Border wars risk turning back the clock 20 years

Fierce fighting in Kachin state adds to speculation that widespread civil war may not be far off in Burma. Three separate insurgencies and the potential for more to break out threaten the country’s internal and border security. Also at risk are the small gains in economic and social development in the country’s border regions that have been made since the beginning of the ceasefires two decades ago.

The spiral toward civil war began on election day on 7 November last year when troops from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) revolted against joining the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF) plan. After briefly seizing two border towns, the group allied itself with the still insurgent Karen National Union (KNU) from which it split in 1994.

Government pressure against the 1st Brigade of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) resulted in skirmishes that progressed to an army offensive in early March. Opposed to joining the BGF, the 1st Brigade resumed guerrilla warfare and spread its operations from its central Shan state base area into northern Shan state. By 21 May it had joined forces with the insurgent Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) along the border with Thailand to become the Shan State Army (SSA).

The largest fighting to date began on 9 June when army moves into territory of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) were resisted with force. Much of the hostilities are centered around the sites of two hydropower dams being built by the China Datang Corporation on the Taping River, leading some analysts to speculate the army’s aims are to secure the dam sites, perhaps with tacit Chinese approval. However limited the army’s aims may or may not be, KIA units to the west and south of the fighting have taken steps to prevent army reinforcements and resupply, moves that threaten to spread the conflict to other areas.

The fierce reaction of the KIA indicates the army is unlikely to repeat its rapid victory against the Kokang in August 2009. That offensive saw the virtual destruction of the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in operations that lasted only days, but which generated some 30,000 refugees and the most severe rebuke from China to date. After twelve days of fighting, the Burmese army has yet to force the KIA away from the dams.

The army has likewise been unable to decisively defeat the SSA or the DKBA after months of fighting. Instead the conflict has only grown with both groups allying themselves with other insurgent groups. Additionally, tensions created by the fighting have resulted in a revolt of other units of the BGF in Karen State.

It is unlikely, however, that the insurgents will be able to seize power. Too small to confront the army individually, their best hope is an alliance. Fifteen insurgent and ceasefire groups, including the KNU, KIA, and SSA, formed the United Nationalities Federal Council in February 2011 as a military and political alliance. It is still too early to tell what impact the alliance will have, but insurgent efforts to organize military or political alliances have historically achieved little success. They have often foundered on mistrust, competition for leadership and an inability to operationalise cooperation across the large distances separating the various groups.

Alliance or not, continued distrust of the military and a government perceived as simply a new manifestation of the previous dictatorship, together with the human rights abuses and killings that accompany the army’s operations, will only fuel insurgent resolve to resist. Numerous human rights reports have extensively documented the pervasive human rights violations that accompany army counterinsurgency campaigns. Already Kachin, Shan and Karen human rights monitors have reported rape, torture and extrajudicial killings by army units.

Instead of creating the stability promised by President Thein Sein in speeches immediately after his inauguration, army operations threaten to destabilise the country, reversing whatever economic and social development has been achieved in ethnic minority areas in the past two decades. Large-scale displacement brought on by army operations and fighting will force villagers to abandon fields, livestock and personal belongings. Infrastructure will be destroyed, movement restrictions imposed and trade routes heavily regulated or closed. Already, the KIA has destroyed several bridges and the military has closed routes between Bhamo and Myitkyina and the Chinese border.

Human rights abuses attributed to the army, or the fear of them, have long been a greater cause of refugee outflows and internal displacement than armed conflict. The army’s penchant for using civilians as guides and porters has been cited by refugees as major reasons for fleeing areas of potential fighting. Already, Kachin sources estimate around 10,000 people have fled to refugee camps set up by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) along the border with China.

Large refugee flows are potentially destabilising to Burma’s neighbours, China and Thailand. Burma was recently listed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as the fifth largest producer of refugees in the world. Around 30,000 refugees fled to China in the wake of the Kokang offensive in 2009 and 20,000 fled to Thailand in November 2010.

Fighting close to the border also brings the risk of stray artillery shells and spillovers of fighting as insurgent and army forces maneuver for advantage. Several Thai soldiers have been killed and wounded by mortar shells and landmines along the border since November.

A further destabilising influence is the increase in drugs and smuggling likely to result as insurgent groups seek to maintain their war chests and replenish weapons and ammunition. Thailand is currently waging a drug war that began with an increased influx of narcotics as ceasefire groups sold off stocks to purchase more weapons. Jane’s Intelligence Review in April reported a large shipment of weapons and ammunition originating in Cambodia to the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the possibility of the purchase of weapons stolen from Thai army armories in March 2011 and September 2010.

A spreading ethnic civil war could bring an end to the military’s experiment with ‘disciplined democracy.’ Insurgency and Shan moves for discussions on instituting a formal federal system resulted in the military coup of 1962 and 48 years of military misrule. Increased fighting could give the military a pretext for reinstating direct military rule, a possibility enshrined in the current constitution.

Already, opposition and ethnic politicians have called for restraint and dialogue by both the army and insurgent groups. Their calls are supported by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi which was barred from participating in the elections, but still commands much support.

Recent government overtures for a ceasefire with the Kachin were perceived as insincere. Army battalions are moving in as reinforcements in all three regions and fighting is expected to escalate. Without a negotiated settlement and concessions by all sides, Burma is set to witness fighting, destruction and displacement in the ethnic states that it has not witnessed in twenty years.

Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist.

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