I was shocked when I heard about the gunfire between the KIA and the Burmese Army in Kachin State on June 19. As well, there have been gun battles between the SSA (north) and the Burmese Army. It showed the ceasefire agreements with the two armed ethnic groups were ended.
The news of renewed civil war in northern Burma quickly spread around the world.
Burmese people, from both inside and outside the country, as well as people from the regional and international communities, were surprised to hear about the renewed fighting, on both fronts.
The Burmese people have known the bitter taste of civil war for over 60 years. It has caused much suffering in many regions.
After the ceasefire agreement between the KIA and the Burmese military regime was broken and fighting began in the north, thousands of refugees fled to China, Burma’s northern neighbor and its big brother at the UN- always willing to use its veto power to protect the interests of the generals and the new government.
Now, a short time later, I am also surprised to hear the news that the new Burmese government is urgently seeking to negotiate peace agreements with the KIA and the Shan rebels and have announced they are willing to draw their armed forces back.
This sudden change has created many questions in my mind.
Why are they in such a hurry, all of a sudden, to stop fighting with these ethnic armed groups, even hinting about a national ceasefire to include all armed groups? Do they really intend to make genuine peace with ethnic groups across Burma? Do they accept Aung San Suu Kyi's offer of assistance in facilitating national reconciliation?
I agree with those who suggest that Burma’s new government should announce a ceasefire with all ethnic armed groups nationwide and stop attacking them if it
honestly wants to stop the fighting with ethnic peoples.
Let’s look at the what could be the real reasons why the Burmese Army is anxious to stop fighting with the KIA and draw Burmese Army forces back from the Shan rebel's base.
First, I think the new Burmese government, which is still controlled by the army, wants to push Aung San Suu Kyi from the political stage in Burma before she is seen as a key player in the peace process, jump-starting her political career after she sent an open letter to President Thein Sein, the KIA, the KNU, the SSA, and the NMSP.
Most ethnic armed groups and pro-democracy organizations announced their support of her participation in the process of national reconciliation in Burma. Many Burmese people and supporters in the international community would like to see her involved in attempting to bring peace and stability to Burma. Therefore, the new government wants to take credit for stopping the fighting before Aung San Suu Kyi enters the ceasefire process because the regime wants her to remain on the sidelines of Burmese politics.
Secondly, I think, the new government desperately wants to take the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, so it can host the ASEAN meeting in Burma, which will greatly enhance Burma’s image as a legitimate member government of the world community and push its infamous reputation for brutal human rights abuses to the back of people’s minds.
Third, I think they will now take time to assess the strategic military intelligence obtained through the recent battles in Kachin and Shan states and prepare a battle plan for a huge offensive in ethnic areas after the political victory obtained through becoming the ASEAN chair. This reminds me of the proverb which warns, "An elephant takes one step backwards before attacking.”
Fourth, the Burmese military has successfully used its "divide and conquer" policy for decades in its ongoing war with ethnic peoples. Gen Khin Nyunt, MI chief, used this "D and C" policy on ethnic armed groups when he was very powerful in the Burmese Army, before his arrest in 2004.
For example, the regime signed ceasefire agreements with individual ethnic armed groups at different times, rather than all together and gave different privileges to different ceasefire groups, to pit them against each other.
The KIO (the political wing of the KIA) is a member of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). However, if the new government signs a ceasefire agreement with the KIO, the action could create friction within the UNFC, especially if it does not sign such agreements with all members of the armed alliance.
Such tactics can hit "two birds with one stone".
Fifth, there is a power struggle between active and retired army generals in the new government. Most retired army generals active in the new government are senior to the active generals in the Burmese armed forces. So they may not reach an agreement to launch offensives on ethnic armed groups, at this time. If the “civilian” politicians in the new government can successfully stop the fighting with ethnic armed groups, it could be an indication of a major shift of political power away from the generals.
Six, the Chinese government may pressure the Burmese government or top brass generals to avoid a war so near its border, which it sees as a threat to its massive business interests in northern and western Burma.
Chinese companies have invested greatly mega-projects, including hydro-electric dam construction, gas and oil pipe line construction, as well as the lucrative border trade. If war continues and even intensifies in Kachin State, the KIA is sure to attack the dams, which are strategic assets of the Burmese military regime. The very lucrative border trade with China’s Yunan Province will stop, for sure.
If fighting continues, the SSA (north) will threaten the security of the gas and oil pipe line construction, which will run through northern Shan State, from Arakan State to Kuming.
China is rising. It needs energy from other countries. However, if fighting continues, China’s investment in energy and other business ventures in Burma will suffer.
Burma relies heavily on China’s underwriting its military spending and its investment in infrastructure and border trade, as well as its support in the UN. Some critics argue, "Burma is a pawn of China" and "China is behind Burma."
If fighting continues in northern and north eastern Burma, near the border, refugees will be forced to flee into Chinese territory; a burden China doesn't want to shoulder.
However, if China does not accept Burmese refugees, the international community will be very critical. So, China may pressure the Burmese government to stop fighting in the border area.
I and others doubt the new government’s intention is to negotiate peace because they were not honest. The brutal regime has had no intention to find political solutions in Burma for over 20 years.
Are they going to take the necessary actions at this time?
If they have real intentions to make peace and promote development in Burma, they should prove it. They should stop fighting with all ethnic armed groups in Burma at the same time. They should enter into real political dialogue with all political groups, including ethnic groups, without using any trickery.
Burma is a multi-ethnic country. Every ethnic group is important to the Union of Burma.
They should not push Aung San Suu Kyi from the Burmese political stage. Almost all ethnic armed groups accept her proposal for national reconciliation. As well, the international community respects her efforts to restore democracy and human rights in Burma. If she can do it, all parties will benefit, including the Burmese Army.
Indonesian Foreign Minister, Dr. R.M. Marty Natalegawa, has announced a possible visit to Burma, according to VOA News (August 3, 2011). His visit will be not only as a representative of Indonesia but also as a representative of the ASEAN.
According to Dr. Natalegawa, Burma's chairmanship in 2014 is a significant to the ASEAN.
"We are aware of the responsibilities and the expectations that are inherent in a particular country chairing ASEAN, especially on the eve of 2015," he said at a July 24th press conference, in Bali, with US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.
Choosing his words very carefully, he described Myanmar as a “work in process”, rather than a
“work in progress”.
He also said, "It is very important that we continue to press the new Government of Burma to take action that will demonstrate a break with the past.”
And, he added, "We are going to have plenty more discussions among ASEAN member states to ensure that there is a real comfort level about the issue."
The American government is still carefully watching the political situation in Burma. If Burma wins the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, the US Government would be forced to send its delegates to attend an ASEAN-US meeting in Naypyidaw.
"We have, in many different settings, expressed our deep concern about the oppressive political environment in Burma. We have called on the newly-elected government to release political prisoners and open a meaningful dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi," Mrs. Clinton said during the joint press conference.
If Burma cannot satisfy these demands, the US delegates are not likely to attend the ASEAN-US meeting in 2014. This will put pressure on ASEAN, which desires strong ties with the US government.
The ASEAN has not been successful in its efforts to pressure the Burmese regime to make concessions to democratic change in the past. However, it clearly is dangling the carrot of the chairmanship in front of the new government’s nose.
The new government’s rhetoric about peace in Burma will be tested by its actions in the coming months, however. That’s why Foreign Minister Natalegawa has not set a date for his visit to Burma, just yet. He and his colleagues are taking a wait and see attitude.
However, many Burmese, like me, still believe the old proverb:
You cannot make a dog’s crooked tail straight.
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