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BURMA: Ethnic Rebels Resist Junta’s March Toward Final Frontier

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Dec 10 2010 (IPS) - An ongoing clash along the Thai-Burma border, pitting Burmese troops against ethnic insurgents, is raising the spectre of more violence in areas that the Burmese military sees as the final frontier to putting the country under the grip of one army for the first time in over six decades.

The fighting that erupted in early November, when a brigade from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) attacked and occupied the Burmese border town of Myawaddy, has already seen some 35,000 civilians from the Karen minority flee across the Thai border for safety.

Reports of the death toll remain unclear in the wake of the Burmese troops retaliating and taking back areas from the DKBA. Some Burmese activists monitoring the fighting from the Thai border town of Mae Sot say as many as four people have been killed in the intensive fighting.

“The situation is serious and the (Burmese) regime seems to be very angry,” says Win Min, a Burmese national security expert currently living in exile. “It is a show of force that they can fight all (ethnic insurgent) groups at the same time and pressure other armed groups not to make coordinated attacks against the regime.”

This latest trigger to simmering tensions in an area where a civil war has raged for decades is a plan Burma’s military regime unveiled in April 2009 to bring the patchwork of ethnic insurgent troops along its borders under the command of the ‘Tatmadaw’, as the Burmese military is called.

But not all the armed ethnic groups have agreed to join the ranks of the planned Border Guard Force (BGF), which will come under Tatmadaw’s direct command. Among those resisting the Burmese monopoly of military power is the DKBA.

“The regime is going to fight smaller or weaker groups that have resisted the border guard transformation, and the DKBA fits the regime’s target,” Win Min explained during an IPS interview. “The regime has tried to control all of Burma by occupying the ethnic areas bit by bit every year.”

Signs of possible clashes in areas that are home to the Kachin and Shan ethnic communities are being reported in the Burmese exile media. The rebel groups from these minorities were among the 17 ethnic armed groups that signed ceasefire agreements between 1989 and 1995 with the junta in Burma, or Myanmar as it is also called.

An area near Chinese border is currently in the grip of an uneasy peace, states Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby. “The tension with the ceasefire groups is set to continue in 2011, as fighting has also flared in parts of Shan State … (due) to the BGF scheme.”

The military, which has held political power since a 1962 coup, is dominated by the South-east Asian nation’s Burman majority. Arrayed against them are 135 registered ethnic groups, which account for nearly 40 percent of the country’s 56 million population.

Yet ever since Burma got independence from the British colonialists in 1948, it has been divided along ethnic fault lines that have prevented Burman domination over the entire country. In the early years of post-independence, over half the country was beyond the reach of the central government in Rangoon.

The balance has shifted dramatically since then, with the Tatmadaw now 400,000-strong and controlling substantial parts of the country, and some 45,000 ethnic rebel troops standing in the way of the Burman army’s total domination.

Such a feat over past two decades has left the Burmese military with the thinking that soldiers are the only force to unify the country. “When the men in uniform looked to the past, they saw a country that tended to fall apart into little pieces and that had always needed to be melded together by force,” writes Thant Myint-U, a respected Burmese historian, in ‘The River of Lost Footsteps’.

“They saw themselves in a long line of national unifiers and saw their task as unfinished,” added Thant in his book, which charts the story of the country during and after British colonisation. “In their imagination, there remained the challenge of nation building, of creating and promoting a new Myanmar identity.”

Burma’s 2008 constitution, which was approved in a referendum plagued with irregularities, personifies this military vision for the country more than the two previous charters, 1947 and 1974.

Following the general election on Nov. 7, the country’s first poll in 20 years won by a pro-junta party under questionable circumstances, the military regime is marching to reach new heights through the enforcement of the 2008 charter in early 2011.

This constitution is unequivocal about the military’s place in power, stating that the country can have only one army – the Tatmadaw.

“The Burmese junta has already given an ultimatum to the ethnic rebel groups to join the BGF under the command of the Burmese army, otherwise these groups will be declared illegal,” says Kheunsai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News, a media outlet covering Burma from northern Thailand.

The military regime will use its twin weapons – a parliamentary majority and the constitution – to place the issue of the BGF on the agenda of the new government, he told IPS. “They will submit a motion to make all groups come under the Tatmadaw.”

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