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Threat to peace

(Commentary) – The recent armed conflict between the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) and the Burmese army is predictable– it has been a long time in the making.

Women soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army parade in the ethnic group’s Sino-Burmese border stronghold of Laiza. The army is now in a war with the Burmese military. Photo: MizzimaThings started downhill with the divide-and-rule policy of dictator Senior-General Than Shwe, which led to ethnic regions with many competing groups and policies, making it that much harder to find any common ground, or, for that matter, any single group that can speak on ethnic issues.

Many promises were made by the new president, former General Thein Sein, after he took power at the beginning of this year, but he clearly has no idea how to address the role of ethnic diversity in Burma. The policy of a central, single-power government is in natural competition with the ethnic groups’ desire for greater autonomy.

Without a new, effective policy, the new civilian government has little real chance of promoting meaningful economic development, including the attracting of large numbers of new investors that Burma urgently requires.

Without peace, there is a question of who will want to invest in Burma, with the exception of China, India and Thailand, neighbouring countries that see Burma’s energy resources as ripe for the picking.

In fact, all of eastern Burma from north to south has the smell of imminent civil war. A European assessment firm said recently that without peace, there’s no profit from investment in Burma. Stability is required—and that’s the one thing that’s hard to come by right now.

For the Chinese, however, it’s a different case. Peace would benefit them, of course, but their overriding concern is strategic power and positioning. That means dealing for now with the generals. Still, for local Chinese businesses in ethnic areas, conflict spells underdevelopment, in areas where any economic activity is to the good.

The new government clearly is stumbling around looking for an ethnic and economic policy, but it shows little urgency in developing one. It seems content to deal with cease-fire and non-ceasefire groups in a piecemeal, threatening way. The case of the Kachin conflict illustrates Naypyitaw’s delicate dance with China. China refused to endorse the new government’s military policy to wage war with the Kachin army, but the government went ahead while knowing only that they would continue their police of divide-and-rule and fight if necessary.  

The Chinese are investing huge resources to build a series of hydro electrical dams. Now their workers are fleeing those projects in fear of being entangled in the new war. What is evident is the limited power of China to influence the policy of the generals who are in ultimate control.
However, some observers see the hand of the Chinese in signing off on the new war in an effort to punish the KIO for dealing with the West and moving away from their local Yunnan government across the border. The KIO has established more flexibility than ever before; it’s more efficient in dealing with both Burmese and Chinese governments.

Beijing’s suggestions for peace and stability are too bitter to swallow for the street-smart Burmese generals. The Chinese may feel as if they have no clear influence yet within the new Burmese government, which might make it harder for the military to rule behind the scenes at some point.

Regardless, the future looks bleak unless the new Burmese government can show signs of sincerity in reviewing the 2008 Constitution to pave the way for more autonomy for ethnic people. Meanwhile, the benefits of the country’s resources continue to go largely to the military, leaving the public sector puny scraps.

At some point things will become clearer. How can China, India and Thailand really deal with a government that conducts wars with all the factions of the ethnic groups, with each and every political stakeholder? Ethnic armed forces are only a step away from targeting mega development projects if they are put under more pressure. 

Such moves would force the generals’ hand. So, what should it be—more fighting or following the road of reconciliation and negotiation? Time is running out, and the senior generals’ war policy is on a no-win course in the long term. But so far, they show no sign of understanding that.

The author is a member of National League for Democracy- Liberated Area

Last Updated ( Thursday, 23 June 2011 16:37 )  
The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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