Fri 30 Apr 2010
Filed under: Opinion,Other
Bangkok – Yet another deadline has passed for ethnic ceasefire groups in Myanmar to join the military as part of a new government-controlled Border Guard Force (BGF). With the rainy season approaching and a transition from military to civilian rule underway, opportunities are dwindling for the ruling junta to force the groups to agree before elections are held later this year.
The former ceasefire groups, including the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA) are the largest of more than 25 groups that have agreed to suspend their armed struggles since 1989.
The Karen National Union (KNU) and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), as well as several other smaller groups, continue to fight the regime in eastern Myanmar. The ceasefire groups were told by the regime’s negotiator, Lieutenant General Ye Myint, they had until April 22 to announce their decisions on joining the military or face military offensives. The deadline was later extended to yesterday.
Observers note that it was the fifth deadline set by the government and question how committed the regime is to backing its threats with force. Four previous deadlines, in October and December 2009 and February and March 2010, passed without consequence. Prior to yesterday’s deadline, negotiations between junta and ceasefire group representatives have been inconclusive.
The groups were told that failure to comply by the deadline would result in revocation of their ceasefire status and they would be considered illegal organizations. With that designation, they would be forced to surrender without the option of retaining their arms. The situation has left many with the feeling that while the conversion of the ceasefire groups to BGFs is a step on the regime’s so-called “roadmap to democracy”, the generals are not prepared to resume full-scale hostilities while managing the delicate democratic transition.
From a military perspective, analysts belie’e the generals’ window of opportunity has narrowed. The rainy season is only weeks away and most analysts believe there is not enough time for the army to carry out a knockout offensive. The rains make the largely unpaved roads and trails in ceasefire groups’ territories almost impassable, preventing the effective supply of military units to carry out offensive operations.
Two minor skirmishes on April 23 and 24 between the Myanmar Army and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) near the Thai border resulted in no casualties and an army admission that it had made a mistake, thinking their opponents were the still-insurgent SSA-South. Although Wa in areas along the Thai border have started to flee to areas closer to the border or even into Thailand, the armed exchange did not indicate the beginning of full-blown offensive military operations.
The deadline and the expected outlawing of the ceasefire groups will effectively put them outside the election process and ensure that their political wings are unable to form parties and contest the polls, the country’s first since 1990. The military annulled the results of those polls and has since maintained an iron-clad grip on power. There is even some question of whether campaigning and voting will take place in the areas controlled by the groups.
The international community will also pay closer attention to Myanmar during the campaign period and the regime is anxious to win a stamp of approval for their tightly controlled transition towards democratic rule. A military campaign with its attendant casualties and human rights abuses would distract international attention from the elections and likely spark new criticism of the junta.
Under the proposed BGF arrangement, ethnic rebel armies would be reduced in size and their fighters reorganized into battalions under the command of a department in the military. Myanmar officers and non-commissioned officers would be assigned to each battalion, largely in specialist and logistics roles, and the government would be responsible for training, equipping and paying the new units.
The ethnic groups have argued that they cannot allow their military wings to come under government control while issues are still outstanding regarding guarantees for ethnic rights and a hoped for move towards federalism. They say the 2008 constitution, passed in what many consider to have been a rigged referendum, does not do enough to guarantee ethnic rights.
Rather than reject the BGF plan outright, each of the three main ceasefire groups – the Kachin Independence Organization/Army, the UWSA and the National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State – have offered counter-proposals.
The Kachin, probably the most politically savvy of the three and the least tainted by allegations of drug trafficking, have called for discussions to amend the constitution to better reflect ethnic aspirations of federalism. They have called for a return to the “Panglong spirit”, referring to an agreement reached in 1947 between independence leader General Aung San and representatives from various ethnic groups, including the Kachin and the Shan, that was supposed to guarantee a form of federalism for the country’s ethnic groups.
Pressure on the then democratic government to better implement the federalism enshrined in the Panglong Agreement was one of the reasons for the 1962 coup that turned the country into a military dictatorship. This led directly to the Kachin’s revolt and enflamed rebellion in nearby Shan State.
As a concession, the Kachin have recently offered to integrate their troops into a “federal army” that would include separate Kachin battalions. The government has rejected the Kachin proposals and Lieutenant General Ye Myint has said in response that “the Panglong era is over”.
The UWSA, widely regarded as the world’s largest narco-trafficking militia, presented the regime with a nine-point proposal in November that it has been presented at each follow-up meeting with the regime. They have indicated they would be willing to join the BGF as long as their concerns in the proposal are addressed.
The main points of contention are the control of an area in the south of Shan State along the border with Thailand known as the UWSA’s 171 Military Region, the UWSA’s control of two townships along the Chinese border that abut on territory controlled by its ally, the NDAA, and, most significantly, its disagreement with assigning Myanmar army officers to BGF battalions.
The Wa believe the area along the Thai border was given as compensation by the regime for the Wa’s role in a seven-year war fought against former Mong Thai army leader and drug lord Khun Sa. In 1999, tens of thousands of Wa farmers were relocated to the region, a move the Wa say would be impossible to reverse.
The UWSA revised its proposal in a submission to the junta on April 1, saying it was willing to concede control of two areas along the Thai border and allow for certain positions within the new border guard battalions for Myanmar army officers. The offer was turned down by a junta delegation on April 9 with the demand that the Wa abide by the BGF proposal without any changes. A similar proposal put forward by the NDAA was also rejected.
Prior to each elapsed deadline, reports have circulated of Myanmar Army reinforcements arriving opposite the position of the ethnic fighters and heightened tension among residents in nearby towns and villages. Junta checkpoints have been set up to block the flow of food and other supplies, although this has been largely countered by sourcing items from across the border in China.
Following the March deadline, the junta ordered civil officials and staff of non-governmental organizations working in the area to leave Wa areas by March 24. However, by April 6, United Nations and NGO staff involved in development and opium substitution projects had returned to resume their work.
The army’s August 2009 offensive against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in the Kokang region of northern Myanmar seems to have had little effect on the resolve of the groups to oppose the BGF scheme.
According to Shan and Western observers, the groups have instead learned from the event and taken steps to strengthen cooperation, especially between the UWSA and NDAA. With the deadline looming, the UWSA hosted a meeting with its allies last week to discuss the possibility of Myanmar military operations.
The threats apparently did influence one group, the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N). Its top commander, Major General Loimao, agreed to join the BGF in an April 22 meeting in Lashio with the Myanmar Army’s Northeast Command commander, Major General Aung Than Tut. A ceremony was held on April 25 to formalize the transformation of Loimao’s headquarters security unit into the Hsengkeow Home Guard Force.
The agreement, however, has reportedly split the 5,000 man SSA-N. The 1st Brigade, the SSA-N’s strongest, with some 2,500 fighters under Major General Parngfa, has declared that it will not join the BGF. Soldiers from the SSA-N’s other units are reportedly leaving their units to join Parngfa. The group’s leader, Major General Hso Ten, is serving a 106-year prison sentence for political offenses.
Developments in Myanmar’s northern border region are of immense importance to China, which has extensive and growing investments in the country’s natural resources. Not least of these is the dual oil and gas pipeline from Myanmar’s western coast to Kunming in China’s southwest. The pipelines, which are expected to go online in 2013, will supply China with oil and gas from the controversial Shwe Gas field off Myanmar’s coast as well as from tankers, which will no longer have to travel around the strategically vulnerable Malacca Strait.
In addition to the pipelines and resource extraction projects, China sees Myanmar as a conduit for products from its landlocked southwestern regions to the outside world and is anxious to prevent any disruption in such flows. China is also known to be concerned about the possibility of instability along the border with its southwest region, which is home to numerous ethnic groups and has had a restive past.
China would like to avoid a repeat of the influx of some 30,000 refugees in the wake of last August’s attack in Kokang. Analysts and relief workers believe that fighting against the KIA, UWSA and NDAA would result in many times that number and a refugee problem that could last for years.
Beijing issued a rare rebuke against the junta immediately after the attack on the Kokang and has since increased its military presence along the border. Several visits by high-ranking Chinese officials in the months since are believed to have included discussion of the ethnic ceasefire groups.
Chinese officials and military officers have acted as mediators in discussions between the ceasefire groups and the junta in an attempt to get both sides to soften their positions. One delegation reportedly accompanied the UWSA to talks in February.
The situation of the ceasefire groups will likely be one of the first important issues dealt with by Myanmar’s newly elected government next year. Once the elections, expected to take place in October, are over and the new government is installed, the military can resume its pressure on the groups or take military action, analysts suggest.
By then the army will supposedly be under civilian rule in a democratic country rather than the footsoliders of a military dictatorship bent on crushing all of those opposed to its power. It’s a distinction the ceasefire groups are no doubt weighing in their refusal to put down their arms and join the BGFs.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org