By WAI MOE
If the ethnic ceasefire groups agree to follow proposals by Burma’s military junta to transform their battalions into border guard forces, they will be left with no room to maneuver politically. Either way, stability across the country is under threat.
The dilemma facing several of Burma’s ethic armies comes after high-ranking officers from Naypyidaw made several visits to the ethnic groups’ bases last week to outline blueprints for the post-election period that would entail the former insurgents submitting to the command of the Burmese army, also known as the Tatmadaw.
Among the groups that sat with the junta officials last week is the largest armed ethnic group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a 20,000-strong army based in Shan State which is closely associated with the drugs trade.
Other groups include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a Kokang group called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the National Democratic Alliance Army, which is based in Shan State.
According to a copy of the blueprint obtained by The Irrawaddy, none of the ethnic ceasefire groups would retain the right to manage day-to-day affairs independently and its command structure would have to share—and, in certain positions, be submissive to—the Tatmadaw’s regional commanders.
Under the plan outlined in the leaked blueprint, one Burmese officer would share command of each ethnic ceasefire group battalion alongside two ethnic commanders. Burmese military personnel would also assume several other significant posts in each battalion.
According to the junta’s guidelines, the ceasefire groups have to respond to the proposal in the coming months. Military training for the ceasefire groups has been penciled in for October.
“The ceasefire groups should think carefully about their future,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese military analyst based on the Sino-Burmese border. “This is a crucial time for them.
“If the junta’s plan comes to fruition, there will be no more UWSA or KIA—only political wings, such as the UWSP [United Wa State Party] and the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization].”
Observers say that if the ceasefire groups do not accept the Tatmadaw’s border guard force proposal, the fragile ceasefire agreements between many of the ethnic groups and the junta could be broken; and the border trade zone along Burma’s eastern border could suddenly become a battleground again.
Aside from the UWSA, the other ethnic ceasefire groups are not as strong nowadays as they were before they entered into ceasefire agreements. The Tatmadaw now has several outposts positioned in the ethnic group-controlled areas.
However, according to Khuensai Jaiyen, the editor-in-chief of the Shan Herald Agency for News, ceasefire groups such as the Shan State Army (North) would still be a force to be reckoned with if they were called into action, even though they have a much smaller army than the UWSA.
According to intelligence sources, junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe has indicated to his officers that handling the ethnic ceasefire groups would be one of their biggest challenges in the coming years.
“Apart from non-violent dissidents such as Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD [National League for Democracy], the generals in Naypyidaw see this as another threat to their administration since there are no concrete political solutions to ceasefire agreements,” said a political observer in Rangoon who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said that facing down the ceasefire groups would be different from Suu Kyi and other dissidents. “If the junta wants to crack down on the non-violent opposition, they can simply open more prison doors. But the ceasefire groups—like the junta—also know how to use firepower to get their way,” he said.
The issue also encompasses geopolitical concerns for the regime. China, being Burma’s northern neighbor and one of its biggest trade and military partners, enjoys a strong influence on all the ceasefire groups based near the Sino-Burmese border, especially the UWSA and the KIA.
China is scheduled to build a strategic oil and gas pipeline stretching from western Burma to Yunnan Province, passing through much ethnic territory.
China, as former comrades-in-arms, would not ignore the UWSA and the Kokang if they were in crisis, said Aung Kyaw Zaw.
In recent years, the question of Burma’s stability, development and national reconciliation has become a main concern for Beijing.
In April, Chen Bingde, the Chief-of-Staff of the People's Liberation Army, told the visiting Burmese general Tin Aye that Beijing hoped Burma could achieve social stability, economic development and national reconciliation.
However, at last week’s meeting between junta officers and the UWSA, one of the Wa leaders reportedly rebuked the Burmese regime’s offer angrily, calling it a recipe for disunity.
Other ethnic leaders are going to have to make big decisions in the near future—decisions that could tread dangerously close to plunging the region into instability and bloodshed.