Burma's Junta Intensifies Bid For Unification

Bringing Autonomous Ethnic Enclaves Back Into Fold Poses Major Challenges
25 September 2009
In the media
The maps say that the town of Mong La is located in Burma, but to the casual observer, it could be China.

MONG LA, Burma -- The maps say that the town of Mong La is in Burma, but to the casual observer, it could be China. The shop names are in Chinese. The shopkeepers are mostly Chinese, and they accept only the Chinese yuan. A suggestion of a meeting at 4 o'clock is met with a question: "Burma time or China time?"

Mong La is the capital of an area known as Shan Special Region No. 4, one of 13 autonomous enclaves carved out of Burma's mountainous east over the past 20 years as part of cease-fire deals that armed rebel ethnic groups have signed with the generals who run the country.

While central Burma has been driven into penury by economic mismanagement and sanctions, areas such as Mong La have thrived, along with the National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State, which controls it. The region has over the years profited from drugs -- it lies at the heart of the opium-producing Golden Triangle -- and more recently from gambling.

In rebel territory, late-model Japanese sedans ferry Chinese punters from Mong La to the neon oasis of Mong Ma, 12 miles away, where they sip French brandy and play baccarat with stacks of 10,000-yuan chips. On the way, they pass the neoclassic pile that Sai Leun, commander of the National Democratic Alliance Army, has built for himself, complete with a golf course.

But Mong La's days as a tributary to the river of China's economic growth could be ending. Last month, a few hours to the north of Mong La, government troops attacked Special Region No. 1, which was run by the Kokang militia, driving about 37,000 residents over the border into China. Today, 80 percent of the shops in Mong La are shuttered, and their owners, taking refuge in China, are waiting to see whether Special Region No. 4 will be the government's next target.

Areas such as Mong La lie at the heart of the strategic conundrum that is Burma.

"Without a political settlement that addresses ethnic minority needs and goals, it is extremely unlikely there will be peace and democracy in Burma," the Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based research organization, said in a recent report.

For 15 years, the United Nations has advocated a three-way dialogue among the military government, the democratic opposition and the country's ethnic minorities, but given many of the groups' history of drug involvement, it has been a hard policy to promote in Western capitals.

In recent months, the world has focused on the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, but although she is a key figure, her freedom is unlikely to solve Burma's long-standing political problems on its own.

Ethnic minorities make up about 40 percent of the country's 60 million people, dominating the mountainous regions that surround the flood plains where most of the majority-Burman population live. The minorities have no faith in the government and resent the majority's domination of politics. Several young Shan professionals used the same word -- "tricky" -- to describe the Burmans.

The Burmese government has been trying to unify the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1948, a crusade that has taken precedence over all other concerns, including democracy, and is still the driving force behind the current government led by Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

"When Than Shwe wakes up at night, he isn't worrying about democracy or international pressure," said a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He's worrying about the ethnic groups."

But the generals who run the country cannot afford to anger China, their most significant ally and investor, in the process.

Over the past 20 years, the Burmese authorities have signed cease-fire agreements with 27 key opposition groups, most of which are ethnically based.

China played a key role in persuading the groups to talk to the government. Many were part of the Beijing-sponsored Burma Communist Party, which controlled most of the territory along the Chinese border until it imploded in the late 1980s. At the time, Beijing's interests lay in keeping the groups as a buffer, but that policy came at a cost as many Burmese warlords established mini-states, funding themselves through drugs and gambling and spreading addiction, disease and crime into China's southern borderlands.

Many analysts now say that the Chinese are eager to see Burma reunified under a central government, pointing out that Beijing wants to build pipelines through Burma to import oil and gas from the Andaman Sea to the populous but relatively poor province of Yunnan and to open trade routes to the lucrative markets of India.

Signs are growing that the groups China used to see as a strategic buffer it now regards as a barrier to trade. When the Burmese army moved against the Kokang militia, one of the weaker groups, the Chinese government rebuked it over the refugees who were driven across the border. Beijing urged the junta to "properly deal with its domestic issues to safeguard the regional stability of its bordering area with China." Some analysts say, however, that the rebuke reflected displeasure over how the takeover was handled rather than the takeover itself.

Bringing Mong La and other cease-fire areas back into the Burmese fold poses significant challenges for the Burmese as well as the Chinese.

The Burmese authorities have called on the cease-fire groups to disband their militias and take part in elections set for next year, but the groups, which have received little assistance from the central government, are loath to give up the leverage provided by their armed wings, although many have said they are not intrinsically opposed to participating in the elections.

The groups seem more inclined to maintain their militias and use them to help force a better deal from the new government. The biggest cease-fire group, the United Wa State Army, is estimated to maintain 20,000 men under arms.

However, with their move against the Kokang militia, the generals have ratcheted up the pressure, and many residents of the border areas, like the Chinese traders in Mong La, think the authorities could move against other groups, picking them off one by one.

The stakes are high. As the Transnational Institute points out, if the cease-fire groups are not defeated decisively, they will simply retreat to the mountainous border territory, where they are likely to resume wholesale narcotics trading to fund a renewed guerrilla campaign, intensifying regional instability.

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