Large-scale fighting beckons as ceasefire groups defy a Rangoon order to give up their military wings
The Burmese junta has set an end-of-year deadline for 12 ceasefire armies to come under the control of a new military body, but at the moment there is mainly defiance and real fears of a conflict with the biggest military group - the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
As the deadline draws closer, Spectrum spoke to key figures in the negotiations to form the new Border Guard Force (BGF) and militia and learned that six ceasefire groups are in favour of joining, and six are opposed to it.
The New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K), the Kayan National Guard (KNG), the Karenni Nationalities People Liberation Front (KNPLF), the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the Kachin Defence Army (KDA) and the Pa-O National Army (PNA) support the idea. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the Kayan New Land Party (KNLP), the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) oppose it.
Burma experts expressed concern that if Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) cannot get the Wa Army to comply soon, there is a real chance of armed conflict in the northern and southern Wa areas bordering China and Thailand. If this happens, other ceasefire groups, like the KIO, NDAA or NMSP, might join the conflict.
Anti-government groups like the Shan State Army-South, which have not signed a ceasefire, might also get involved. Any armed conflict involving the UWSA, which is the second largest army after the Burmese military, would have far-reaching security consequences for the whole Southeast Asian region, especially China and Thailand.
The UWSA has 28,000 soldiers, and can also count on the support of 8,000 security personnel including police, security guards and their own militia.
"Among other problems, it would cause an influx of refugees and an increase in drug smuggling, which would affect the relationship between Burma and Thailand," said Khuensai Jaiyen, editor-in-chief of the Shan Herald Agency for News.
An example of what might come is illustrated in the attack by SPDC forces on the Kokang group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), last August. The group refused to join the BGF, likening it to surrender.
During the fighting, nearly 40,000 people fled to neighbouring China. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the Burmese government to handle its internal affairs properly, while it worked behind the scenes to help solve the problem. Stability along the border is China's main priority.
In the end, the SPDC achieved its objective as the MNDAA, which struck a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 1989, is no more. Most of their estimated 2,500 fighters fled to China and a small group joined the BGF on Dec 4.
"The BGF idea was first floated in April. The order was officially delivered on April 27 to the ceasefire groups in Tangyan, south of Lashio, the Shan State North capital, beginning with the UWSA.
"According to the order, the reorganisation should have been finished by October - six months after it was announced," Mr Khuensai said.
"The main objective of the order is that there must be only one army in the whole of Burma. Most of the ceasefire groups didn't like it."
When asked how he thinks it will end, he replied: "To leave it to the junta and CFGs [ceasefire groups] to sort out among themselves, is certainly a return to country-wide civil war. Right now, China is trying to restrain both sides, telling each to back off a few steps. If Asean, the EU [European Union] and the international community support China, we may end up with happier results."
Mr Khuensai says the Burmese army has been readying reinforcements and arms in preparation for fighting with the ceasefire groups. "The meaning is clear: Just submit to our wishes or face the consequences."
Ai Meung, a businessman closely connected to the UWSA leadership, says the UWSA and the SPDC forces are on high alert in expectation of a military showdown. The Burmese army has been reinforcing troops, and building bunkers and trenches along Wa areas, he says. The UWSA units on both the Chinese and Thai borders have also been making preparations and deploying troops and weapons.
"Our soldiers have been moving family members who live along the Thai-Burma border to safer areas; officials have been giving weapons to civilians who are willing to fight. What happened to the MNDAA could be repeated with the UWSA and with its estimated 36,000-strong combined security forces, the fight could be much bigger and bloodier. The Burmese would have to fight the UWSA both in the north and south of Shan State."
Ai Meung said that the UWSA's 171th Military Region, comprising five brigades stretching from Mongton to Tachilek townships opposite Thailand's Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces, is on full combat alert and ready to fight the SPDC.
''The SPDC tried to separate the 171th military region from the UWSA headquarters in Pang Sang located on the Chinese border, but until today orders from Pang Sang are still respected.
''Hopefully, some compromise can be found before the SPDC's deadline passes on Dec 31. It's already been extended several times. Any hostility could lead to a mass exodus of people across the border to China and Thailand.''
Ai Meung said that the UWSA's policy remained unchanged and they would not join the BGF.
''The UWSA held its Central Committee meeting in Pang Sang from Nov 26 to 28 and adopted policy of 'defending peace with arms'.
''The UWSA commanders were ordered to tell their soldiers to be united, defend their areas and to be prepared for war.
''In late April, several Burmese generals, including Lt-Gen Ye Myint, chief of the Military Affairs Security of the Defence Forces and secretary of the BGF Transformation Committee, travelled to Shan and Kachin states to meet leaders of the Kachin, Kokang, Shan and Wa ethnic armed groups based along the China-Burmese border.
''Then, in June, Ye Myint visited controlled areas of the UWSA, the MNDAA and the NDAA to persuade them of the Border Guard Force plan. The result was an attack on the MNDAA that effectively destroyed the group.''
Ai Meung said the BGF plan gives tighter control of ethnic armed groups to the Burmese military by putting all ethnic armies under the command of the commander-in-chief, Sen Gen Than Shwe, head of the SPDC.
''Most ceasefire groups oppose the order, preferring to maintain their current military status,'' he said, adding: ''There's also a possibility that other armed groups, whether ceasefire or rebels, could get sucked into the conflict.''
He also claimed that the UWSA and other groups had increased drug smuggling to China, Laos, Thailand and other countries in recent months to finance the purchase of weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, communications equipment and food.
READY TO FIGHT: United Wa State Army military go on parade to mark the 20th anniversary of what the Wa, renowned for their fearsome fighting skills, call peaceful construction of the state.
A Thai drugs officer, who requested anonymity, said drug smuggling into Thailand, especially ya ba (methaphetamines), has increased recently.
''We have made some large seizures of this drug, but the ratio of the drugs seized to those getting through is still about 10 to one.''
Gary Lewis, a representative of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, said in Bangkok on Nov 26 that Burma's rebel ethnic groups are increasingly cashing in their illegal drug hauls in expectations of a junta crackdown.
''Minority groups that feel under threat from the central government are using drug trafficking to sustain themselves and keep control of their territories,'' Mr Lewis said, without naming any group.
Mai Aik Phone, chairman of the anti-Burmese group, Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) who has many sources in the UWSA and other ceasefire groups, said the incorporation of ceasefire groups into the BGF and the militias would increase drug and human trafficking as well as other illegal activities across the border.
''Burma's order that ceasefire groups join the BFG and militia will affect Thailand. It will result in an increase in drug smuggling, human trafficking and other illegal activities across the border because some SPDC officers are interested in doing business as well,'' he said.
He said the problem stemmed from the SPDC order that all ethnic ceasefire groups be transferred to the command of the Defence Services, known as ''Tatmadaw'', as stipulated in the Burmese constitution adopted in May 2008.
TOO CLOSE: A UWSA camp opposite Mae Chan district in Chiang Rai province.
Mai Aik Phone said the SPDC plan involved three steps _ surrender, transform to a militia, and becoming the BGF under the command of the Tatmadaw.
''According to the SPDC's instructions, a battalion of BGF will comprise 326 personnel including 18 ethnic officers and another 30 from the SPDC army. Most of the key positions such as administration, personnel and material support departments are to be manned by the SPDC army officers.
''The BGF will become a subordinate organisation under the control of the SPDC military.''
Forming the BGF is causing problems for Burma. ''The SPDC has been attempting to disarm or weaken the ceasefire groups and control them by transforming their armed wings into the BGF or militias before the 2010 general election, which does not guarantee their basic rights.
''For the ceasefire groups, accepting transformation into the BGF would be worse than surrendering arms.
''It could create more civil war in Burma. Most of the ceasefire groups don't accept the BGF, but smaller ones have no choice but to agree to joining the BGF along the border, or militia and security forces inside the country.
THE OTHER SIDE: Troops of the Rangoon-backed Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.
He also said the UWSA and SPDC were readying troops for a possible conflict. ''The SPDC is deploying troops and equipment to Shan and Kachin states near the KIO and UWSA areas.''
Mai Aik Phone said the UWSA refused to transfer its entire army to come under the control of the BGF, but both sides were trying to negotiate.
''The UWSA are trying to compromise with the SPDC on three points: They don't want war; they do want to continue with the ceasefire agreement; and they do want to develop their area.
''If the SPDC breaks these agreements, they will still try peaceful means to solve the problem, by negotiating. But if the SPDC attacks them, as it did the MNDAA, they will fight and die for their homeland. The UWSA is prepared, and they are not afraid to fight.''
Timothy Laklem, head of foreign and public relations for the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, (KNU/KNLA - PC), says if the ceasefire and other groups refuse to join the BGF or the militia after the elections in 2010, they will become rebels which could lead to a war as they would have support from some Western countries.
Dr Laklem said the group led by former commander of the KNLA's 7th brigade Gen Htay Maung and has about 800 soldiers and was formed in February 2007.
''We left the KNU to make peace with the SPDC, so we can stop the violence against the Karen people.
''Nobody really understands why a BGF is necessary. The SPDC tried to explain that they want one army in Myanmar.
''We agree with it, but instead of BGF, why can't it be called the Myanmar Union Army. That would be more positive.
''We rejected the order because we believe that accepting the BGF role will only contribute to confusion, fear and conflicts resulting in disruption to the democratic process highlighted by the upcoming general elections,'' Dr Laklem said.
He said the Burmese military wanted to control the country's borders, which meant it had to deal with ethnic armies.
''At this time, only the DKBA and several small Karen groups inside the Karen and Karenni areas have agreed to join the BGF, but the large ethnic groups have not.
''They are cautious, which doesn't surprise me. They have similar concerns to us.
''The government shouldn't order ethnic armies to accept the BGF. This doesn't help us achieve unity but, in fact, splits us even more. What we should do is to sit down and talk about how best the country can come together.''
One of Burma's largest ceasefire groups, the NMSP, also rejected the BGF order and said they will not support or participate in the general elections.
''The NMSP representatives are invited to dinner parties, ceremonies and non-political friendly meetings by the SPDC who are trying their best to sign them up,'' said Mr Khuensai.
One group that has joined the BGF is another KNU splinter group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).
Major General Saw La Bwe, also known as Na Kam Mui and who commands the DKBA's 6th brigade close to the Thai border, told Spectrum that most of his people are happy with the new arrangement.
''Development along the border is our main objective because we want our people to be prosperous. After joining the BGF, we can receive salaries, cars, rations, food, medical help as well as uniforms and ammunition from the Burmese government.
''I have been here waiting for many years for this to come to pass, so we do not have to carry the burden of looking after our army. We should accept anything that is good for our people.
''We have been staying along the border acting as an unofficial border guard force and I am waiting for it to be recognised legally.
''Yes, some people in our group still hesitate about the new arrangement because no one knows what the result will be.
''The DKBA has had a military alliance with the Burmese government since early 1994 and it has worked well so far.''
Col James Lum Dau, deputy chief for foreign affairs of Ceasefire Kachin Independent Organisation (KIO), wasn't so optimistic. ''The SPDC wants to destroy everything. We must give up our military and come under the SPDC's control.
''At a time when we are trying to accomplish everything by means of politics, the SPDC wants to do something else. They want to dissolve the KIO and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army.''
Joining the BGF would be ''total surrender'', a return to the situation before the ceasefire agreement was reached in October 1993.
We are not supposed to be acting as troops guarding borders. Right now we are not an enemy to any country. Myanmar has borders with five countries: China, Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and India. We don't have any enemies there, so why should we be the border force?
''The ceasefire was intended as the first step to democracy, followed by the election, but now everything is going backward.''
Saw Khwe Htoo Win, chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU), Mergui-Tavoy district, believes the SPDC is serious about forming the BGF.
''They want to bring all ceasefire groups under the BGF because they want to keep them under their control. It is a big issue in Burma. The BGF would allow the Burmese regime to monopolise the military wings of the ethnic ceasefire groups, giving them greater control in managing border security after the election next year.
''The BGF would allow the Burmese regime to monopolise the military wings of the ethnic ceasefire groups to manage the border security after the general election in 2010.
He claimed that some DKBA officers didn't agree with the decision to join the BGF. ''They might fight the SPDC, causing an influx of refugees into Thailand. The same might occur if fighting erupts between the UWSA and the SPDC.
''The Burmese reached the ceasefire with 17 ethnic groups many years ago but now they are moving against them.''
Sai Wansai, general secretary of the anti-Burmese government Shan Democratic Union (SDU), said: ''The 2008 SPDC's self-drawn constitution, which was said to be approved by more than 90% of people, is a joke and everyone knows that it has been manipulated and rigged by the military.
''The ceasefire armies were part of the National Convention which was entrusted to draw up the constitution. But the convention was stage-managed from the beginning and the ceasefire armies' proposal for genuine federalism, with equal rights and self-determination, was rejected by the SPDC.
''The SPDC is now pushing for its BGF programme to swallow all the ethnic resistance movements and the ceasefire groups are now at the receiving end of forceful integration into Burma army, which would spell the end of their striving for self-determination.''
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Large-scale fighting beckons as ceasefire groups defy a Rangoon order to give up their military wings