Recent fighting in northern Shan state, between the junta’s army and the ethnic Kokang militia known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, has fuelled speculation that the regime intends to coerce Burma’s 17 ceasefire groups into accepting a plan to incorporate them into the state security apparatus as border guards.

The ceasefire groups are ethnic militias—most notably the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kachin Independence Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army—that have fought on and off, in various guises, against central rule since Burma became independent in 1948. They are part of Burma’s remarkably diverse ethnic, religious and cultural demography—40 percent of the country’s population is comprised of non-Burman minorities. In total, the state recognizes 135 different ethnicities.

However, the Burmese regime’s army has fought brutal campaigns against these groups, with long-documented human rights abuses, including mass displacement, forced labor and conscription, as well as countless cases of rape and murder targeting civilians. Some analysts believing that the level of abuses ranks alongside or even exceeds that of Darfur in western Sudan.

In some cases, the junta has successfully co-opted proxy or splinter movements from ethnic insurgent groups as part of its ongoing strategy of “divide and rule” to weaken ethnically based opposition. But far from bringing peace to the country, this approach has served only to perpetuate ethnic tensions.

Indeed, some observers believe that the regime has little interest in resolving a problem that has long been its raison d’etre. “Burma’s ethnic diversity has been one of the main justifications for continued military rule,” said Win Min, an analyst of Burmese affairs based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, adding that the army has long seen civilian government as too weak to prevent potential secession by ethnic minorities.

Going back to the 1947 constitution, the military has always believed that civilian solutions to the problems posed by Burma’s ethnic divisions, such as local autonomy or federalism, with the option of secession in some cases, threaten national unity and foment instability.

The army goes by the maxim that diversity equals disunity, something seen in military-civilian political vehicles such as the National Unity Party, the junta-backed party that ran against the National League for Democracy in the 1990 elections, and the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a mass organization established in 1993 that is expected to be transformed into a pro-junta political party in time for elections in 2010.

The regime’s efforts to undermine ethnically based expressions of identity in Burma are also evident in the 2008 constitution, which circumscribes ethnic autonomy and is a digression away from the establishment of anything resembling a federal union—a demand of many ethnic groups.

“The constitution/election process is driving this policy to marginalize the ethnic groups,” said Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia’s Macquarie University whose research focuses on Burma. “This may come back to haunt the junta, as it has with previous governments,” he added.

If the junta proceeds with its military build-up in Shan State, close to the well-armed UWSA, it may be revisited by the ghosts of insurgencies past very soon. The prospect of renewed ethnic civil war in Burma’s borderlands has caused concern in neighboring countries, particularly China, which remains a key ally of the regime.

The Burmese generals issued an apology to Beijing after being reprimanded over the fighting in Kokang, which saw an estimated 30,000 refugees from this ethnically Chinese region cross into China’s Yunnan Province. The junta risks undermining its relationship with Beijing, as instability is perceived to be contrary to China’s interests.

As K. Yhome, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in India, put it: “Political stability in Myanmar [Burma] is a major concern for Beijing, particularly in the border regions.”

China’s port and pipeline plan linking the Burmese coast with Yunnan is due to get underway this month, and Beijing doubtless does not want the timeframe jeopardized by the junta’s domestic concerns. The pipeline will extend 1,200 km and allow Beijing to bypass the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea when bringing oil imports from Africa and the Middle East into China.

Given that China has “run interference for the junta at the UN Security Council”—in the words of Walter Lohman, an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation—sending refugees streaming into China seems a bitter payback. Only three weeks ago, Beijing told critics that the August 11 decision to return Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest was an internal Burmese matter.

Ironically, the junta’s offensive along the Sino-Burmese border may have been intended to send the same message—that the regime manages its internal affairs autonomously—to Beijing. It could also be a hint that there are other options available, should the junta want to diversify its networks of foreign partners.

The regime certainly has reason to believe that Beijing is not its only friend. While China’s tally of oil blocks in Burma is 16, India has seven and Thailand five. Meanwhile, India, South Korea and half of Burma’s fellow members in the Association of Southeast Nations are investing in the country’s vast natural resources and competing with China for trade links with the generals.

According to Turnell, the regime may even be paying China back for entering into a series of gas contracts with Bangladesh over offshore fields in disputed seas between Burma and Bangladesh.

However, it remains to be seen how far the junta could push this attempt to needle China, or to diversify its foreign trade and investment relations. “Myanmar needs to remain focused on Chinese concerns,” said Jian Junbo, an assistant professor of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

If the regime seeks to pick a fight with the UWSA or any of the other larger ethnic militias, it could be stirring a hornet’s nest. This type of political instability could threaten Chinese investments in Burma, and Beijing’s growing economy cannot afford that.

Just as it does not want an unstable Burma, Beijing is almost certainly on the alert for any rapprochement between the US and the junta. It is not clear whether the Kokang offensive is linked to the recent visit by Senator Jim Webb to Burma, but the growing military presence in Shan State has taken place while international attention has been focused on Webb’s visit, and the Suu Kyi trial circus that preceded it.

“In the long term, if the US improves its ties with Myanmar, it will have strategic implications for Beijing, which wants to reach the Indian Ocean through Myanmar and the oil and gas pipeline projects that it plans through Myanmar,” said K. Yhome.

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