease-fire issue, the junta is now renewing its relationship with the US.”
Meanwhile, according to Reuters news agency, the Burmese ambassador to China, Thein Lwin, said on Wednesday that peace has now “more or less returned” to the Kokang region.
However, Chinese authorities have been building three camps as temporary shelters in Yunnan Province opposite Panghsang in anticipation of an incursion of refugees.
Burmese dissidents have said that China will be deeply torn if fighting breaks out along its border between its ethnic blood brothers and the Burmese government. However, it would be prudent of Beijing to shelter the ethnic refugees and offer lip-service criticism of the junta while maintaining its diplomatic relationship with Naypyidaw and the security of its pipelines.
According to Thakin Chan Tun, Beijing may be finally realizing its role in Burma: working with refugees and ignoring the Burmese regime’s human rights abuses, and in return securing its long-term national interests in Burma.