With one thousand refugees fleeing fighting in eastern Burma into Thailand’s Tak Province over the weekend, fears are growing about renewed war in eastern Burma and elsewhere in the ethnic minority-populated borderlands close to Thailand, India and China.
Several deadlines for ethnic militia, such as the 30,000 strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), to join the Border Guard Force have expired, amid speculation that once a new government is in place in Naypidaw, attention will turn to the ethnic issue.
Since her Nov. 13 release from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a second Panglong Conference to discuss long-standing ethnic minority demands for a federal-type solution to Burma’s governance problems. Sixteen militias have long-established cease-fires with the junta.
However, the recent purchase by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) of 24 Russian military helicopters, as well as the establishment of new helicopter bases near the Salween River, suggests that the Tatmadaw, the name for the Burmese military, is gearing up for a “military solution” to the ethnic issue.
In response to fears that renewed war looms, six ethnic militias have agreed to form a mutual defense pact, suggesting that if one of the groups is attacked by the Tatmadaw, the others will retaliate against the junta army. The militias can field a combined total of around 60,000 fighters, against what is estimated to be the largest army in southbeast Asia, numbering more than 400,000 troops
However, a united militia front could be difficult to realize in practice. According to Aung Naing Oo, speaking at a forum on post-election Burma, “an ethnic militia alliance will be difficult to realize in practice on the ground, as the various groups are separated from each other physically by the army.”
Fears of renewed fighting are contributing to regional drug trafficking. At a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report launch in Bangkok last week, official Gary Lewis reminded that late 2009 saw significant increases of methamphetamine flooding into Thailand. At the time, the increased traffic suggested that cease-fire groups were selling stocks in order to acquire arms. In August 2009, the army destroyed the stronghold of the ethnic Chinese Kokang militia, raising the alarm among the other, larger and more powerful cease-fire groups.
However, it is unlikely that the drug trade is completely controlled by ethnic militias. Launching a recent report on poppy cultivation in Shan State, Shan researcher and journalist Kheunsai Jaiyen said that “most of the poppy-growing areas in Shan State are under the control of militia groups backed by the Tatmadaw.” According to the Shan Drug Watch newsletter, 46 of 55 townships in the region are poppy-growing areas, as the Tatmadaw’s presence in Shan State has increased to 150 battalions—five times the number deployed to fight Chinese-backed Communist rebels in the 1970s and 1980s.
In September 2009, in a rare show of anger against the Burmese junta, China voiced displeasure at the attack on the Kokang, which saw almost 40,000 refugees—mainly ethnic Chinese—flee into Yunnan. Chinese arms and diplomatic support were central to the Sri Lankan crushing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgency in 2008, an outcome that critics described as marred by widespread human rights violations and attacks on civilians.
Sri Lanka, like Burma, is part of Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean, refurbishing existing facilities or building new ports such as Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe in Burma. China began building a new naval facility at Hambantota in 2007, around the same time as Sri Lanka began its final offensive against the LTTE. As western loans and aid to Colombo dried up, China stepped in with massive financial support, becoming Sri Lanka’s biggest foreign donor in 2009.
Sri Lanka President Mahindra Rajapakse visited Burma, meeting junta leader Than Shwe, shortly after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. In June 2009, Than Shwe and other leading generals visited Sri Lanka to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, where the senior-general was thanked by President Mahinda Rajapakse for the the government’s support to “combat illegal activities carried out by the LTTE in the past and in drug trafficking in the region.” Both governments lauded their common heritage, rooted in Theraveda Buddhism.
The two governments appear to be sharing military information, with the Tatmadaw eager to learn from Sri Lanka’s bloody culmination to war with the Tamil Tigers.
According to a recent report by researcher Kim Joliffe, “indicators in the field show that the Myanmar [Burma] government may now be borrowing methods from the government of Sri Lankaʼs successful COIN strategy used against the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Ealam in 2008 (LTTE).”
The Sri Lankan-style strategy appears primarily to target the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which does not have a cease-fire with the SPDC. In response, the KNLA has worked with Western special forces advisers, installing networks of trail-watch cameras, remote-controlled video cameras, spy cameras and sensors in the jungles of the country’s east.
According to K’Nyaw Paw, representing the Forum of Burma’s Community-Based Organizations, there are now 237 army battalions in eastern Burma, and army attacks have caused 73,000 civilians in the east to flee their homes in the past year. Thirty thousand refugees crossed into Thailand after fighting between a faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the army, near the towns of Myawaddy and Three Pagodas Pass, on November 7, the day Burma held a controversial general election.
In total, an estimated 446,000 people are thought to be displaced inside Burma and allegations that the army uses forced labor, forced displacement and rape as part of its campaign in ethnic minority regions are part of the campaign by rights groups to establish a Commission of Inquiry into war crimes in Burma.
According to Joliffe’s report, more violence looms in Karen-populated regions in eastern Burma. The Sri Lanka-style strategy “would include the assassination of key leaders, the pinpointing of key bases and the herding of KNLA forces and civilians into kill zones using heli-borne forces.” Ominously, Joliffe suggests, “the final phase of these hammer and anvil tactics is the obliteration of everyone in kill zones using massed artillery.”
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