Karen girls and their siblings in a war-zone village in Karen state
Photo: Maung Zarni
In his Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Karl Marx wrote: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ Such an assessment is only half-right when it comes to Burma’s internal conflicts, of which ethnicity is of equal importance to class. Whether ethnicity is largely a matter of ‘political choice’, as many academics suggest today, has little relevance in the lives of these ethnic peoples. The Karen, Kachin, Mon, Shan, Karenni and others have chosen to hold on to their AK-47s or M16s in order to fight on. The unappealing alternative is surrender and subjugation at the feet of their uncompromising enemy in Rangoon and, since 2005, Naypyidaw.
With varying degrees of ferocity, intermittent waves of ethnically mobilised wars have flared up since independence in 1948. Most of these were triggered by the non-Bamar communities’ perception and experience of being denied a fair share of state power and control over resources by the Bamardominated governments, both civilian and military. Like the colonial Burma, the military-ruled Myanmar is in effect a garrison state; unlike British Burma, the generals’ Myanmar remains so after a half-century of their monopoly rule. Under the Raj, Burma was the lucrative ‘rice bowl of the world’, exporting nearly half of the total global output; the Burmese generals, on the other hand, have succeeded in turning Burma into the region’s ‘basket case’, worse off than post-genocide Cambodia.
Whether under General Ne Win or Senior General Than Shwe, the military leadership has never been keen on just and lasting peace with ethnic resistance movements, always attempting to dictate the terms of the ‘peace’. In 1963, a year after the military coup that laid the foundation for military rule, Ne Win launched a series of highly publicised but half-hearted ‘peace talks’ with non-Bamar resistance groups, as well as the armed Bamar communist movement. When little came of these, Rangoon adopted a zero-sum policy of ‘annihilation’ towards any dissent. Just a year ago, Gen Than Shwe reiterated the military’s institutional mission – not of peace and reconciliation, but rather of the reconsolidation of the central government’s power vis-à-vis the non- Bamar ethnic communities, the power that was presumably fractured by the century-plus interval of British rule. ‘I would like to urge you to build on the national reconsolidation that has been achieved,’ he told the graduating class of a military medical academy, ‘and avoid all thoughts and notions that might lead to the disintegration of the union.’
Consequently, some 60-plus years after independence, the armed conflicts still smoulder on. The anti-Naypyidaw armed resistance organisations – 21 as of January 2011 – vary significantly in both size (from 500 to 30,000 troops) and degree of political significance. The expansive conflict landscape encompasses Burma’s Kachin highlands below Tibet, the 200-mile stretch of landlocked Pegu Yoma; from the Chin Hills due east from Mizoram and the Arakan Yoma that divides the Rakhine coastal region from the rest of Burma; the Wa Hills near the Sino-Shan frontier and the Naga Hills across from Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland to the northwest. Furthermore, the ethnic armed groups – including the Shan State Army, the Karenni National Progressive Party, the New Mon State Party, and the Karen National Union – continue to dot the nearly 1500-mile-long Thai- Burmese border, from the Shan plateau in the east and the tiny Karenni state bordering northern Thailand, down to the Karen trans-Salween River region adjacent to the Thai provinces of Tak and Kanchanburi and the 500-mile Tenasserim coastline.
Upon independence, the non- Bamar communities (who make up around a third of the population) found themselves being released from the clutches of the British Raj into the grip of the dominant Bamar nationalists. On the eve of independence, the latter promised their minority brethren ethnic equality and cultural and administrative autonomy, as the basis of the independent federated Union of Burma. But the nationalists, both civilian and soldiers, broke this foundational principle for the post-independence Burma. Instead of the agreed-upon federation and a federal Constitution, they were forced to accept a new state and Constitution, which were for all intents and purposes unitary.
The original aims of the armed ethnic groups included secession, an option that the Constitution of 1947 allowed the Shan and Karenni to exercise 10 years after independence, should they become unhappy being part of the Union of Burma. From the 1980s onward, however, new developments in and out of the country forced the anti-Rangoon armed movements to reassess their original missions. Among the external geopolitical equations that helped to sustain the civil war in Burma were the West’s Cold War-era support for the Burmese military’s fight against the armed Burmese communist movement, Thailand’s politically hostile and commercially predatory policies towards Burma (a historical enemy), Beijing’s substantial military and ideological support for the Communist Party of Burma during the 1970s, and Burma’s domestic black market during Rangoon’s failed socialist military rule, and the resultant cross-border smuggling, including one of the world’s largest narcotics industry.
The economics of Burma’s ethnic conflicts are not just about the struggle over controlling means of production, wage disputes and working conditions. In fact, they have a far more ominous dimension; these battles are far more primitive than that. Today, the aspiring capitalist state in Burma, under a new generation of generals, wants – perhaps needs – nothing less than complete and effective control over all commercial or strategic lands. Worse still, the problem for the anti-Rangoon ethnic rebels such as the Kachin Independence Organisation and Karen National Union was not simply that external support from Beijing and Bangkok dried up; since the 1980s the crucial neighbourhood powers, namely China under Deng Xiaoping and the Thai military under Supreme Commander General Chaovalit Yongchaiyudh, decided to court Rangoon for highly lucrative commercial deals in resource extraction, arms sales, crossborder trade, and bilateral strategic and commercial cooperation towards market creation within ASEAN.
Not only do the non-Bamar ethnic regions account for up to 60 percent of the country’s total land area; but as ‘frontier’ states, these lands, where much of the battles have been waged, are strategically and commercially crucial for the new post-Cold War priorities. These areas are also home to much of the country’s lucrative natural resources, both above- and belowground. It is simply not possible to know where the ideological parameters of the Burmese military’s nationalism (or for that matter those of the non- Bamar ethnic nationalisms) end and where the desire for control of land and other economic resources begin.
If the absence of clarity among Burma’s domestic ethno-nationalists is an issue, pro-market external players are crystal clear about their Burma priorities. In the eyes of venture capitalists and corporate investors in London, Paris, Zurich, New York, Tokyo, Seoul and so on, or development agencies such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), EU and EU-based development agencies, Burma’s war zones have come to be seen as strategic yet virgin lands waiting to be penetrated by international business interests. Meanwhile, ASEAN is determined to transform itself from the region’s Cold War-era, anti- Communist China bloc to a pro-market competitor of the emerging state-run capitalist system of China. As the largest mainland Southeast Asian land bridge between South and Southeast Asia, Burma is indispensible for ASEAN as it pursues its grand commercial design.
It may not be going too far to suggest that the commercial stakes are too high for these external players to allow Burma’s conflict-ridden communities such political luxuries as peace, ethnic reconciliation, basic human rights and some semblance of popular sovereignty. For instance, over a quarter-century a projected USD 550 billion (according to the Asian Development Bank) would change hands in the ongoing scheme of the ASEAN alone, backed by an assemblage of Western institutions to create a single energy market across much of Southeast Asia. In the new single energy market electricity would be generated in a least-industrialised economy such as Burma’s and exported to the fastindustrialising economies of China and Thailand. Imagine the windfall from the two dozen similar schemes currently under discussion.
Of ethnicity and guns
For the past two centuries at least, Burma has been seen as a strategic venue by outside powers, from Europe to Japan to the US. For outside powers, the country has always been a commercial backdoor to China, and India, for mainland Southeast Asian economies, a military launching pad for fascist Japan, a mid-point safe harbour for the mercantilist European powers, a lucrative resource stash for everyone and a virgin export market. From its inception in the military coup of 1962 till the collapse of Ne Win’s dictatorship in 1988, Rangoon’s military regime fenced off those territories under its direct control and fought myriad ethnic independence-seekers. In those Cold War days, neighbouring powers such as Thailand, India and China allied themselves or supported these anti- Rangoon forces in exchange for serving the interests of the home capital.
Karen villagers hiking through scorched earth in eastern Burma
As for the ethnic armed resistance movements, reeling from the unexpected loss of their commercial and strategic advantages resulting from China and Thailand’s reversal of their Burma strategies, both legitimate resistance movements (such as the Kachin Independence Organization) and those that are originally drug producers and traffickers (such as the United Wa State Army), opted for ceasefire deals with Rangoon. Bangkok and Beijing replaced their strategy of using anti-Rangoon rebel groups and their bases s military buffers, and in the case of Thailand as lucrative smuggling zones, to courting the central government in Rangoon. But the Karen National Union, the oldest and perhaps only movement to have stayed clear of the narcotic industry, and several others (the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Shan State Army factions and so on) decided to keep up their armed resistance rather than accept Rangoon’s ceasefire offers immediately following the popular uprising in central Burma of 1988. They saw the ceasefire as not designed to be a step towards lasting peace and reconciliation, but rather as a part of the junta’s long-standing policy of ‘divide and rule’ along ethnic lines.
The rebels’ long-standing ties with the Thai and Chinese governments were quickly cut when it became clear that, post-Cold War, the new focus would be on business. The logic of and zeal for economic growth – and the resultant twofold needs for reliable flows of natural resources and energy and new consumer markets – has subsequently come to dictate the behaviour and priorities for virtually all national governments. Despite Burma’s ostensible socialist setup, Ne Win and his deputies never actually trusted any entity, or socialist civilians, other than the military. Thus, when Ne Win’s socialist one-party state collapsed in the midst of near-bankruptcy, every military officer was more than happy to move away from socialism towards capitalism. Immediately after the bloody crackdown on the popular uprisings of 1988, the new crop of generals decided to open up the country to international capital as a way of shoring itself up – and filling its empty coffers.
The new Burmese road to capitalism began with the Burmese military signing away USD 120 million worth of logging concessions to 35 Thai companies with close ties to the Thai military under Supreme Commander Chaovalit Yongchaiyudh, as early as December 1988. Additional concessions were given away for gems and fishing in Burmese waters, and facilitating Thai- Burmese crossborder trade. China was allowed to produce and export over 2000 commodities designed for the Burmese market, while importing teak, minerals, forest and agricultural products from Burma. The move to open up the country to international businesses has turned out to be the Burmese generals’ single most important decision, having since precipitated a major windfall in terms of commercial gains, strategic advantages, new international alliances and class-based politics at home – all to the near exclusive benefit of the military.
The Burmese military remained cohesive despite the government collapse of 1988. At that time, the leadership decided to pre-empt any inter-ethnic alliance between an Aung San Suu Kyiled Bamar ethnic majority in ‘mainland’ Burma and about 20 armed ethnic movements across the frontier territories. Between 1989 and 1999, some 17 ethnic resistance groups agreed to ceasefire deals with the junta, reasoning that these agreements would at least bring some development benefits – as well as lucrative personal business for the ethnic leaders.
Three new developments characterise this period for Burma’s ethnic resistance. First, the loss of military, ideological and material support from their neighbourhood backers, and in the case of the Kachin Independence Organisation some military defeat in the battlefield, had forced some of the staunchest foes of the Burmese regime, to strike ceasefire deals with Rangoon in the early 1990s. Second, because the deals included concessions for the upper echelons of the resistance leaders to do business in their own areas – and get rich quick – these agreements created and deepened the new class division within the individual ethnic resistance communities. Eventually, this led to a fracturing among these movements, to the regime’s strategic advantage. Third, these deals also created two new schisms: between the existing inter-ethnic alliances among the anti-regime forces and between the ceasefire groups and the emerging opposition movement of the majority Bamar, led by Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.
A young Karen fighter cleaning his weapon on a boat on the Salween River, which for 70 miles divides the war zones of eastern Burma from Thailand
Photo: Maung Zarni
Since the crackdown in 1988, and after having been condemned and shunned by the West for two decades following the Cold War as a consequence, the generals have successfully primed Western interests in Burma’s economic and strategic potentials, including those of the country’s frontier areas. Thanks to Asian commercial interests and global oil corporations, the regime has succeeded in filling its once-empty coffers with billions of dollars. Apparently, Naypyidaw has decided that it is in its best interest to invert its strategic logic in dealing with dissent and rebellion at home. From 1989 till earlier this year, it went on to crush the Bamar mainstream opposition while neutralising the non- Bamar ethnic armed movements with temporary ceasefire deals.
Now, the generals have decided to zero in on any ethnic resistance groups, ceasefire or active, that refuse to accept peace on Naypyidaw’s terms. In August 2009, the Burmese military attacked the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance in the Kokang region, a local ethnic Chinese ceasefire group, and caused the eventual exodus of 30,000 Kokang Chinese refugees fleeing into China. In June 2011, the regime broke the 17 years of ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organisation by provoking the latter in order to flush any KIO units from the billion-dollar Sino-Burmese hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin region.
New strategies of old
This new strategic logic underlies the regime’s moves following the election of November 2010, including the limited political liberalisations that are meant purely for the Bamar majority. The regime’s strategic measures both before and after the election were designed to further weaken the non-Bamar ethnic voices and fracture whatever inter- and intra-ethnic alliances that were emerging in the ethnic political scenes. Between 1993 and 2008, the military regime brought ceasefire groups and other non-Burmese ethnic representatives into the National Convention, which laid down the principles and guidelines for the military’s Constitution of 2008 with the lure of the ‘legal’ opportunity to present their federalist ideas. In reality, their concerns and aspirations were uniformly ignored by the military and its handpicked delegates. Further, in the months leading up to the 2010 elections, the regime barred ceasefire groups (and leaders with ties to these groups) that refused to submit to the state military’s central command. The regime also disenfranchised a large number of eligible voters in Wa and other ceasefire regions by opting not to hold elections in large tracts of these areas, on grounds of poor security.
Historically, the British Raj made sure the lowland ethnic groups, most specifically the Bamar, did not get to form alliances with highlanders in Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karenni and others by restricting the freedom of movements for the Burmese into the ethnic frontiers. The military today is also replicating the old colonial pattern of divide and rule by preventing any attempts by the Bamar politicians and dissidents to reach out to the non-Bamar. Soon after her release from house arrest a year ago, Suu Kyi attempted to reignite popular interest in the multiethnic country’s need to build a federal system of government on the principal of ethnic equality. As of mid-November, Suu Kyi has reiterated her offer of help on the issue of ethno-military conflicts, something that Naypyidaw has ignored, even though the ethnic minority groups have publicly welcomed her offer of mediation.
In August, President Thein Sein offered the ethnic armed resistance groups an olive branch, billing his post-election quasi-civilian government as a government for peace and reconciliation. Curiously, he urged all the armed organisations to get in touch with provincial administrations, instead of with the national government in Naypyidaw. This was clearly a move designed to signal the new regime’s stance that ethnic peace and reconciliation is merely a parochial and provincial matter. However, the terrains of ‘peace and reconciliation’ are hardly better for the non-Bamar ethnic parties, which have agreed to work within the military’s political framework.
A cursory glance at the parliamentary statistics suffices. In addition to the military’s Constitutionally allocated 25 percent of the seats in all legislatures at all levels, the regime’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development party (USDP), holds 883 of 1154 parliamentary seats (76.5 percent); the National Unity Party, the party of military dinosaurs from the previous military government of General Ne Win, came second with 63 seats. The latter’s attitude towards the country’s non-Bamar ethnic communities is no less colonial and paternalistic than the USDP. Against the regime’s near-monopoly of the parliamentary space, the only two ethnic non-Bamar parties – the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) and Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, with 57 and 35 seats, respectively – have absolutely no chance of their concerns and aspirations being taken seriously, let alone honoured, by the military.
These are indeed exciting days for the Burmese generals. Having failed to vanquish their nearest enemy with domestic and Western support – namely, Suu Kyi and the NLD – they have now gotten her, along with Burmese commercial and technocratic elites, on board Naypyidaw’s carefully choreographed market reforms. Meanwhile, anti-Chinese Western and ASEAN commercial and strategic interests are converging nicely in the generals’ favour. Since China’s attempt to claim much of South China Sea, ASEAN members, especially the maritime members, have made concerted efforts to help expand the West’s (particularly Washington’s) involvement, in their region as a counterweight against the growing might and wealth of China. Both ASEAN and Washington deem it to be within their converging interests to ensure that the Burmese generals do not tilt any further towards Beijing’s strategic orbit. For the first time since the ethnic rebellions broke out 60 years ago, the Burmese military today finds itself in the best position to make peace deals with the non-Bamar resistance organisations. These will be offers the minorities cannot refuse.
~ Maung Zarni is founder of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004) and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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