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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 8, 2012


Page 2 of 2
Myanmar's endless ethnic quagmire
By Bertil Lintner

None of the ceasefire agreements which the government has concluded with more than 20 big and small rebel groups since 1989 includes any political concessions by the central government. Rebels have in some instances been granted unofficial permission to retain control over their respective areas - and been encouraged to engage in any kind of business to sustain themselves. The government's strategy seems to have hoped rebel groups would be more interested in making money than pressing demands for constitutional reform and political autonomy. That strategy is obviously not working, as the flare-up of hostilities in the northern Kachin State shows.

On the other hand efforts by the various ethnic resistance forces to form a united front - or even to devise a common political platform - have also failed miserably. Most neutral observers familiar with Myanmar's ethnic issues would argue that the

 

conflict is not only between the Bama and other nationalities but also between different minority ethnic groups.

For instance, tensions have existed for centuries between the Kachin and the Shan, between the Shan and the Karen. A smaller group, the Pa-O, even took up arms in the early 1950s to fight against local Shan princes. In later years, Shan and Kachin rebels fought turf wars for control of areas in the country's northeast which have sizable Kachin populations but belong to Shan State. Even more recently, the Shan and Wa armies have fought bloody battles for control of areas adjacent to Thailand's border.

Ethnic divisions
It is also clear that the different backgrounds of Myanmar's multitude of ethnic groups, many with armed insurgent wings, will make it difficult to achieve a lasting solution to the problem. The insurgency among the Karen, who number at least 3.5 million and live in the Irrawaddy delta southwest of the old capital Yangon and in hills near the Thai border, is one of the longest lasting in the world. Many of them are Christian, mainly Baptist, and they have dominated most Karen rebel movements for more then six decades. The majority of the Karen, however, are actually Buddhist and fierce battles have been fought between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the forces of the Christian-led Karen National Union.

The Shan are Buddhist and related to the Thais and the Laos, and traditionally have been ruled by feudal princes called saohpa, or "Lords of the Sky." They took up arms when the Panglong Agreement's 10-year-trial period was up in 1958 and it was clear that they would not be allowed to exercise their then constitutional right to secede from the union. The Kachin in the far north are almost entirely Christian, also mainly Baptist. Their rebellion broke out in 1961 when the then U Nu government tried to make Buddhism the state religion and at the same time had negotiated a border agreement with China which many Kachins disapproved. Shortly after the war broke out, Kachins, whose guerrilla warfare skills were recognized and utilized by Britain and the United States during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, quickly seized control of most of their rugged hill country between China and India. The government has consistently failed to dislodge the Kachin from the geographical strongholds they established in the 1960s.

The strongest and most powerful of Myanmar's ethnic armies, the drug-trafficking United Wa State Army (UWSA), has recently received scant attention. Its more than 30,000 men and women in arms are equipped with sophisticated weaponry obtained mainly in China, including modern automatic rifles, heavy machine-guns, 120mm mortars, and even man-portable, surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles. The UWSA was born out of a mutiny among the Wa hilltribe rank-and-file of the CPB in 1989 where they drove the old, orthodox communist and mainly Bama leaders into exile in China.
The CPB subsequently crumbled and was later divided into four regional ethnic armies of which the UWSA was the strongest. Currently the UWSA controls a huge area adjacent to the Chinese border, enclaves along the Thai border in the south, and most of the lucrative production areas of narcotics, opium, heroin and methamphetamines in the Myanmar sector of the so-called Golden Triangle. The Wa have never been controlled by any central government in Myanmar. They were headhunters well into modern times and few outsiders entered the area before it was taken over by the insurgent CPB in the early 1970s. Since the 1989 mutiny, the UWSA has independently administered the areas it controls.

The pre-2010 elected government requested that all of those ethnic armies convert themselves into "Border Guard Forces" under command of the Myanmar Army. That proposal, however, had few takers; only some of the smallest former rebel groups agreed. For now, the plan seems to have been put on ice but it is unclear how the government aims to tackle the issue over the medium term. At the same time, there has been no deviation from the previous ceasefire strategy: stop fighting, engage in business, and forget any visions of a federal Myanmar. According to sources familiar with recent government-ethnic group negotiations, ethnic leaders have been told that "a discussion about federalism is not even on the table."

On the other hand, there are few countries in the world that have a federal system based on ethnicity or along linguistic lines. India, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia are a few examples and show the perils ahead for such a potential model in Myanmar. India has survived and despite all the problems that country faces is perhaps the best model for Myanmar to adopt. The United States has geographical entities as member states of a union, Germany is based on ancient kingdoms and principalities, and even multinational Malaysia has a federal system based not on ethnicity - there are no Malay, Chinese and Indian states there - but on the old Malay sultanates.

Whichever model Myanmar aims to follow, it cannot be done unless significant clauses in the present constitution are amended. Most of these, including those concerning state structure and ultimate military control over the decision-making process, cannot be considered without the approval of at least 75% of all parliamentarians in both the Upper and Lower Houses and would need to be enshrined through a national referendum. In practice, this makes any fundamental constitutional reform impossible.

Scrapping the 2008 constitution and drafting a new one based on some kind of federal concept is likely the only viable way ahead to resolving Myanmar's unresolved ethnic issue. Judging from the government's response to ethnic demands, that isn't likely to happen any time soon. Whatever the outcome of the present mass movement and the likelihood of some token NLD representation in parliament after the April 1 by-elections, Myanmar's ethnic quagmire will endure and the government's half-hearted calls for national reconciliation will remain unfulfilled.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Democracy (Published in 2011). He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services. (Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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