Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Myanmar's minorities face multi-faced jeopardy

Asia Times Online

The international community, whose Western representatives so readily flock to Myanmar in both good will and selfish interest, is often an unwitting contributor to the country's persistent instability. This will likely lead not to intended peace but to more unwanted war until certain facts are fully faced.

Today Myanmar is essentially a massive Land Rush, the likes of which the world has not seen since America's Sooners swept across the state of Oklahoma grabbing up the ancestral lands of native American Indians who were in the way of "progress". Myanmar's "last frontier markets" have become cash cows for various Western governments, businesses and aid agencies, a cause celebre to promote their causes, agendas and budgets.

For all of President Thein Sein's reformist professions and gestures that leverage international favor for immunity from close scrutiny, the facts about real reform in this troubled but promising land are ominous and enduring. The pressure to deliver on reforms will mount ahead of national elections in 2015, the assumption of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's (ASEAN) chair this year, and the balancing act of leveraging Western economic alliances to counter China's expansionism.

After decades of debilitating military rule, base survivalism, not enlightened reform, is on the march today in Thein Sein's Myanmar. While the face of reform may appear confident, there are cracks just below the cosmetic surface. Nowhere is that more evident than with ongoing ethnic tensions, including but not confined to the armed conflict in Kachin State. Ethnic armies have confounded Burman generals and foot soldiers on the battlefield for decades.

Aside from their demographic dominance of half of Myanmar's landmass and effective control of national borders and international trade routes, and natural resource and hydro-power wealth, there are other sources of ethnic minority group's power in adversity. Malcolm Gladwell, in his most recent book David and Goliath, reminds us of the dangerous, if not decisive advantage of "men who have nothing to lose". The bright international hopes and dreams for Myanmar are dangerously on the cusp of not heeding this danger.

Ethnic minority groups now face an octagonal jeopardy that is being aided and aggravated by the international community's good and ill intentions. This, as we shall see, is an eight-sided ambush from which minority groups alone cannot extract themselves.

With streams of unprecedented aid, development and business interests pouring into the country, most are overlooking as inconvenient decades-old ethnic struggles for autonomy and control of their own political and economic destinies. If ethnic groups did not have unambiguous armed capacity that has killed Burmese infantry in staggering numbers, then so-called "ethnic matters" might be easily relegated to the fringes. That, however, is not the case. As impolitic it is to talk about "armed might" in Myanmar's reformist circles, deadly capacity still determines who wields ultimate power in many ethnic areas. Naypyidaw's new bid to consolidate power vis-a-vis ethnics, a new drive with both tacit and overt international backing, could push many of them through a complex jeopardy to the point of final desperation.

The first of the eight sides to jeopardy is that ethnic leaders have so far been forced to negotiate with Thein Sein and his aides, who have no real power to make meaningful concessions. Experts estimate that Thein Sein remains accountable only to his military masters and their associated business cronies who pull strings from behind the scenes. This essentially means that any agreements reached with ethnic groups will not be enforceable without military agreement. Ethnic leaders know this interface with Thein Sein and his delegates is a farce but the international community believes in it. Ethnics thus fall prey to Burman negotiators' stalling tactics. This buys precious time that contributes to the Myanmar government's longevity and perceived legitimacy. Ethnics can do little about it as the clock ticks down to national elections in 2015.

Second, by using Thein Sein as their buffer, ethnic Burman generals enjoy a zone of separation from direct confrontation by ethnics and the rest of the world on the hard facts about toughest issues. This provides essential sanctuary that gives generals freedom of action in the shadows to continue to amass and wield real power. This power has been historically based on profits from stolen ethnic ancestral lands rich in natural resources. Nothing has changed here, as Burman generals have shown no intention of relinquishing these lucrative lands.

Burman elites now in power have essentially become unassailable by ethnics, who would otherwise look like "spoilers" to progress in the eyes of the international community if they protested too much. These two pillars are, therefore, the foundation of Burman exclusion from accountability which feed into the other aspects of ethnics' octagonal jeopardy.

The third component of this jeopardy comes in the form of peace talks and ceasefires fronted by Burmans as good-will gestures of intended reform. Facts get in the way of this assertion, however. Ethnics are forced to put on a happy face for the world, while being quietly coerced into peace negotiations that are corrupted from behind the scenes.

In parallel, the Myanmar Army continues to expand its forward basing, hardens its outposts, installs attack helicopter landing sites and conducts aggressive intelligence and reconnaissance operations to pinpoint ethnic resistance nodes. It also openly continues attacks against the ethnic Kachin, a fact that astounds ethnic leaders who are totally confounded by the international community's lack of outrage at the unfolding humanitarian crisis and credible evidence of state-sponsored war crimes.

International wedge
The fourth factor comes in the form of international aid, development and business being manipulated and leveraged by Burman power elites for extraordinary advantage over ethnics. Burmans' insistence on control of these resources results in deftly wielded "soft power". International funds have thus been used as a wedge to penetrate ethnic regions and accomplish the dominance that Burmans themselves have been incapable of until now.

The penetration comes in the form of land confiscation, population control, installation of Burmese bureaucracies, mandated use of the Burmese language and the creation of ethnic villagers' dependencies on foreign resources brokered by Burman elites. This is effectively international support for Burman-led counter-insurgency operations. Internationally hand-cuffed ethnics can only watch it all play out before their eyes.

The growing profit logic of the international community comprises the fifth aspect of jeopardy. This community, in the main, has abandoned consideration of accountability for Burman crimes against humanity and oppression perpetrated by previous military regimes against ethnic minorities for decades. This is because Myanmar is a treasure trove of untapped resources and markets, and assures nongovernmental organizations and aid agencies rich funding for years to come. These international interveners need Myanmar's many dire symptoms to thrive but without having to fully delve into root causes and associated issues.

Decades of systemic oppression by past Burman-led repressive regimes have degraded ethnic groups' bureaucratic capacity and exposed them to the sixth side of jeopardy. The Myanmar government, which harbors and hides many of the same old Burman power brokers from the previous regime, now uses this diminished ethnic status to promote itself as the only worthy authority for the international community to engage. This begs the issue that Burman governance has somehow ascended from its dark and not very distant past.

It also ignores the obligation to now heavily weight capacity building in order for ethnics to "catch up". If international aid, however, is compelled by Burmans to be routed through them to ethnics, as is presently the case, then that effectively puts the fox in charge of the henhouse. This is maddening to ethnics who did most of the dying by facing down the Burmese Army on the battlefield in league with the pro-democracy movement. It smacks of international betrayal that pushes many ethnics toward an emotional tipping point.

The seventh aspect of ethnic groups' octagonal jeopardy is "The Gap". The tragedy of ethnics providing at gunpoint the natural resources that have made the Burmans elites of today powerful and rich is still unfolding. Ethnics are now at an extraordinary disadvantage with atrophied human, organizational, economic and military capacities. Even if they were treated with equal resources by the international community, they would still remain heavily disadvantaged.

The capacity gap widens with each international interloper who is compelled to channel resources through Burmans-in-charge. The lack of fundamental fairness to ethnics after all these years perplexes elders who were faithful allies to the Free World during World War II. In tribal societies that defer to elders, this lack of respect and honor from the international community is no small matter.

The eighth aspect is viewed by many ethnics as the final insult. Those who were compelled to take up arms by virtue of oppressive rule both during and since World War II are now effectively being punished for protecting their people - an internationally recognized right. This is a twisted logic that so called "hard-liner" ethnics cannot fathom. Their insistence today to continue to bear arms against Myanmar Army aggression is a moral stance that causes them to be mischaracterized as "bad boys" or "incorrigibles".

The illogic of this is further compounded by the world's acceptance of certain corrupted ethnic leaders as legitimate. These have been bought off, cowed and are now taking an obedient seat at Burman-set peace negotiation tables. At the same time, international deference to the Myanmar's rights-abusing military is beyond many principled ethnic leaders' reasonable comprehension.

It should then come as no surprise when things do not turn out well for international diplomats, businessman and NGO representatives. The failure to recognize the widening and deepening chasm of discontent among ethnics is nearly universal in the international community. Ethnic civilizations that hark back thousands of years are being forced step by step to accept the final fate of systemic disempowerment that will "Burmanize" them once and for all. This has long been the enduring intent of Burman power elites who fundamentally fear the prospect of empowered ethnics strategically placed on trade routes, border regions and atop massive natural resource wealth.

Myanmar's ethnics, faced with this eight-sided dilemma, have everything to lose if they do not take bold action. The survival instincts of ethnic freedom fighters have historically defended their lands and people against Burmese infantry by killing them by some estimates at upwards of 100:1 ratios. These fighters - not their compromised and co-opted elders in corrupted peace talks - will inevitably have the final word on the future of their lands and destinies.
Tim Heinemann is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, who is a contract trainer for the US Department of Defense in the fields of Conflict Resolution, Counter-insurgency and Counter-terrorism.