Burma on the brink of civil war

– The following is from Worldwide Impact Now

Another ominous chapter ahead for Burma’s ethnic minorities as SPDC troops arrive on their doorsteps.

The month of April saw Burma draw severely close to widespread civil war. Continued demands from military rulers, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), on all non-state armed groups to join the national forces continue to be rejected, leaving over a dozen decades-old ceasefires perilously under threat. In a country where civilians are routinely targeted by the government as part of military strategy, the expected outcomes are nothing short of horrific.

In all wars, regardless of political persuasions or ideologies, civilian families are unjustly caught between conflicts. But in Burma the threat to the people is particularly severe, following decades of draconian military rule and total disregard for human rights.

On April 28th, the final deadline passed for all of Burma’s ceasefire armies to accept the junta’s Border Guard Force plan, a process that aims to bring them under direct state control and work to eradicate all remaining insurgents. Determined to stay autonomous until their people are given greater rights to civil, political and humane justice, almost all groups have rejected the plan calling for a political dialogue to achieve national reconciliation.

As SPDC troops move in on non-state armed groups’ territories, or “ceasefire zones”, thousands of civilians have been forced to flee their homes, many not for the first time, in search of refuge. Some have moved into Thailand across its northern and western borders while others have remained in Burma fleeing to the jungle or deeper into ceasefire zones.

In the past week alone mass relocation was documented in and from regions under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). There are already estimated to be between 1-3 million internally displaced people in Burma and over 150,000 refugees in Thailand. These figures could rise dramatically if the SPDC carries out its threats that “war will break out like it did in 1989.”

During the month of April, numerous statements were made by ethnic leaders calling for peaceful solutions to the nation’s protracted military and political tensions. However these requests have been met with persistent threats of violence from the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) forcing the groups to prepare for battle. This was seen most recently on April 30th in Kachin State following 2-day talks between the Kachin Independence Organsiation (KIO) and the SPDC. A statement made by KIO leaders stating that they would like to “continue with the ceasefire and work for a genuine federal union with equal rights between majority and minorities in the country”, was shortly followed by a public threat to eliminate the group for rejecting the SPDC’s plan.

While the SPDC’s demands have brought some non-state armed groups closer together, others have become divided leading to speculation about conflict worsening within various ethnic groups. The Shan State Army- North (SSA-North) which signed a ceasefire agreement in 1989 has become divided over whether to accede to SPDC demands. While its headquarters announced that around 700 troops would transform to become a Border Guard Force, its strongest faction, 1st brigade remains defiant and has already been accused of launching an attack on SPDC troops en route to its territory.

Nearby, the impact on civilians has been instant. Trade has all but stopped on the Thai- Shan State border due to local fears of conflict and increased SPDC scrutiny at checkpoints. As a result, local markets have upped their prices dramatically. On one stretch of road between Tachilek and Monghsat it has been reported that there are no less than 20 SPDC checkpoints and as a result vegetable prices have gone up 30% or more.

Forced to operate under a self-reliance policy, SPDC battalions are notorious for exploitation of locals, in some cases surviving solely from extortion and forced labour. Traders and travelers are routinely stopped at checkpoints in ethnic regions and forced to pay bribes, give gas or their hand over produce. Such measures put local business and livelihoods under severe strain. This is at its worst in conflict regions where acute poverty and neglect of civilian needs has led to under-5 mortality rates being as high as 20%.

The most recently displaced have fled form areas controlled by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). Like SSA-North, the DKBA, which has been aligned with the SPDC for over 15 years, has become divided over the plan, with some generals strongly opposed and others ready to sign. On Tuesday 27th, a short bout of fighting broke out between the two armies, leading to the arrival of 10 more SPDC battalions and heavy artillery to the region and a mass exodus of civilians. While no high-ranking generals have publicly denounced the plan, hundreds of soldiers are said to have defected and sought refuge with the Karen National Union, an insurgent groups that remains at war with the SPDC.

Leading the pro-agreement faction is General Chit Htu, leader of the notorious 999 Brigade. Chit Htu has become one the SPDCs closest allies in recent years, making vast profits from natural resources while terrorising and exploiting tens of thousands of civilians under his jurisdiction.

For years ethnic regions in Burma have been divided by armed forces which align themselves with the SPDC and those that continue to fight the regime. In many of these regions, such armies have been able to keep conflict to a minimum by purposely avoiding each other. However, as the SPDC has increased pressure to force groups to work for or against them, this has become increasingly difficult. Such practices will become impossible if the Border Guard Force plan moves forward as SPDC commanders will be implemented in each battalion, giving the regime far greater control over its proxy forces.

For decades, the SPDC and its allied forces have systematically targeted civilians to cut off all possible support for armed opposition groups, making the border guard force plan particularly threatening to civilians in ethnic regions. By destroying entire villages, targeting schools and hospitals it aims to destabilise communities and keep them under strict martial law. In 2009 alone over 100,000 people were displaced in Eastern Burma, including over 60,000 in Shan State, home to the highest number of ceasefire groups. The region was totally independent from Burma until the British conquered it in the 19th century and is home to many different ethnic nationalities, many of which demand far greater autonomy than the SPDC will allow.

After almost a year of threats from the SPDC, speculation that conflict would reignite appears to be becoming a reality. Everyday seems to take Burma a step closer to widespread civil war and it is fast becoming a question of not if but when. The clearest indicators that heightened conflict is imminent have been shown by the civilians who have fled their homes, stopped trading or put prices up on their market stalls. For the older generations who experienced widespread civil war in the 1980s these are likely all warning signs of a return to the struggle of living amongst conflict.