Thursday, December 31, 2009

Distinct possibility of renewed civil war

Thursday, 31 December 2009 11:09 Brian McCartan

Chiang Mai, Thailand (Mizzima) - The New Year may bring fireworks of a different kind in northern Burma this year. December 31 marks the final deadline for former ceasefire groups in Shan and Kachin States to agree to become part of a Border Guard Force under the control of Burma’s military or face a military offensive.

Since taking control of the country in 1962, the overriding concern of Burma’s military rulers has been building a unified state and to do that it must assert central government control over its border regions. The strongest opposition to that desire remains in northern Burma where several armed groups in Kachin and Shan States remain outside government control.

Ceasefires agreed with the groups since 1989 have assured that the region has been relatively conflict-free for two decades, however, they did not resolve the fact that the government still does not control large stretches of its border. The generals have insisted that the groups hand over their military wings to a new Burmese Army-led Border Guard Force (BGF) while the political wings can participate in general elections scheduled to take place in 2010. The Border Guard Force was initially proposed in April this year and the groups told they had until the end of October to hand over lists of troops that will join.

While some of the smaller groups such as the Kachin Democratic Army (KDA) and the New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K) have agreed to join, the major groups - the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) - have refused to join. They fear that handing over their military wings to government control will leave them powerless in any future political discussions with the regime.

In a move apparently calculated to intimidate the ceasefire groups as well as show the junta’s willingness to risk the ire of China, the military launched a swift offensive against the smallest of the groups, the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in August. While the situation has largely returned to normal in the Kokang area, tension remains high in other parts of Shan State.

A proposal by the UWSA in November seemed to allow for compromise. In a November 10 letter to the regime, the Wa proposed giving two positions in each of its military regions, a deputy commander and a deputy chief-of-staff, to Burmese Army officers, but maintaining UWSA control over its own units. A similar proposal had earlier been made by the NDAA-ESS. The Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the KIA, has said it would like to wait to negotiate with whichever government results from the 2010 elections. Bao Youxiang, leader of the UWSA, said earlier this month that whatever happens is now entirely up to the junta.

Opinions are divided among analysts about just what the junta might do. Some believe the generals are bluffing. They do not believe the regime will risk postponing the elections by carrying out a military campaign that could drag on for months or even years.

There is also still the threat of angering Burma’s one ally, China. Although the generals showed a willingness to challenge China by attacking the Kokang in August immediately before China’s 60th anniversary celebrations of communist rule, it is unclear if they are willing to start a war that would have much larger consequences along their mutual border.

The brief fight with the Kokang resulted in more than 37,000 refugees fleeing to China and a rare rebuke from Beijing. Fighting with the other, much larger groups is expected to result in tens of thousands more refugees. The possible protracted nature of the fighting could bring prolonged instability to the region and a huge refugee population staying indefinitely on Chinese soil.

Burma’s leaders have taken pains to assuage Chinese fears during visits by two Chinese delegations this month. Lt General Ai Husheng, Chief-of-Staff of the People’s Liberation Army’s Chengdu Military Region, was in Burma from December 5 to 10. His stay included visits to Kentung near areas controlled by the UWSA and NDAA and a meeting with Burmese Lt General Min Aung Hlaing, chief of the army’s Bureau of Special Operations-2 and the architect of the offensive against the Kokang. General Min Aung Hlaing would be responsible for any operations against the groups along the border in Shan State. During a visit by Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping on December 19 to 20, Senior General Than Shwe assured him that stability would be maintained on the border.

Other analysts believe a fight is in the offing. They point to the fact that the junta has already backed down from one deadline in October when it gave the groups another two months to decide. Giving in again could be taken as a sign of weakness by the regime - an image the generals have never been inclined to give.

Rather than an all-out attack, the army may opt to concentrate against one group at a time. A November 12 article in Jane’s Intelligence Review speculates that the KIA will be attacked first as the weakest and least well armed and trained of the three remaining major groups along the border. An attack against the strongest group, the UWSA, which has units on both the China and Thai borders, would almost surely bring in its close ally the NDAA-ESS. It would also risk an alliance between these groups and the non-ceasefire Shan State Army-South and spreading the conflict across southern and central Shan State.

Those who believe the junta may resort to force point out that next year’s planned elections and military action do not have to be mutually exclusive. The generals are capable of going ahead with the election anyway as it did with last year’s constitutional referendum held in the wake of destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis. As long as the army can seize the major towns in the region, the generals can claim that the bulk of the population is represented in the voting.

Reinforcements have been brought in, bunkers dug and soldiers readied for combat. With the deadline only a day away and no announcement of a breakthrough following the last round of talks with the UWSA on December 19, renewed civil war is a very real possibility.