Chiang Mai, Thailand - Just weeks after Myanmar's government claimed a historic ceasefire agreement with the rebel Karen National Union, the crackle of gunfire once again sounded in the country's east.
Amid jubilation that the world's longest-running civil war could be nearing an end, a Myanmar battalion on 24 January shelled a camp in Karen state housing internally displaced persons. Already attuned to life in the volatile frontier region, the camp's inhabitants fled, adding to the migration of civilians that have spent more than 60 years fleeing back and forth between their villages and jungle hideouts, pursued by marauding Myanmar troops. The shelling, and other reports of clashes since 12 January when the two sides shook hands, spotlights the fragility of these ceasefires.
The Karen war has been raging
Chiang Mai, Thailand - Just weeks after news reports emerged of a historic ceasefire agreement between Myanmar's government and the rebel Karen National Union, the crackle of gunfire once again sounded in the country's east.
Amid jubilation that the world's longest-running civil war could be nearing an end, a Myanmar battalion on January 24 shelled a camp in Karen state housing internally displaced persons. Already attuned to life in the volatile frontier region, the camp's inhabitants fled, adding to the migration of civilians that have spent more than 60 years fleeing back and forth between their villages and jungle hideouts, pursued by marauding Myanmar troops.
The shelling, and other reports of clashes since January 12 when the two sides shook hands, spotlights the fragility of these ceasefires.
Further north in Shan state, a similar situation has unfolded: Opposition Shan State Army (SSA) troops attempting to withdraw last week from locations in the east of the state - one of a number of points agreed upon when a truce was signed in January - came under fire from Myanmar soldiers who had blocked their exit. The SSA's chief, Yawd Serk, later told followers that the government had downgraded its peace efforts, and once again its frontline troops are on high alert.
While budgets and by-elections are being hotly debated in the capital, President Thein Sein’s much-vaunted reform programme is not being witnessed in the border regions. Disparate ethnic minority groups there have long been sidelined from the political process, and conflict and coercion (including a ban on schools from teaching in the native tongue) has been used to attempt to assimilate them into the Burman majority.
But there is another increasingly evident disconnect between Naypyidaw and Myanmar’s periphery: Thein Sein appears now to have little control over his army. Twice in the past two months he has ordered troops to end attacks on rebels, with little success.
Any hope for a quick solution to the civil war is naive: Mutual animosity in these border regions runs deep, and distrust of the government is entrenched throughout these ethnic groups.
The Karen war has been raging since 1948, following an insurrection aimed at securing an independent Karen state (a result of a promise to the Karen from the departing British that never materialised), and the collateral in eastern Myanmar has been huge: More than half a million people are internally displaced in the unforgiving frontier terrain, while nearly 150,000 populate camps in neighbouring Thailand. Researchers have also documented some 3,300 villages razed by the Myanmar army.
So in this context the jubilation that initially greeted the agreement is understandable - any possible end to such a drawn-out and debased conflict should be celebrated.
But time and again Naypyidaw has reneged on past deals struck with ethnic armies. The KNU themselves are highly suspicious of the motives at play within the government, and are aware that bringing a decades-old struggle for autonomy to an end before that goal is properly realised will anger those who have lost much in this fight. Even the KNU's vice president, David Takapaw, told the New York Times this week that, "The grass roots are very much concerned that it [signing the ceasefire] went too quickly - they thought it was a sell-out. There is a feeling that we have been cheated."
This points to a tension within the ranks of the group at a time of great flux. But it also signals a gulf in thinking between those involved in the conflict, and the outside players attempting to influence events in Myanmar.
The EU and US say an end to the civil war is a perquisite for lifting sanctions and kick-starting business, a prospect that has guided the reform efforts of the new government, which cloaks its public overtures to ethnic armies in the rhetoric of human rights. These same people steering the government towards becoming an acceptable ally, who have applauded the ceasefires, somewhat naively see the conflict itself as the main problem in Karen state, rather than the heavy militarisation of rural regions that will linger way beyond any nominal truce to ensure that genuine peace remains a distant prospect.
Despite the fanfare, these ceasefire deals do not signify a valediction to a Myanmar of old. Rather, the priorities of the government have changed. While the former junta was explicit about wishing to see ethnic groups either assimilated ("Burmanised"), pacified or wiped out, Thein Sein has been forced to adopt a different approach that nevertheless seeks to bring the majority of the country under Naypyidaw's control. More pro-market than any past administration, he has put Myanmar through the facelift necessary to attract foreign investment and to ensure those investors can safely exploit the conflict-torn border regions where resistant armies currently hinder access to natural resources.
He first tried to do this using sheer force. In 2010 the government offered rebels one of two ultimatums: assimilate into the Myanmar army as Border Guard Forces or get crushed.
Widespread refusals to transform into border militias triggered a wave of fighting last year, and what had been lasting ceasefires between the government and three armed groups - the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army (North) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army - were broken. In Kachin state, which until June last year had enjoyed relative peace for the past 17 years, up to 55,000 people are now displaced.
Failure to rout these groups, in battles that pitched rebels knowledgeable of their terrain against teenage soldiers often deployed from urban areas, forced Thein Sein along a different path. While the finer detail of the Karen talks have not been revealed, it is highly likely that the president's negotiating team offered the KNU sizeable business concessions along the frontier with Thailand, where cross-border trade in timber and other goods can generate significant returns. It would be a tantalising prospect for the group, which for decades has relied on small-scale logging ventures for revenue while the likes of the Kachin, who signed ceasefires in the mid-1990s, profited from lucrative exports of teak and jade to China.
But the deals will not create fully autonomous zones for the Karen, which had become the group's key demand in recent decades. Instead it appears troops from each side will be able to pass through one another's territory; with that, the potential for abuse of civilians by the Myanmar army remains high. Moreover, with a record that suggests heavy militarisation of regions rich in energy potential is a requirement for Myanmar, the looming investment in Karen state and elsewhere, much of which will focus on hydropower and mining, brings the threat of greater troop presence.
The Karen Human Rights Group, whose teams document abuses of civilians in the volatile state, warned in a report late last year that rosy assessments of Myanmar were being made by the international community without heeding the voices of rural people, who remain off the radar for visiting dignitaries but whose situation makes them - not outside observers - the best placed to gauge the quality of reform.
It also forewarned that nascent ceasefire deals would not necessarily mean an end to violence: "Viewing the current human rights situation in eastern Burma only through the narrow lens of the horrors of war distorts the reality of the situation and ignores the devastating effects of ingrained abusive practices."
The fire fights in Karen state are the more prominent face of a litany of problems stemming from militarisation that include forced labour, land confiscation, forcible recruitment, pillage, and so on. These will remain as long as Naypyidaw feels it necessary to keep troops in areas with populations that do not want to be brought under his control, particularly within whose lands lie precious bounty for the country's rulers.
A rushed ceasefire deal is a short-term fix for a government bent on winning plaudits, but will not solve the core problems that keep these border regions perennial areas of flight for their inhabitants.
Francis Wade is a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, and has written this article in a personal capacity.
Source: Al Jazeera