Burma’s Ethnic Insurgencies Erupt in a Chain Reaction

The respective rebellions of Burma’s (or Myanmar, as its government prefers it be called) three largest ethnic minorities are, for once, all aflame at the same time. At Asia Times Online, Brian McCartan writes: “Myanmar moved closer to civil war in recent weeks after fighting broke out in Kachin State,” thus breaking its ceasefire with Burma’s ruling junta. “Myanmar’s newly elected government now faces ethnic insurgencies on three separate fronts,” thus putting at risk “Myanmar’s development and international confidence in its supposed democratic transition.”

“In the southeast,” meanwhile, a revolt by “the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) on November 7, 2010, election day, resulted in the temporary seizure of two important border towns.” What’s significant about this is that, despite the noble sentiments suggested by its name, the DKBA had been allied with the government.

McCartan again: “Although the government was able to retake the towns, fighting continued in the area and the [DKBA] allied itself with the Karen [ethnic group] National Liberation Army.” He adds: “The operations of [the] DKBA commander Major General Lah Pweh . . . have added new energy to the Karen insurgency through stepped up ambushes and attacks on army camps both in rural areas and in towns and villages.”

Meanwhile, about Shan State, the third large minority, McCartan writes that “increasing government pressure against the 1st Brigade of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N),” with which the government also had a ceasefire, “resulted in open conflict in early March.” The government had been trying to “incorporate the military units of the ethnic ceasefire armies into the Myanmar armed forces ahead of the 2010 elections,” but the 1st Brigade, as well as other SSA-N brigades, had refused to join. McCartan again.

Indications are that if the government chooses to continue pushing these conflicts fighting could continue for years. Myanmar army casualties, if insurgent and exile media reports are accurate, have been high while insurgent casualties remain low. . . . Many Myanmar Army units have not seen combat in many years. . . . Low morale is a major problem among government troops. . . . Units are hugely under resourced and desertion is rife.

But

To continue operating, the insurgent groups will require safe havens and access to supplies and ammunition either through the direct or tacit approval of neighboring governments and militaries in China and Thailand. Thailand has increasingly turned its back on the ethnic groups along its border as it has emerged as Myanmar’s top trading partner. [Its] relationship [with China], too, may be changing as China’s investments in Myanmar expand, including strategically important energy projects such as the Shwe gas project and a vital oil and gas pipeline scheduled to run from the Indian Ocean to China’s southern Yunnan province across Myanmar.

Still

A new alliance of 15 insurgent and former ceasefire groups, including the KNU, KIA and the SSA, offers new hope. [But it] remains to be seen whether. . . . the so-called United Nationalities Federal. . . . can coordinate operations on the battlefield or maneuver politically with internal ethnic political parties or internationally.

McCartan concludes that, unless the junta, in its present form as an ostensibly elected government, “can come to a sincere agreement with ethnic insurgents, the country seems poised to spiral into the type of widespread civil war not seen in its ethnic territories for over two decades.”