By WAI MOE
The political situation in Burma’s eastern Shan State has worsened since mid-2008, as ceasefire groups come under growing pressure to disarm and China exerts greater economic influence over the region, according to a new report released today.
The report, by the Lahu National Development Organization (LNDO), says that ethnic ceasefire groups remain mistrustful of the Burmese junta, which has been pushing them to disarm and join an election slated for some time next year.
The LNDO, which conducts extensive on-the-ground research on issues related to this sensitive region of Burma, described the situation as “currently extremely unstable.”
It said that the Burmese military has sent reinforcements to its bases in Shan State in response to growing resistance from ceasefire groups—particularly the United Wa State Army (UWSA)—to the regime’s demands.
An armed clash between the UWSA and Burmese troops has already taken place this year, the group noted.
“In mid-2008, junta officials told the UWSA to withdraw the Wa troops from southern Shan State, and that increased tension” in the area, said LNDO director Japhet Jakui, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday.
The UWSA, the largest ethnic armed group in Burma, was formed after breaking away from the Communist Party of Burma, which collapsed in April 1989. It signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese junta soon after, but refused to give up its arms.
Another factor complicating the situation in eastern Shan State is Beijing’s interest in the area, which borders China’s Yunnan Province.
According sources on the Sino-Burma border, China has reportedly held separate meetings with Burmese officials and ethnic armed groups in recent months to try to avert a return to open hostilities between the former adversaries.
At one meeting, Burmese officials reportedly told their Chinese counterparts that the armed groups could be a potential threat to a Sino-Burma gas and oil pipelines project deal that Beijing and Naypyidaw signed last year.
For their part, representatives of the armed ethnic groups told Chinese officials that they were unhappy with the junta-sponsored 2008 constitution, which calls for the disarmament of ceasefire groups in the post-election period, according to the sources.
“As we know, a month ago, Chinese officials closed some border gates that connect with the Wa areas. It seems China is concerned about the tension in eastern Shan State,” said Japhet Jakui.
Although it was unclear how far China would go to protect its interests in Shan State, the LNDO report reveals the extent to which Chinese influence has grown in the remote and restive area in recent years.
Chinese investment in the state has funded everything from hydropower and mining projects to rubber plantations and illegal wildlife trafficking, according to the LNDO report, titled Undercurrents, which is the third in a series of occasional bulletins released by the group.
According to the report, vast rubber plantations run by the Yunnan Hongyu Group, a Chinese company that operates under the banner of opium eradication, have resulted in forced labor, forced relocation and massive deforestation.
Despite the company’s claims that it is working to provide an alternative to the illegal narcotics industry, UN reports reveal that opium production in Shan State increased last year.