Myanmar: The Generals Seek A Deal

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September 4, 2011: The newly elected government, still controlled by the military (which has run the country since 1962) is facing a desperate situation. Decades of dictatorship have ruined the economy, and been unable to suppress urban and tribal rebel groups. The army has been fighting a futile war with the tribal militias all that time, without achieving victory. Four years ago there was a widespread uprising in the non-tribal south. While not very violent (the tribes have far more weapons), this scared the generals, who have now been experimenting with new ways to stay in power, and out of prison. The generals know that if they are overthrown, prosecution, or worse, is likely. The UN and many Western nations are already talking about prosecuting Burmese leaders for “crimes against humanity.”

The government must also keep fighting in order to satisfy a major ally; China. In northern Burma, over a million Chinese have been allowed to move in, along with Chinese financed hydroelectric and natural gas development projects. The Chinese will start building a railroad into northern Burma by the end of the year. The new dams will displace thousands of tribal people, and all the electricity will be sold to China, and all that revenue will go to the Burmese government. Same with the natural gas, and seeing the military grab most of the revenue from these deals has enraged the urban population as well. Burma is, according to international surveys, one of the three most corrupt countries in the world (along with Afghanistan and Somalia.) While not as chaotic and violent as Somalia and Afghanistan, the potential is there, and the generals know it.

The Burmese generals tried to play India off against China, but that did not work. India was sensitive to criticism (of dealing with Burma) from Indian and Western pressure groups, and backed away. This left China free to grab it all, or something like that.

So it’s no wonder the tribes are still fighting. In response, the army has renewed its "total war" strategy against the tribal militias of the north earlier this year. These tactics concentrate on terrorizing the unarmed tribal population, as a way of obtaining information on the tribal rebels, and encouraging the tribal people to withdraw support for the rebels. There have been over 400 clashes (ambushes and raids mostly) so far this year. This war gets very little media attention, largely because the government keeps journalists out of the tribal area. But the war has produced over 50,000 refugees, who often can be reached by journalists.

All this has had limited success, but the fact that the fighting has continued for over half a century indicates that this is not a long term (or any term) solution. Currently, the army is concentrating on the SSA (Shan State Army, a force of several thousand armed men) and the larger United Wa State Army. Actually, there are two Shan State Armies (north and south) and these have joined forces against the government (despite the fact that one of them is technically a government ally). For the last decade, the government had some success in dividing the tribes with bribes and good treatment. But that did not work as thoroughly as the government wanted, so now it's back to old school genocide in the jungle. That doesn't work, but the new veneer of democracy has encouraged the government to believe it can claim the new nastiness is the will of the people.

Meanwhile, the generals, via the newly elected (under military supervision) democratic government are trying to negotiate their way out of punishment for past sins. In effect, negotiations to that end are under way. Most of the generals appear to have accepted the fact that their half century effort to create a socialist dictatorship has failed. If it comes to a full blown civil war everyone, especially the army officers, lose. So a negotiated deal is now a possibility. There’s no guarantee this will work, since many of the senior army leaders still believe some of their own press-releases about how powerful the military is (it isn’t). Some of the generals are worried about Burma becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of China. But mostly, the generals fear running out of money to maintain the comfortable lifestyle the active duty and retired officers have enjoyed for decades. Poverty, not rebellion, is bringing the generals to the negotiating table. But it could get ugly. The tribal leaders are demanding that there be no more “divide and conquer” negotiations, and that all the tribes be involved at once in the peace talks. This could get messy, as some of the tribes are at odds with other tribes.

September 3, 2011: Government controlled media announced that the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army), on August 18th, had agreed to dissolve and turn into 12 battalions of the border guard. This was supposed to happen to all tribal militias according to a 2008 agreement. But six of the militias, including the DKBA, refused to go along, and some of those that did, later reneged (because the government did not keep its end of the deal). DKBA leaders responded to this latest announcement by calling it misleading. Some DKBA fighters had accepted the government offer, but most were still fighting the army.

August 28, 2011: In Arakan State, on the west coast, villagers found a World War II bomb (that was dropped nearly 70 years ago, but did not go off). While trying to pry open the bomb, it exploded, killing seven people. The Burmese west coast was heavily fought over by Japanese and Allied troops during World War II.

August 20, 2011: A military convoy carrying two army generals was ambushed in Karen state. Three soldiers died, but the two generals (who ran military operations in Karen state) were unharmed.

 

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