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How the Optimism About Burma is Subverted By Its Never-Ending Civil War

Since taking office in March 2011, Burmese president Thein Sein has captivated international attention by releasing political prisoners, loosening press restrictions and luring world-famous democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi back into the political mainstream. Though the end-point of Burma’s democratic spring remains ambiguous, the imprimatur of “the Lady,” as she is known, has been enough to convince Western policymakers that the reforms are real. Last month, after by-elections that saw Suu Kyi elected to parliament, the European Union announced it was suspending its long-standing economic sanctions; this week, Washington gave the green light for U.S. companies to do business in Burma for the first time since 1997. In one short year, editorial writers have gone from speaking of Burma as a poisonous pariah-state to describing it as something of a democracy-in-waiting.

Just a few hundred miles north of the former capital Rangoon, however, a very different story is unfolding. Since last June, bloody fighting has raged between government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels occupying a swathe of territory along the Chinese border. The clashes shattered a 17-year-old ceasefire that had preserved a fragile peace between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting for autonomy since the 1960s, and the Burmese military. The violence is a stark reminder of the limits to Thein Sein’s reforms—and a warning against undue optimism about Burma’s progress.

I VISITED THIS war-torn and neglected corner of Burma—accessible to journalists only via China’s Yunnan province—this spring, right before the April 1 elections that brought Suu Kyi into office. Optimism was thin on the ground. At a military hospital perched in the hills, Saw Htet Aung, 42, nursed a bullet wound sustained in March during a surprise attack on government troops. Sitting on a metal bed frame covered with a thin mattress, he talked about the distant reforms that had captured international attention and cast the Burmese regime in a rosy new light. “I have no idea about the elections,” he said when asked about Suu Kyi’s campaign for office. “If you want freedom you should fight for it.”

The fighting in Kachin State has been sporadic but deadly. More than 150 KIA troops have been killed in hundreds of jungle skirmishes since June, and tens of thousands have been driven from their homes. “They came into the village and burnt everything down,” one KIA soldier told me. A 39-year-old businessman, he enlisted in the KIA after his home was destroyed by Burmese troops in October. “Everything they saw in the village they shot—even the dogs.”

Indeed, human rights groups have accused Burmese troops of pillaging and destroying Kachins’ property, and shooting at unarmed villagers with small arms and mortars. Laiza, the border town of 7,500 that acts as the capital of the KIA’s statelet, has been put on a war footing. The town’s population has been swollen by displaced civilians, and retired soldiers, driven from their fields by the conflict, have dusted off their uniforms and re-enlisted to help the war effort. 

The state’s conflict with the Kachin Independence Army has been the most violent, but it’s just one of many ethnic conflicts raging within Burma’s borders. The country’s perennial ethnic tensions—a sort of glitch in the hardware of independent Burma—remain a key challenge to the current reform drive. Since the British quit the country in 1948 after decades of ethnic divide-and-rule, it has been in a state of near-constant civil war between the ethnic Burmese-dominated military and the minority groups occupying the mountainous periphery. Over the decades, these ethnic conflict zones have remained a country apart from the sun-kissed plains of lower Burma: an outlying belt of bloody conflict and rampant rights abuses that is largely concealed from the outside world. For a country of Burma’s diversity—around 40 percent of the population belong to minority groups, most of which only came under central control in modern times—ethnic relations are literally fundamental, not only to Burma’s democratic progress, but also to its very viability as a nation-state. 

True, there have been some small flickers of progress with some restive ethnic groups. By January, Thein Sein’s government had signed ceasefire agreements with eleven such groups, including the Karen National Union (KNU), the world’s longest-running insurgency. In April, Aung San Suu Kyi attended talks between the KNU and government representatives—an event that, due to the Lady’s presence, received wide coverage. In his annual state of the union speech in March, Thein Sein called for an end to “misunderstandings and doubts” among Burma’s ethnic groups, and made unprecedented calls for ethnic equality. Peace talks are ongoing. For many observers, the last several months have given reason to rejoice: According to Louise Arbour of the International Crisis Group, the ceasefires are a sign the government hasabandoned its old “policies of confrontation” with ethnic groups.

It’s true that these recent events represent the sort of progress that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but many ethnic leaders remain skeptical about Thein Sein’s current charm offensive. And they have reason to be cautious, given the troubled history of the last round of ceasefires. In the 1980s and early 1990s, more than a dozen ethnic armed groups, the KIA included, signed ceasefires with the Burmese government, lowering their weapons in exchange for local autonomy. But instead of laying the groundwork for a lasting peace, these agreements were little more than glorified power-sharing arrangements between the government and local elites—stop-gap deals that left Burma’s structural flaws untouched.

In particular, the old ceasefires empowered a new stratum of ethnic elites who were granted preferential access to the rich natural resources of Burma’s mountainous periphery. Part of what makes the Kachin conflict such a high-stakes fight is the region’s rich deposits of jade, gold, and timber, resources which for years have bankrolled the KIA’s war against the Burmese government—and have enriched powerful business interests in the KIA zone at the expense of the people.

During the 1990s, these arrangements also underpinned the growth of Burma’s drug trade, which (periodic cosmetic drug-burning exercises notwithstanding) continues to flourish. Most narcotics production takes place in parts of Shan State along the Thai and Chinese borders, a sort of Wild East that the last round of ceasefires balkanized into a patchwork of “special zones” under the control of a range of armed groups and warlords. The largest of these—and a major player in the Burmese narcotics industry—is the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), formed from former Burmese communist fighters in 1989.

According to some democracy activists, the current ceasefire agreements have done little so far to alter the political dynamics established by the old ceasefires. “What the Burmese government’s doing now is making very basic steps and being given outlandish credibility for it,” says David Scott Mathieson, the senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch. In September, for instance, the UWSA signed a new ceasefire with the central government, cementing its de facto independence and role at the center of the country’s drug trade.

With Western investment on the horizon, the Burmese government is now pressing hard for a ceasefire agreement with the Kachin resistance that it can present to Western nations as proof of “progress” on the ethnic issue, the KIA’s head negotiator, Sumlut Gam, told me. He’s hesitant, though. “They want us to sign a ceasefire agreement quickly, but we want to make a political dialogue and sign a more permanent kind of agreement,” he says. Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Burma Partnership (a network of pro-democracy groups) agreed. “If these ceasefires are just rushed in and pushed to the point where development project aid or special economic zones or foreign investors are brought in, there will be far more human rights violations,” she says.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the Burmese military, whose central role in government and business has continued despite (or, arguably, because of) the recent reforms, and remains a chief font of distrust for ethnic minority leaders. In December, a presidential order for the Burmese military to halt fighting in Kachin State ahead of peace talks was apparently ignored, casting doubt on whether Thein Sein, a former general, even has any control over his former colleagues. Most groups also oppose the country’s new constitution, passed by a bogus mass plebiscite in 2008, which reserves a quarter of the seats in parliament for the military. Suu Kyi and the NLD only occupy around 7 percent of the seats, making any legislative challenge to this military-political nexus unlikely.

To be sure, Thein Sein’s political reforms have been significant, and the raucous street celebrations that greeted Suu Kyi’s election in early April were a potent symbol that Burma has turned onto a new path. But for signs of Burma’s future, the West should look beyond the Lady’s activities to the country’s simmering conflicts. It's here, on the country’s troubled periphery, that the long Burmese fight for peace and democracy may well be won or lost. 

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who reports widely on the Asia-Pacific.