The view from the ground.

The Center Cannot Hold

Burma's ethnic groups are quietly preparing for war against the central government.

MYANMAR OUT Kachin ethnic tribes people are seen at the state flag hoisting ceremony to mark the 60th Anniversary Independence Day Celebration at the City Hall in Naypyidaw, 04 January 2007. Military-run Myanmar put on a show of defiance on the 60th anniversary of independence from Britain amid global pressure for reform following the junta's bloody crackdown on dissent. MYANMAR OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

LAIZA, Burma — Standing over a freshly dug trench, Maj. Aung Myat points to a group of soldiers from the Burmese national army in the near distance on the Sino-Burma border. “They really want our ‘Prostitute Fort.'” he says, using the front-line post’s local nickname, inspired by the decadent pastimes of the British soldiers stationed there during World War II.

The mood is calm at the front-line base on the Sino-Burma border, but all the soldiers fear the looming offensive. Aung Myat, still staring at the fort, declares, “It would be the first base in their path to attacking our headquarters.”

Myat and his soldiers have good reason to be afraid. In November of last year, his forces, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), rejected a proposal from Burma’s military government to become a “Border Guard Force.” It was a nice euphemism for the junta’s attempt to gain more control over the border regions. And mostly, it seemed a convenient way to co-opt a 4,000-man ethnic army to lay down their weapons and pledge allegiance to the central government.

The KIA wasn’t interested. “We will never agree to their proposal,” Lama Gum Hpan, the secretary of the Kachin Independence Council (KIC), which de facto governs the region, said this March. “If we accept [the Burmese government’s offer], the whole struggle by the people for our Kachin land will be in vain,” Lama Gum Hpan says.

Formed in 1961, the KIA’s raison d’être was to defend their region from Burmese troops and create an independent Kachin state. Previously, in 1949, the Kachin and other ethnic groups in the region signed an agreement under the watchful eye of the departing British colonials to form a federal union. However, when the ethnic leaders felt the Burmese government was not respecting the agreement, many took up arms and engaged in grueling guerrilla wars with the Burmese army in the jungle.

Most of these ethnic groups tired of the fight and signed cease-fire agreements in the early 1990s, but three decades later, some of these ethnic armies, like the KIA, still fight. Over the last year, the Kachins’ predicament — and that of all of Burma’s ethnic minorities — has taken a turn for the worse. In the run-up to last year’s national elections, the Burmese government reached out to the ethnic militias, but when their détente proposals were spurned, they lashed out. The ethnic Shan Army, who also rejected the regime’s proposal, has been locked in battles with the Burmese army since February. In 2009, another “cease-fire army,” the Kokang, was wiped out in a matter of days, sending thousands of refugees fleeing into China.

The Kachin worry that they could meet the same fate, and they’re not taking any chances. Already, the signs of confrontation are looming: On Oct. 15, Burma’s state-run newspaper labeled the KIA as “insurgents” for the first time in 16 years. Over 20 liaison offices between the Kachin community and the Burmese government have been closed across the country and all official communications cut. This February, a weeklong fight occurred between Kachin and Burmese forces, resulting in the death of one Burmese commander. On May 18 the Burmese government fired mortar shells at a KIA outpost. Burmese troops have since withdrawn from the region.

In preparation for renewed civil war, the KIA has increased front-line troops, the production of guns, training of civilians and their surveillance of Burmese army activity. At a large hall in KIA territory, over 150 young cadets have just completed a heavy-artillery training course. It’s the first such class conducted by the KIA in over five years. It’s not that the KIA is looking for war, their leaders say. “We don’t want to fight with the Burmese army, but if they attack us, we will defend our land,” says Lama Gum Hpan.

The KIA is also waiting to see what the new central government, elected last fall and sworn in on April 1, will do. The new government was presented as a sort of transition, from firm military rule in civilian leadership, though the leadership of the party that came to power was composed of a handful of speciallyselected military leaders. Few Burmese are under any illusions that this semi-junta will bring about much change.

On the issue of minorities in particular, the signs don’t look good. Several Kachin parties were barred from participating in the election, and the largest ethnic minority group, the United State Wa Army, chose to sit out. The Burmese military leaders have also ruled out the possibility of respecting the minority rights enshrined in the 1947 Panglong agreement that granted Burma’s independence from the British. When Kachin leaders pleaded their case recently for an autonomous region under the terms of that peace agreement, Maj. Soe Win, the Burmese commander in charge of the regime’s northern command told the KIA leaders, “The age of Panglong has been canceled and it is gone now.”

In such a context, the minorities have begun to realize that their best chance at individual survival might be banding together as one opposition block. This February the KIA decided to work with other ethnic groups to form the United Nationalities Federal Council-Union of Burma (UNFC), which will unite all the ethnic armies. “If it all goes according to plan, all the ethnic groups involved will have to abide by a series of principles to help and support each other,” says Lama Gum Hpan. If one ethnic group comes under assault, for example, other militias could come to their defense. Negotiating with the junta could also be easier with a single, stronger hand to play. “It is a collective effort by the ethnics to find a political situation to Burma’s ethnic problems,” says Lama Gum Hpan.

It’s not the first time, though, that the ethnic minorities have formed an alliance to stand up against the Burmese government. Over the years, several coalitions have been formed, though with little success. Lama Gum Hpan blames this on the lack of communication between the groups, as well as their difficulties reaching out to the outside world: The Burmese generals have ensured that the ethnic leaders face travel restrictions in neighboring countries.

But such a coalition may ultimately have time on its side. “It seems unlikely that the new Myanmar government would want to start its term of office by provoking renewed armed conflict in cease-fire areas,” suggests Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.

Indeed, the very reason that the junta organized last year’s national election was to regain some measure of legitimacy on the international stage — legitimacy that a renewed civil war would dash.

Still, military action may be in the works, and the Kachin see no alternative than to prepare for its possibility. Aung Kyaw Zaw, a military analyst on the Sino-Burma border, sitting outside a tea shop in Jeogao town on the Sino-Burma border, predicts the fighting will begin this summer. “After the rainy season, in June, they will attack the Kachin before they have a chance to unite with the other ethnic armies,” he says.

While the Burmese government will prefer to avoid major offensives, opting to divide the ethnic organizations, war may be unavoidable. And when it comes, the repercussions will be dire: Millions of refugees will flood into neighboring countries, and Burma’s already fragile economy will crumble as trade routes become blocked by fighting.

But for now, Burma’s beleaguered ethnic groups have no choice but to prepare for the inevitable. At a basic training camp down the hill from the Kachin headquarters, a ragtag bunch of new recruits, in plain green boiler suits, do gun drills as the sun fades behind a mountain. There are men and women, old and young, and a variety of ethnicities. Despite their varied backgrounds, they are united by their commitment to the cause. “I’m ready to die for my people, and for my land,” one cadet says before marching off to his next drill.

Alex Ellgee is a British freelance journalist based in Thailand covering ethnic conflict, politics, and human rights issues across the world.

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