Democracy or not, war with ethnic groups continues

A fighter of the Shan State Army (SSA) guards Doi Tai Lang, near the Thai border in northern Myanmar. (EPA photo)

By Anthony Davis 
November 17, 2015

Far from the hoopla and euphoria surrounding Myanmar's national elections last week, it has been mainly business as usual for army units in the country's northern borderlands. At the end of the rains, business as usual centres on preparing for upcoming dry season offensives against ethnic insurgents aimed at improving what the military sees as the real balance of national power.

This year in central Shan State, preparations have started early with aggressive probing attacks by the army or "Tatmadaw" against the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), one of a clutch of major ethnic factions -- Shan, Kachin, Wa, Kokang and Paluang -- which in mid-October declined to sign a so-called "national ceasefire accord".

Participation in an embarrassingly empty photo-op in Nay Pyi Taw -- which in the event was neither national nor resulted in a cease-fire -- was left to eight other groups. Four of them were tiny ethnic factions mainly notable for their total military irrelevance. Four others which do actually field armed forces are based along the Thai border and were reportedly encouraged to sign up by a military government in Bangkok which is understandably keen to promote cross-border trade.

But the real threat to stability in Myanmar lies in the North where the SSA-N has been coming under Tatmadaw artillery fire since Oct 6 -- a full week before its no-show at Nay Pyi Taw made it a "legitimate" target. Since then, desultory shelling and air strikes have closed in on the rebel headquarters at Wanhai not far from the Salween River in central Shan State, driving some 7,000 villagers from their homes.

Army attacks on the SSA-N are hardly new. They began in 2011 following the refusal of the group to subordinate itself Tatmadaw command as a "border guard force". They increased in intensity in 2012 and 2013, even after the signing of a bilateral ceasefire in the Shan State capital of Taunggyi in January 2012.

This year, however the stakes are higher with a growing possibility that in the coming weeks the Tatmadaw will make a final push to overrun Wanhai, a cluster of villages now largely empty of civilians. In addition to expelling the 3,500-strong Shan guerrilla force from its last remaining stronghold, a ground offensive against Wanhai would have important political repercussions.

First -- and even before the electorally victorious National League for Democracy forms a government -- it will bluntly underscore the reality that in Myanmar, matters of war and peace will continue to be decided by the military, not the elected government. Directly impacting relations between the country's Burman majority and its ethnic minorities, those decisions have always been about centralising power and resisting any suggestion of the federalism for which the ethnic groups are calling, and to which the NLD is, at least in theory, committed.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Wanhai offensive would send a loud message to the largest of Myanmar's ethnic armed factions, the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Since it emerged from the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma in 1989, the UWSA has observed a cease-fire with the Tatmadaw. But in their stronghold east of the Salween -- just across the river from SSA-N turf -- the Wa run a fully autonomous "special region", an awkward example of de facto federalism that is a standing affront to the Tatmadaw's vision of a centralised Myanmar.

Since 2009 when the UWSA made clear it had no interest in surrendering either its guns or its autonomy, relations with the military have soured. They were not improved when in 2012 Wa leaders reiterated earlier demands that their "special region" -- which is part of Shan State -- be elevated to a fully-fledged "Wa State" within Myanmar.

This year, tensions have escalated dangerously. Nay Pyi Taw has accused the Wa -- apparently with some justification -- of supporting Kokang rebels who since February have been inflicting hundreds of casualties on the military. In May, an angry official commentary in the state-run media revisited the UWSA's less-than-secret involvement in the drugs trade and accused the Wa of being "on the path towards secession" and "willing to engage (in) a military challenge".

In this ominous context, the possible fall of Wanhai matters critically to the UWSA. The breaking of Shan resistance risks bringing Tatmadaw forces closer to Salween crossings and strategic heights on the west bank of the river. From there, heavy artillery would command wide fields of fire across Wa territory to the East and could potentially cut roads to the Wa capital at Panghsang on the Chinese border.

Pushing the Wa into corners is a high-risk game, however. During a 26-year long ceasefire, the UWSA has quietly built up its forces to become the largest military non-state actor in the Asian region. With an estimated 20,000 trained regular troops, some of them based along Thailand's northern border, it fields a range of modern Chinese weaponry including heavy artillery, armoured vehicles, wire-guided anti-tank missiles, and man-portable surface-to-air missiles.

Chinese diplomats generally prefer not to discuss Wa armaments in polite company, but some officials, when pushed, have been willing to concede that in the past a little black-market corruption and cross-border hanky-panky may have been going on in far-flung Yunnan province.

In the real world, however, quantities of sophisticated missiles and heavy artillery systems do not as a rule "fall off the back of a truck" -- least of all on China's border with a country of the strategic significance of Myanmar. Rather more likely is that the UWSA's impressive arsenal has grown courtesy of China's grey market in munitions, a zone of plausible deniability peopled by well-connected "private-sector" middle-men, but which is no mystery to policy-makers in Beijing.

In other words, UWSA muscle is about rather more than hill-tribe aspirations for autonomy. It also reflects Beijing's need for a solid stick in a complex, carrot-and-stick relationship with Nay Pyi Taw that will ensure its key foreign policy interests are respected. Those interests include developing friendly relations and trade, protecting substantial commercial and energy investments, and, not least, checking the ambitions of Western or Japanese interlopers seeking to extend their influence along China's southwestern flank.

Against this backdrop, Tatmadaw attempts to secure the west bank of the Salween and tighten the squeeze on the Wa are unlikely to be taken lying down. Indeed, the coming months are likely to see either increasing Wa military aid channelled to Shan and other insurgent allies; or, quite possibly Wa troops -- perhaps not in their own uniforms -- moving West of the river themselves. At that point, Tatmadaw operations in central Shan state risk escalating well beyond business as usual.

Anthony Davis is a security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane's.

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