Burma’s first general election in 20 years is over and as expected the paramilitary associates of the military junta, which is unlikely to retreat into the wings, have claimed an overwhelming victory.
Now a renewed civil war is developing in border areas, with the military positioning itself for a massive summer offensive, backed up by 50 newly acquired Russian helicopter gunships.
The fraudulent election may have created unity of purpose among the resistance armies of Burma’s long-suffering ethnic nationalities not seen since the aftermath of the 1988 uprising.
Recently the battle for the border town of Myawaddy, between members of the armed Karen resistance and the military, made headlines and sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing into Thailand. International attention focused fleetingly on the Karen struggle, the world’s longest running armed resistance movement.
Myawaddy is a symptom of a wider crisis – one that has paralysed communities and quietly suffocated a nation.
After 15 years of infighting, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBU) – a Karen splinter group armed by the junta – has allied itself with the Karen National Union (KNU), in a move that could tip the balance of the war. It was the DKBA that captured Myawaddy earlier this month.
Two of the country’s largest resistance groups – the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Organization – have been preparing to fight the central government for several months, knowing full well the intentions of the regime, and have now entered into an alliance with the KNU, the New Mon State Party, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Chin National Front.
The agreement means that if one group is attacked the others will begin to fight in their areas and amounts to a declaration of independence. The aim is a parallel government structure similar to the federated union of autonomous states that has been the longstanding demand of the ethnic nationalities.
To an extent the junta has cornered itself, and must now either back down over its new border guard force or engage in counter-guerrilla warfare, which it may not be prepared for in the long run.
‘We intend to set up different military front lines in the country when the Burmese military attack one of our members. That way they can’t reinforce their troops at only one position. They have to defend every corner from our attacks. This is how we will be better prepared to counter their offensives,’ Bee Htoo, army chief of the KNPP, told The Irrawaddy magazine.
The purchase of 50 Soviet-era MI-24 helicopter gunships from Russia and the sheer weight of Burma Army troop numbers (around 500,000 trained soldiers) mean ethnic groups will have to rely heavily on guerrilla tactics, while the army will continue to target the civilian population for forced relocation. The MI-24s are heavily armoured and are particularly suited to ‘counter-insurgency’ work.
Sporadic fighting between government forces and ethnic groups has already begun, but is limited to local pitched fire fights. Though the new gunships are yet to be deployed, reports suggest they have been stationed in central and northern Burma, ready for open conflict with former ceasefire groups the United Wa State Army and Kachin Independence Organization.
The air force has been used since its creation in 1947-48 as a tool to suppress dissidents. Its planes were first sent against suspected members of the Burma Communist Party in the late 1940s and have been used to support ground campaigns against ethnic minorities for several decades.
The lay of the land
Burma’s topography has been a huge factor in its development. A vast lowland plain – the Irrawaddy basin – is surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped mountain range of dense jungle, as yet unconquered by the encroaching city.
This led to a centralized bureaucracy developing in the centres of power like Mandalay, Pegu and Rangoon, and many small hill states evolving to survive the ebb and flow of great power.
This tense relationship between lowland and highland Burma has characterized its recent history and since Ne Win’s 1962 coup, the military have undertaken many campaigns to subdue the highlanders, whom they regard as inferior and uncivilized.
The mountains of the north and east – the Shan and Kachin Hills, part of the greater Southeast Asian massif – have historically been home to princes, petty warlords and kings who’ve fought against rule from Mandalay and Rangoon.
Since April 2009, the junta has pressurized, coerced and bribed militia leaders from armed resistance groups into joining its new border guard force.
The junta’s strategy of depriving resistance armies of funds, food, recruits and information (read forced relocations, lynching civilians) has weakened following the election. So Myawaddy was a symptom of the unity that the election fraud has created amongst ethnic armies.
Thai traders living on the border quietly sell canned fish, rice and noodles to the resistance groups, happy for the money they receive and hopeful that deals will continue to be made.