Friday, January 14, 2005

Winds of Change in Burma?

Winds of Change in Burma?

Zarni, Free Burma Coalition


Recent events, including the extension of the house arrest of the NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Thai PM accepting - and conveying - the SPDC's reasoning for her continued house arrest, and the SPDC's reduction of her personal doctor's visit from three per week to one, indicate that political polarization has deepened and the prospects for reconciliation between the two arch rivals -NLD and SPDC - are almost non-existent.

There are strident calls by NLD supporters - mostly those in the opposition - to put more pressure and to further isolate the Burmese generals.

The campaign by London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide alleges that Rangoon is committing a genocide against the Karens, Shans and Karenni in the armed conflict zones of Burma.

On its part, the SPDC is prepared, it seems pretty clear, to take a progressively tougher stance against anyone and any group that stands on its way toward "disciplined democracy (?)". The regime's internal shake-up is systematic, thorough and methodical. The mass release of prisoners, which includes some of the country's most prominent dissidents, contrasts sharply with a clear signal being delivered to ceasefire groups, especially the Wa and theunequivocal act of resumed military operations in the KNU and KNPP areas, etc.

Indeed the new management of the SPDC is categorically different from the operational management under the now deposed PM General Khin Nyunt. It is being speculated that drug-producing United Wa State Army, perhaps the most important proxy army, which the now deposed PM Khin Nyunt may have used as his strategic ally, is increasingly uneasy about the new situation which it finds itself.

One Shan news report state that the Wa slaughtered the SPDC military officers who delivered the Wa the message from Rangoon that they need to giveup their arms by Jan. 18, 2005. There are no confirmation, official or otherwise, of this reporting.

But two possible explanations exist.

There is likely to be a serious military confronation between the SPDC and the Wa.

Some among the opposition, especially select armed ethnic minority groups, may even welcome the possibility of the SPDC troops and the Wa druglords killing each other, anticipating that Beijing will back the former Communist foot soldiers in the now defunct, Beijing-backed Burmese Communist Party. Anything that would keep the common enemy in Rangoon occupied and exhausted is a goodthing, so goes the logic.

But from the perspective of Beijing, it may not be appealing to back up the communists-cum-drug-lords that use Yunnan as the major transport route of narcotics from the Wa areas to Hong Kong and beyond, turning the Wa into a proxy army. Beijing may view the SPDC as a bigger fish to fry as the latter effectively controls the State in Burma, which can better serve Beijing's strategic and economic interests in Burma.

In addition, Beijing siding with the United Wa State Army - most probably on the regime's hit list - will push Rangoon to New Delhi and Tokyo - China's regional rivals in terms of resources, market shares, and influence. So the SPDC may most probably be toying with the idea of total subjugation of what has become a mini-state within the State of Burma - something no sovereign government, however unpopular, will tolerate even conceptually.

If the speculation that SPDC officers who delivered the message to the Wa to surrender by Jan. 17, 2005 were gunned down on the spot, as contained in the Shan group's report (see this posting CarnagePersist) turns out to be true, one can expect disproportionate retalition from the SPDC in Rangoon.

Plus under General Khin Nyunt's operational leadership, the Wa have angered local Burmese populations in the heartlands of Burma who are steep in cultural genteelism. The Was are viewed as unethical and barbariceven by the mainstream society which has been forced to embrace corruption as a way of life.

If indeed the SPDC takes on the United Wa State Army, the chances of average Burmese rallying behind the SPDC are very high. Having been the weakest - and most junior - of the top three generals, General Khin Nyunt may have viewed the well-armed and well-financed Wa as a piller of his power base. But the consolidated SPDC leadership that is re-establishing a single command structure within the Armed Forces may feel it needs to switch gears and take on the challenge of disarming the most formdiable potentialenemy first - the Wa.

It may do so because none in the SPDC needs or relies on the Wa for either money or political support. For any given regime, it is a more logical decision to only sell natural gas and other marketable natural resources than striking financialdeals with druglords.

And Rangoon may also gamble that Beijing will put its longer term national interests above the ties of the past patron client relations between it and the Wa.

Also for unpopular governments wars, international or domestic, are a good way to rally ordinary people behind. For a government that is interested in the centrality of the military as national institution, what better way to remain relevant than turning the country into militaristic.

Wars will surely accomplish that goal. Plus for the sovereignty-sensitive and nationalistic Burmese, which the average Burmese are, the issue of democracy pales when it comes to maintaining the territorial integrity of the Burman-dominated nation.

In the event of serious military operations against the Wa, ASEAN response is likely to be hands-off for two reasons. For one Jakarta has its domestic war in Ache; Manila and its continuing armed conflict in Mendanaung; Thaksin's Bangkok is dealing the problems in the South.

Washington has made accusations in the past that the Wa group has links with international terrorists.

And finally, which nations that have declared "drug wars" againt narco-producing and -trafficking would oppose the SPDC using force against the Wa - if it comes down to that?Whatever the eventual outcome of the new tensions between Rangoon and Wa group, prospects for political reconciliation and economic development in Burma look grim at best and non-existent at worst.

Neither the pro-NLD West nor the NLD itself has much options either. The greatest irony is that trade and security integration of Burma into the swift currents in the region - China, India, ASEAN, etc. - may have greater liberalizing impact on the Burmese society at large than any strategically designed campaigns and campaign cries to isolate and punish the generals.

But both the NLD and its Western supporters have convinced themselves in the orthodoxy of isolation and sanctions as the change venues that they have come to undermine their own stated objective of building an open society in Burma.

Neither the NLD nor the West will likely change its coordinated course of actions, other than repeat the same tried and failed formulae.

The winds of change are blowing in Burma, but not necessarily for better. Sooner or later, the SPDC will likely march its troops onto the defiant soils of resistance, those with legitimate claims to autonomy or drug-lords that have stumbled on the concept of ethno-nationalism thus wanting their own autonomous state.