Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Democracy plan fuels war in Myanmar

By Brian McCartan

MAE SOT, Thailand (Asia Times) - At a November meeting of ethnic minority and pro-democracy groups in the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai, a representative of the Danish government development agency DANIDA called on the dissident participants to take part in the political process inside Myanmar, including support for the upcoming 2010 elections, or face funding cuts.

Those behind-closed-door remarks were followed in January by a visit to Myanmar of Danish Development Minister Ulla Toraes and Norwegian minister Erik Solheim. While officially presented as a visit to observe Cyclone Nargis relief efforts, several Myanmar watchers questioned whether the delegation breached a European

Union prohibition on high-level visits to Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has been wishy-washy on its stance towards the elections, with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Special Envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari simply requesting that the ruling generals ensure that the elections are free and fair. Amid growing calls for Ban to make another visit to Myanmar, the UN has said little concerning what would make the elections internationally acceptable or what actions the international community should take if they are not.

Behind the silence is a growing notion among certain Western governments and international aid agencies that the junta's controversial planned elections will usher in a new era of stability to Myanmar. The reality is that the junta's push to legitimize its electoral process is already causing greater instability, especially along Myanmar's borders with Thailand and China. Myanmar's various ethnic-based ceasefire organizations are making moves to secure their power bases and territory in order to either maintain their bargaining positions whatever government results from the elections or, if push comes to shove, go back to war.

The elections represent the fifth step on the military regime's seven-step "roadmap to democracy". The generals have said that before the elections can take place the various ethnic insurgent ceasefire groups along the country's border areas must disarm and become legal political parties. Only once a "discipline flourishing democracy" has been established, says the government, will the concerns of the various ethnic groups be addressed.

With a year to go before the polls, ethnic insurgent organizations are being forced to decide whether to carry on the struggle or become state-controlled militias. Although Gambari was able to meet with certain ethnic Shan politicians on his visit in early February, and UN Human Rights Envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana met last week with members of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), it is unlikely that these staged meetings would have given either envoy a real sense of the dilemma facing many of the ethnic organizations.

For many Myanmar analysts and ethnic leaders there is a real worry that a military showdown is brewing between the generals and the ethnic groups that could tilt the region towards fighting on a scale not seen in over 20 years. Increased government pressure to disarm has already resulted in increased fighting along the Thai-Myanmar border as a Karen insurgent group allied with the junta tries to create more space for itself.

With little faith in the central government and its post-election promises, many other ceasefire groups say they will retain rather than give up their arms. Since the first ceasefires were signed in 1989, ethnic armies have resisted handing over their arms because they believe without them it would be impossible to negotiate a final settlement on equal terms or protect their people from a regime renowned for its gross human rights abuses.

The junta's disregard for ethnic group representatives at the National Convention to draft a new constitution, which was completed in 2007, and the forced disarmament of several smaller groups has only intensified ethnic distrust of the generals. Initial pressure to disarm, or at least to become militias or border guards under the control of Myanmar's armed forces, began prior to the completion of the National Convention.

That pressure intensified after the controversial national referendum held in May that approved a new constitution, which paved the way for next year's elections. The generals contend that under democracy there will be no need for ethnic organizations to retain their arms and instead that they should form political parties to represent their minority interests.

Electoral dilemma
Ethnic political organizations are caught on the horns of an electoral dilemma: if they boycott the polls, their grounds for criticizing the results will be weakened; by contesting, they will seemingly condone a process which most observers, including several ethnic leaders, view as a sham. Different groups are taking different approaches, though all have a common thread: the retention of arms.

The largest ceasefire groups are based in northern Myanmar, along the border with China. They include the United Wa State Army (UWSA) with an estimated 15,000-20,000 fighters, the National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS) with around 2,500 and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) with up to 10,000 men, and the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/A) with between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers in Kachin State. The UWSA, NDAA and SSA-N all agreed to ceasefires in 1989, while the KIO signed on in 1994.

With a large and well-equipped army, wealth derived through legitimate business as well as drug trafficking, and support from China, the UWSA has historically played hard ball with the junta. In a move which observers see as a test of the generals' commitment to their new constitution, the UWSA has recently started stamping official documents as "Government of Wa State, Special Autonomous Region, Union of Myanmar" and changed its official office signs to read the same.

The constitution sets out a "Self-Administered Division" for the Wa and the UWSA is in effect declaring its rule over the area. The move comes amid increased tensions following a December meeting between UWSA officers and Major General Kyaw Pyoe from the Golden Triangle Command based in eastern Shan State. The general ordered the UWSA to disarm and reform into a government-controlled militia, a request that was rejected out-of-hand by the UWSA.

Underscoring that authority, a 30-man government delegation led by Lieutenant General Ye Myint, chief of Military Affairs Security, or Myanmar's military intelligence agency, was forced on January 19 to disarm when it crossed into Wa-controlled territory. Ye Myint's main mission, to discuss the upcoming elections, was instead limited to economic matters. The UWSA has yet to comment on whether it will participate in the polls, but recent moves to establish a factory for the production of small arms and ammunition, suggest that the UWSA is instead readying for a fight.

The NDAA, which is closely allied with the UWSA, has also resisted government calls to disarm and tensions have since grown with the Myanmar army. Meanwhile, the arrest in February 2005 and continued detention of SSA-N chairman Major General Hso Ten, along with several other Shan leaders, has soured relations and SSA-N troops have since joined the non-ceasefire Shan State Army-South along the border with Thailand. Both groups are expected to resist rather than allow themselves to be disarmed and become government-led militias.

In Kachin State, the KIO has declared it will not participate in the elections, but recently gave its approval to civilians who wish to set up a Kachin political party to contest the polls. The group has said that it hopes to enter into a dialogue with a new democratic government. And in the southern Myanmar areas of Mon State and Tenasserim Division, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) declared after a recent congress that it will not participate in the elections and would not disarm. The NMSP has been a consistent thorn in the regime's election plans, including its move to walk out of the National Convention in protest over lack of consideration of ethnic issues and a March 2008 statement stating its opposition to the national referendum.

Several ceasefire group leaders have remained coy about their preparations for possible hostilities. On the ground, observers describe military preparations including trainings and increased recruitment, as well as growing apprehension among the civilian populace. The junta, too, appears to be preparing for armed showdowns. It has for years increased troop numbers in areas near ceasefire groups and recent reports suggest that these troops are being reinforced with heavy weapons, including 76mm and 105mm artillery and with specialized troops, including Light Infantry Divisions 66 and 88.

With those movements, reports are spreading along border areas that the regime may move to rehabilitate various middle and senior ranking members of the now defunct Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI), including former prime minister and DDSI head General Khin Nyunt. The DDSI was responsible for brokering many of the ceasefires, but was dismantled amid corruption allegations in 2004 which most observers saw as an intra-junta purge against the increasingly powerful Khin Nyunt and his followers. The former top-ranking junta member is has been sentenced to 44 years and is now under house arrest.

Insurgent officers say Khin Nyunt's rapport with the ethnic groups has not been equaled by the Military Affairs Security, which replaced DDSI. According to one insurgent official, Myanmar
army commanders have realized that Khin Nyunt's men knew how to handle the ceasefire groups and have even recently begun seeking out their opinions on how to bring ethnic groups into the election process.

Their inclusion is necessary to give the elections legitimacy among the international community and more importantly to bring all of the country's territories under the generals' nominal control. Yet the only major group which has so far agreed to the border guard arrangement is the government-aligned Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which controls territories in Myanmar's eastern Karen and Mon States.

Economic lures
Viewed by some as a test case for how ceasefire groups may evolve under Myanmar's new democracy, the outlook so far is not good for stability. The DKBA was told at a meeting in the capital Naypyidaw in December that under the new constitution they were to become a border guard force. Under the terms of the agreement, which has so far not been made public, the DKBA was promised control over border tax checkpoints and continued concessions for transportation, logging and other businesses.

Sources close to the DKBA say the move was unpopular because it means handing over political power over to a Myanmar-dominated regime - a concession which goes against the founding principles of the Karen's long struggle - and several officers threatened to resign as a result.

Rather than release statements or make a show of force, the group has instead concentrated on seizing new territories particularly former Karen National Union-controlled areas near Myawaddy and Kayin Seikgyi townships across from Tak Province in Thailand, to gain administrative control over lucrative border trades, including mining operations and cross-border agribusiness projects, in the new democratic era.

For all its statements of representing the cause of self determination and equality for the ethnic Karen people, the armed group is believed by many to be motivated more by business opportunities, including drug trafficking, it needs guns to maintain. The DKBA has so far not made any statements about whether or how it will contest the 2010 elections. Three Karen political parties currently exist, but none have any connection with the DKBA and only one, the Karen State National Organization, won any seats in the 1990 election. The election itself, according to rival KNU vice president Saw David Thakabaw, may split the DKBA into competitive, business-driven factions.

By playing ceasefire groups-cum-militias against other insurgent groups, the junta could bid to keep ethnic groups weak and divided while building its new nominally democratic power structure through elections. Concessions such as the tax checkpoints promised to the DKBA provide some incentive for joining the border guard scheme as opposed to renewed fighting. These could yet be strong economic lures for some of the ceasefire groups, particularly in relation to tentative deals with neighboring and considerably wealthier Thailand.

Thai Army commander General Anupong Paochinda paid a two day visit to Myanmar in mid-February where he met with junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, Defense Minister Thura Shwe Mann and Foreign Minster Nyan Win. It is perhaps significant that Anupong, rather than Thai Foreign Minster Kasit Piromya, handled the meeting where border issues were on the agenda.

Several cross-border business schemes are in the works, but have not been completed due to instability. For instance, an agreement was reached in May 2007 for Thai agribusinesses to cultivate tax-free over seven million hectares of land in Myanmar border areas. The agreement includes four areas of Mon and Karen States designated for contract farming, totaling some 300,000 hectares. Myanmar farmers were to grow under contract cassava, rubber, oil palm, sugarcane, beans and corn for export to Thailand.

The project appears to have stalled however due to complaints by Thai investors over taxes levied by Myanmar government officials, as well as the DKBA and KNU. Conflict over taxes on the corn harvest resulted in fighting between the KNU and DKBA south of Mae Sot in October and November, sources say. The fighting spilled over into Thailand on several occasions resulting in the shooting up of villages, burning of food storage barns, and at least one shootout between DKBA and Thai soldiers. One Thai soldier was injured by a landmine in the skirmish.

Still the DKBA has been working on new roads leading north and south of Myawaddy to service the plantations and commercial agriculture projects along the border. Other cross-border projects envisioned include a border trade zone at the border town of Myawaddy and industrial zones in Pa'an and Moulmein. The projects, financed though loans and grants from Bangkok, are designed to curb the mounting influx of Myanmar migrant workers into Thailand, now estimated at over 2 million people.

But while the DKBA is angling for business opportunities, the rival KNU has resisted Thai incentives to end fighting against the Myanmar army. That's inhibited the group's armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, ability to fight along the border and allowed the DKBA to seize several of the areas it formerly controlled. A KNU official told Asia Times Online his group had no plans for ceasefire talks and that it would not participate in the 2010 elections. That means democracy is just as likely to bring more, not less, instability to Myanmar's contested border areas.

Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.

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