Why Burma's rebels have every reason to be suspicious of government emissaries talking peace.
In early November, negotiators from the Burmese government traveled to the northern town of Myitkyina to confer with representatives from a conglomeration of ethnic rebel groups. It was the first time in decades of warfare that government officials sat down with the combined leadership of Burma’s rebel movements, inspiring praise from the United Nations.
But the optimistic news coverage neglected to question the presence of another interest group at the meeting: the Chinese. With billions of dollars invested in energy, mining, and logging projects in Kachin state, China has a lot at stake in the outcome of this conflict, which has threatened its access to the area’s abundant resources. Its involvement served as a palpable reminder (as if anyone needed it) that peace talks between the government and ethnic rebels aren’t just about political differences. They’re also very much about business.
That’s a hard truth that’s all too often neglected in coverage of the continuing efforts to find a practical agenda for peace. China is but one of many players in the scramble to capitalize on the fantastically abundant natural resources in Burma’s border regions, which run the gamut from teak to minerals to hydropower, not to mention Kachin state’s $8 billion jade industry. The Burmese government used past ceasefires as an opportunity to plunder areas inhabited by local ethnic groups, prompting additional armed conflict while complicating efforts to resolve it. Indeed, the government’s recent reform push may be attempting to do the same thing. All signs suggest that the government is hoping to exploit the bounty of Burma’s periphery as it opens to foreign investment.
This issue is one of the primary irritants underlying the government’s fight with the rebels in Kachin state. Among Burma’s many ethnic groups, the Kachin have particular experience with the Burmese government’s malformed "peace." In 1994, the government managed to broker a peace agreement that ended decades of civil war. But the ceasefire did not mean that the regime began to take the Kachin’s interests into consideration. During the 17-year ceasefire period, the Kachin watched as their state was carved up and sold to regime-aligned corporations — usually with little benefit to the people who lived there.
Following the 1994 deal, Burmese and Chinese firms moved in to control the local economy, whittling small businesses down to nothing, and bringing in thousands of migrant workers who forced the Kachin out of jobs. The influx of migrant workers and rising poverty rates had a corrosive effect on Kachin society. At the same time, the Kachin’s land was cordoned off for corporate exploitation. Nearly 20 percent of the state’s land was allocated for mining, while nearly 200,000 acres of land in the Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve were set aside for biofuel crops. Shortly after the 1994 agreement, the government rolled out plans to build seven dams along the N’Mai and Mali Rivers to be financed by China. When they are completed, most of the output will go to China, ignoring local energy needs. This will only ramp up anti-business feelings among the Kachin.
And in 1994, the exploitation of the ceasefire didn’t stop at business. The Burmese army used the ceasefire period to bolster its presence in Kachin state. This meant that when the Burmese troops launched an assault on Kachin rebels in June 2011 — intentionally rekindling the war — they had a strategic advantage. Battalions were already stationed en masse across the state, ready to widen the conflict. Moreover, because the ceasefire had blurred territorial boundaries, government troops were able to block fleeing civilians reentering rebel-controlled areas. In the face of violent conflict, these civilians could not get home. This nightmare scenario continues today, as evidenced by the thousands of civilians who fled after fresh clashes broke out less than a fortnight ago. Conversely then, the ceasefire period allowed greater militarization of the region, and eroded the security of its people.
It’s no coincidence then that the Kachin faction is reluctant to sign a deal before knowing what the Burmese government plans for the state’s resources. Doing so may presage a repeat of the destructive business practices that have steadily eaten away at the state. The Kachin have noted the eerie parallels between this round of talks and those in 1994. The presence of Chinese observers at this week’s ceasefire talks suggests that Beijing’s interests in the outcome of the conflict are as pressing as they were 20 years ago. Despite various rounds of talks this year where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) pressed the government to come clean on its plans for the state after the proposed ceasefire, the two sides have continually failed to cement a political deal that would demarcate territory and delegate rights to resources.
For an ethnic group that has long called for autonomy, the prospect of another ceasefire without a political resolution to these chronic problems is unthinkable. In that respect, foreign governments who used the Myanmar Peace Center — widely considered a mascot for the government’s reformist agenda — to hurry ethnic armies into laying down their arms either do not understand the source of the Kachin’s reluctance, or are practicing willful, perhaps even strategic, denial. Burma’s border regions have a reputation as a final untapped energy market, and that is a tough incentive to ignore.
If the Kachin had any doubts that the government is prioritizing business, last year’s talks in Karen state would dispel them. In early 2012, the government was able to hammer out a ceasefire agreement with the Karen National Union (KNU) following decades of conflict — but only by encouraging pro-business Karen officials to deviate from the more hard-line faction. These pro-business officials agreed to open a liaison office in exchange for development assistance that would open the door to large-scale investment in the region, which is rich in gold, hydropower, and possibly even shale gas.
This same pro-business group participated in ceasefire talks with the government in 2011 that included delegates from Dawei Princess, a local partner in a massive deep-sea port project under construction close to the Karen’s territory. The delegates were invited despite resistance from the KNU. The make-up of these early meetings offered an early indication of the business dimension to the ceasefire talks.
Opening the doors for foreign development has had serious consequences for the people of Karen state. A 2012 report by Physicians for Human Rights spotlighted the link between extractive projects and rights abuses in the region. It warned that people who lived near a dam, pipeline, or mine were "almost eight times more likely to have been forced to work for the army and over six times more likely to have been uprooted or had restrictions placed on their travel." (A useful National Geographic map offers visual evidence for this.) The half a million peopl
e displaced by war in eastern Burma hope to return to their land soon, but as the Kachin who returned after the 1994 ceasefire found, this land may now belong to someone else.
Rather than working to compromise with the KNU, the government decided to open a fissure in the one entity that commands respect across Karen society. The Burmese government may have won a flimsy ceasefire, but the prospects for lasting peace in a region familiar with the duplicity and abusive tactics of the Burmese army are slim.
On top of all this, the parliament passed a new foreign investment law earlier this year that offers attractive incentives for business in Burma. It also conveniently places the regulation of harmful practices in the hands of the Burmese government, which has historically shown no inclination toward responsible investment. It is likely that companies will be free to operate in the same way they have for years, and with the same consequences.
Everyone from corporate clients, to foreign governments, to the Burmese military seems to be entering the fray to advocate for what Kevin Woods calls "ceasefire capitalism" — that familiar shadowy nexus of military, political, and business elites that has dominated Burma’s economy for 50 years, exploiting periods of calm to assert control over land. Everyone, that is, except for the ethnic groups at the center of these talks. It certainly seems that Burma is in danger of repeating history by tainting its peace negotiations with the interests of those who do not prioritize peace. Away from the optimistic talk greeting the ceasefire negotiations lies the ugly side of the reform process. All told, civilians face many of the same dangers they did during wartime.