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BURMA: Junta Targets Ethnic Rebels to Forge Unity Ahead of Polls

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 3 2009 (IPS) - Burma’s military regime is turning to a familiar strategy – sending in troops – to impose its will on the north-eastern corner of the country that shares a border with China’s Yunnan province in the east. The move shatters a 20-year peace deal with an armed ethnic rebel group that controls part of that mountainous terrain.

This eruption of hostilities has much to do with a promised general election next year that the oppressive rulers of Burma, also known as Myanmar, are marching towards. The junta wants a "discipline-flourishing democracy" to take root with the 2010 polls, the first such election after the results of the last one, in 1990, were annulled.

Clashes between Burmese troops and the Kokang, one of four ethnic rebel groups that signed a ceasefire deal in the 1988-89 period, began in early August and escalated by the end of the month in an area close to the Chinese border. Casualty figures are still uncertain.

"About 7,000 troops with tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy cannons are trying to control the region," says the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington D.C.-based group of Burmese political exiles. "The junta is sending 3,000 more troops from other parts of Burma to the region."

By Thursday, an uneasy calm had returned to Laogai, the Kokang capital, now in the hands of the Burmese troops, according to an aid worker in Burma, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Some of the 37,000 people who fled across the border to China after the fight broke out have begun to return," she says.

Sporadic sounds of gunfire were heard, she reveals, adding that the locals were not sure if the defeated Kokang rebels will resort to "guerrilla attacks" on the Burmese troops who have poured into Laogai. This capital has a substantial presence of Chinese businessmen, involved in the border economy of logging, mining and casinos for gambling.

The fighting resulted in an abrupt halt of the agriculture programmes being run by the World Food Programme (WFP), the only United Nations (UN) agency that has a permanent presence in a region known for being a poppy-growing area and having a booming narcotics trade.

"Our operations have been suspended," Chris Kaye, the head of the WFP’s operations in Burma, confirmed during a telephone interview from Rangoon, the former capital. "The people in that area are inherently poor and depend on our programmes as an alternative to growing poppy."

The U.N. agency’s work involves assisting the ethnic Kokang to grow tea, paddy and maize as an alternative source of income and to help the locals overcome food insecurity. It followed an announcement by leaders of the ethnic groups to end poppy cultivation by 2005 in the terrain that had been part of this region’s infamous ‘Golden Triangle,’ one of Asia’s largest opium-producing areas.

There are concerns, however, that the attack on the Kokang may not be a limited strike, but part of the junta’s broader plan to go after other armed ethnic groups along the country’s north-eastern border. Among those are the Wa, the most armed of the ethnic rebels, with a force of some 25,000, and the smaller Kachin.

They are concerns shaped by the political developments in the ethnic areas of Burma, which has never been able to control all of its borders since gaining independence from the British over six decades ago. The country has 135 registered ethnic groups, of which the Burmans are the largest. Scores of ethnic rebels began separatist battles with the Burmese army to create independent countries.

Peace returned to Burma’s north-eastern border in the late 1980s after the Wa, Kachin and Kokang joined 14 other ethnic rebel movements to sign ceasefire agreements in exchange for greater political autonomy, freedom for their ethnic communities and more economic independence.

"The attack against the Kokang is an attempt to intimidate the other ceasefire groups to fall in line with the regime’s plans for the elections next year," says Win Min, a Burmese national security expert at Payap University in Chiang Mai, located in northern Thailand. "They are going to deal with them one by one to impose what the junta thinks will be unity in the country. But this is only a military-imposed unity."

"It will not be easy for the Burmese army," Win Min added during a telephone interview. "Going after the Wa will result in many casualties because it is the strongest armed ethnic group in the country."

It is a view echoed by others familiar with this region of Burma, which is part of the Shan state and home to the large Shan ethnic community. "If the Burmese regime thinks they will be able to subdue the ethnic rebel groups before next year’s election, they are dreaming," Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News, told IPS. "The fighting on the border is bound to escalate."

Already the attacks against the Kokang have left the ethnic Kachin worried that they may be next in the firing line. "The attacks are a violation of the ceasefire and we are worried about who will be targeted next," says Col James Lum Dau, deputy chief of foreign affairs for the Kachin Independence Organisation. "They want us to change militarily and be under complete Burmese control before the elections. We are against this kind of thing."

"It may be good for them but not for us. This is a military solution and not a political solution," he said in a telephone interview. "We are ready to support the elections that will ensure freedom for us."

Under Burma’s new constitution, approved in a May 2008 referendum plagued with fraud, the country can only have one armed group – the military. And to bring the country’s many armed ethnic groups in line with this provision, the military regime has ordered all rebel groups to become part of a border guard force ahead of the 2010 poll.

The border guard force, which was announced in April, will strip the ethnic rebels of their troop strength and their military independence, since each of these border battalions will come under the wing of a Burmese officer. It was a disarmament plan that the Kokang rejected as did the Wa and Kachin fighters, among others.

"It is unthinkable to expect the Wa to conform to the border guard plan," says a European diplomat who regularly visits Burma. "They have a hatred towards the Burmese; it is deeply rooted."

"There is also opposition to this new force because none of these ethnic groups know what political concessions they will get after the elections," the diplomat, who requested anonymity, told IPS. "The next weeks will reveal if the attacks on the Kokang will force the Wa and others back to the negotiating table about the border guard force."

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