By DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON
The Irrawaddy News
OCTOBER, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.7
War and refugees will remain a fact of life in Burma as long as the root causes of conflict in the country’s borderlands remain unaddressed.
The rout of the ethnic Kokang militia, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, in northern Burma in late August has brought into stark relief what millions of people live with in Burma every day: conflict between the central state and non-state armed militias. For decades, clashes between the Burmese regime’s army and its myriad enemies have been forcing people into hiding or across borders. What is different about the recent fighting is that it involved China—not usually a country that tolerates refugees from Burma or instability along its borders.
The cause of the latest outbreak of hostilities is the decision of Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to pressure cease-fire groups to transform their armies into border security guard forces before next year’s election. Under the SPDC plan, which was first proposed in April, the militias would be split up into battalions consisting of 326 soldiers, mostly from ethnic militias, but with a number of Burmese government army troops and officers. The deadline for a response to the plan was June, with training to begin in October.
Many groups have refused, and with good grounds. How could an armed group such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with an estimated 20,000 soldiers, practically accept such a demand under such a tight timeframe? The Kachin Independence Organization seems to have diplomatically rejected the junta’s demand by conditionally agreeing to it, but other groups have declined outright, leading to fears of a resumption of armed conflict.
Yet as negative as the potential consequences of the SPDC’s demands are, the status quo is equally bad, not just for national political reforms, but also for civilian protection. Burma’s hinterlands have for most of the past 20 years been ordered into a network of semi-autonomous cease-fire zones, run by politico-military armed groups often financed by investments in the narcotics trade, illegal logging, smuggling, transport and casino capitalism. From Mon State up the eastern borderlands and around Shan State to Kachin State, a string of “special regions” has emerged, often in an uneasy coexistence with central state forces based on verbal agreements with Burmese military leaders.
For the cease-fire groups, the dividends of this arrangement included some form of autonomy in future constitutional changes, as well as national and international development assistance. In return, they agreed to stop fighting. This pact has paid off handsomely for the leaders of the various groups, many of whom have amassed substantial fortunes. But for many of their “constituents,” the cessation of active conflict has only produced a tenuous peace.
Paradoxically, the number of armed groups in Burma has actually increased since the cease-fires, because of factionalism and local security requirements.
Burma has been through all of this before. In the 1960s, the Tatmadaw created Ka Kwe Ye (Home Guard) units, sometimes called “anti-insurgency forces,” from the private armies of local warlords. Pyithu Sit (People’s Militias) have also increased, especially in Shan State, where, as local motley bands of militia under the direction of Tatmadaw battalions, they often exist as the bottom feeders of the Burmese drug trade, acting little better than modern dacoits.
The Kokang showdown was preceded in a more peaceful, if not more productive, format, in early 2005, when the SPDC forced the surrender of the Palaung State Liberation Party. According to the Palaung Women’s Organization, the surrender dramatically increased suffering among the civilian population.
Two years later, in 2007, the small Shan State Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization split into three factions as a result of intensified pressure from the SPDC to surrender their weapons. One of their military leaders who broke the cease-fire and returned to active hostilities, Col Hkun Thu Rein, said, “We got nothing from the cease-fire. Even when international development agencies came to our area, the SPDC warned us not to tell the truth.”
The one seemingly avid convert to the border guard scheme, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), was not surprising, marking the group’s gradual transformation from a splinter faction of the Karen National Union with some genuine political and social grievances to a snarling criminal gang with somewhat unconvincing appeals to nationalism. The DKBA’s growing business empire along the Thai-Burmese border shows the economic returns of cooperation: agro-business, people smuggling, illegal car importation, cattle smuggling, mining, transportation concessions, and local methamphetamine production and trafficking. In return, the DKBA has continued to attack Karen communities inside Burma, and now acts as little more than a willing auxiliary of the SPDC.
Non-state armed groups such as the DKBA are being primed by the SPDC to act as border militias under a future civilian government, and if recent fighting is any indication, many groups could act with the same ferocity and disregard for civilian protection as the Burmese army.
Weapons seized from Kokang rebels are displayed by the Burmese police in laogai on Sept. 8.
War has displaced millions of civilians in Burma. Currently there are nearly half a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in eastern Burma alone. Around 150,000 refugees live in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border, even though more than 46,000 have been resettled to third countries since 2005. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Shan struggle for survival in northern Thailand, unregistered and unrecognized as anything more than migrant workers. India has more than 50,000 ethnic Chin refugees and thousands more Burmese refugees in Mizoram and New Delhi. Some 28,000 Rohingya Muslims from Arakan State live in dire conditions in camps in Bangladesh, with about 200,000 more living in surrounding areas. Burmese refugees also live either as migrant workers or UN-recognized asylum seekers in Malaysia, Singapore and scores of other countries around the world.
The fate of the displaced varies vastly, depending on a host of factors. Sometimes even groups that are located in close proximity to each other can be worlds apart in terms of their access to assistance.
Take, for example, the camp for Shan IDPs across from Mae Fah Luang in Thailand. Home to nearly 3,000 civilians, the village of Wan Loi Saw Nien is made up of assorted Shan, Lahu, Akha, Palaung and Chinese from throughout eastern Shan State who were displaced by more than 10 years of fighting between the Shan State Army-South and the UWSA and Tatmadaw. Much of the fighting started because the UWSA forced some 100,000 civilians from its northern area to resettle along the Thai border to create a new enclave called Mong Yawn, basically to provide a civilian cover for intensified methamphetamine production.
This disastrous experiment in mini-state creation also produced the UWSA-controlled town of Yawngkha, just 9 km from Wan Loi Saw Nien. However, the experiences of the two towns couldn’t be more different. Yawngkha receives UN assistance, funding from Thailand’s Mae Fah Luang Foundation, and visits from Western academics in Tatmadaw helicopters. Wan Loi Saw Nien, on the other hand, is shunned by UN and international relief agencies because the UN doesn’t “do” borders. This could, however, change if the SSA signs a cease-fire agreement with the regime.
Abuses against civilians in conflict areas and around cease-fire zones have been exhaustively documented in the annual internal displacement surveys of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), as well as by several grassroots documentation organizations, such as the Karen Human Rights Group and the Human Rights Foundation of Monland, among others.
Although there is some truth to the argument that there are fewer human rights violations in ethnic areas as a result of decreased hostilities, it is more accurate to say that the patterns of human rights violations have changed.
While horrific numbers of abuses were perpetrated by all sides in the conflict during active hostilities, many civilians living in or near cease-fire zones must now bear the burden of heavier militarization, with the attendant demands for forced labor, food and anything else that Burmese government forces “living off the land” require. Meanwhile, other abuses normally associated with open conflict, such as rape and summary executions of civilians, continue, as evidenced by the recent attacks in the Kokang region and central Shan and Karen states.
Under the Second Additional Protocol of the Geneva Convention, attacks against civilians, the destruction of things indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food, crops and water supply, and the forced removal of civilians unless it is for their own safety or for imperative military reasons, are prohibited. Furthermore, parties to the conflict must facilitate immediate and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance.
The Tatmadaw and its proxy forces have blatantly violated these principles of customary international humanitarian law for years. In a remarkable and rare public denunciation in June 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) cited what it called “major and repeated violations of international humanitarian law” by the “Government of Myanmar” against civilians in eastern Burma between 2000 and 2005.
The only thing more remarkable than the ICRC’s highly unorthodox public statement was the apathy with which it was received by the international community. It was as if the world shrugged and thought, “Heard it all before.”
Well, in fact, the world has heard it all before, and refused to act. The recent report by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Clinic, “Crimes in Burma,” used United Nations documents to demonstrate that since 2002, crimes in conflict areas have been widespread and systematic, especially in regards to forced displacement, sexual violence, torture and murder. And yet, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon refused to discuss the matter either within the UN Security Council or during his fruitless visit to Burma in July this year. Ban did give a strong speech (at the Rangoon Drug Eradication Museum, of all places) on Burma’s deplorable human rights record, but the UN has done precious little to address it.
The willful refusal to acknowledge the scale of human rights violations in Burma’s conflict zones is absolutely inexcusable. And yet, a muttering cabal of academics, international relief workers and erstwhile Western investors is seeking to roll back years of documentation proving the extent of the suffering in IDP and refugee zones. Some even preface these exhaustively documented human rights violations with the word “alleged,” as if there were any doubt about the atrocities being committed in the name of Burma’s “national reconsolidation.”
Much of the new wave of denial is linked to an endorsement of next year’s planned elections, which some see as an opportunity to create a small opening for change inside Burma. Yet one layer of these reforms—the long postponed incorporation of ethnic armed groups—suddenly looks to be in jeopardy after two decades of relative stasis.
For the international media, the recent Kokang fighting has evoked comparisons to Darfur, the Congo, Sri Lanka and other countries that have disintegrated into war zones of disorder. But the best guide to Burma’s future is its own past: if the cease-fire areas descend into conflict again, they will resemble the situation before the cease-fires of 1989. That was a period of intense warfare on several fronts throughout the country, with dozens of armed groups of varying legitimacy. At the time, human rights documentation was rudimentary and refugees spilled across borders unheeded, or were pushed back mercilessly.
Should war resume in parts of Burma’s borderlands, the country will simply return to its pre-1989 situation, and the challenges of national reconciliation and local sustainable development will begin again.
David Scott Mathieson is the Burma Researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Burma Newscasts - Peace in Name only
OCTOBER, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.7