Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Regional Powers Involvement in Ethnic Conflict: Ukraine and Burma

Shan Herald Agency for News Jun 3, 2015

The paradigm of “secession as an ethnic conflict resolution” rears its head again, as United Wa State Army (UWSA) asked for sympathy and endorsement for its aspiration of state-level administration, during the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) leaders’ summit meeting at Panghsang from 1 to to 6 May.

The Wa were not even asking for secession from the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, but merely an upgrade from Wa Self-Administrative Division to a state-level status within the union, but the alarm and disapproval followed immediately from the government and as well, from Shan State politicians and resistance armies.

Hkun Htun Oo has openly shown his displeasure and angst for the Wa’s state-level status aspirations, which would be carved out of Shan State territory, if approved and granted by the government.

In The Irrawaddy report of 6 May, Hkun Htun Oo, Chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), regarding the Wa’s state-level status aspiration drive, said “ The situation now is already out of hand. I want to make one thing clear and that is not to become like Crimea. The recent situation is that the government doesn’t have political power influence. It is affecting the regime’s three guiding principles. Infringement of sovereignty shouldn’t exist. All should know what will happen, if a place where government political power influence could not be reached is given a national state status ”.

The Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) and Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) both participants of the Panghsang summit meeting were tight-lipped and would only say that they have nothing to comment and neither endorse nor reject the Wa aspirations. The Shans, who call themselves “Tai” and the majority ethnic group within Shan State, were taken aback by the Wa’s demand for they consider Wa inhabited areas are part of Shan State and shouldn’t be dismembered in any way.

Still the outrage and rejection of The Global New Light of Myanmar’s opinion piece, on 20 May, titled, “ Outcome of Pang Seng conference and the true identity of UWSA ”, which is owned by the government and is seen as its mouthpiece, is surprising, given that all five out of six self-administrative areas are cut out of Shan State and naturally, many Shan patriots and politicians see this as the regime’s ploy to undercut “ Shan nationalism” and subdue political influence of the Shan as a whole. It writes:

“ In careful analysis of the behavior of the UWSA, it is quite evident that they are out of Central government control and with the expansion of their troop strength, antagonist characteristics became obvious. It can be concluded that whatever they have been saying about non-secession from the union their true intention is the opposite. It is plainly simple that they have been on the path towards secession from the union for the whole time.”

“ Civil administrative positions are being taken by ethnic Chinese and local culture is being swallowed and overwhelmed by the Chinese one. Official language is Chinese and circulating money is Chinese Renminbi (Yuan) while local dialect and literature are also becoming Chinese.”

“ Now is the time to monitor if they all are real ethnic Wa tribesmen or if they are (Chinese) people pretending to be (Was) and trying to use Wa image for their own selfish interests. UWSA is known to be running weapons manufacturing factories and also in possession of anti aircraft missile. News reports also indicated that they are in the possession of helicopters and armoured cars with the help of their friends across the border. Their army is reported to have a force of 30,000 troops with another 10,000 in reserve.”

This hysteria and angst atmosphere are compounded by the Kokang armed conflict and make the already decaying trust between the Burman-dominated military regime, which is said to be working to achieve national reconciliation, and non-Burman ethnic nationalities.

The Kokang conflict that has started in earnest in early February this year, when the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), also known as Kokang group, headed by Peng Jiasheng made a forceful comeback. He and his army were driven out by the then military government of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and replace him with his former deputy, in 2009, to lead the Kokang Self-Administrative Zone. His homecoming or reclaiming back the authority, according to Peng’s interpretation, was met with Burma Army (BA’s) all-out military offensive that continues until today.

But the problem becomes more sophisticated with the Kokangnese appealing to the Chinese brethren across the border and international Chinese communities to come to their aid, which they clearly see it as an act of “ethnic cleansing” meted out against the population by the BA military onslaught.

Reportedly, many Chinese social network publications responded with moral backing and sympathy, mainly the Chinese from China and international Chinese communities to a lesser extent, that has complicated the already precarious situation. Some interpret the recent Chinese military drill, with live ammunition, opposite Kokang area across the border in Yunnan province, as an indication of yielding to the Chinese public uproar on the issue, apart from the security concern of the Chinese population along the Burma-China border.

The ongoing military offensives of the Burma Army starting from February of this year fails to dislodge the MNDAA until today, due to the Chinese support, directly or indirectly, according to the accusation from the Burmese government quarters, which is categorically denied by China.

As the Wa and Kokang situation is being compared to Crimea annexation of Russia and the ongoing war waged in eastern Ukraine since early 2014, with ethnic Russians from Ukraine and Russian armed forces on one side and the Ukrainian government troops on the other, it would make sense to look into both settings of conflict, if any generalization could be drawn to resolve this kind of conflict.

Historical Background of Ukraine-Russia Conflict

The ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict and the internal Ukrainian and ethnic Russian ethnic conflict that we are seeing today stems from a deadly famine that Stalin engineered back in 1932. According to Andrea Chalupa, posting in Time, on 17 December 2013, “ East Ukraine was once as nationalistic and Ukrainian-speaking as Western Ukraine is today. The dramatic transformation of the area was a result of ethnic cleansing. In 1932 a famine engineered by Stalin killed up to an estimated 10 million people, mostly in East Ukraine. Beginning in 1933, the Soviets replaced them with millions of deported Russians. Western Ukraine was then part of Poland and spared. Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the word genocide, used the Ukrainian famine as an example.”

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. The country is roughly divided between pro-Russian East and pro-European West. The internal Ukrainian crisis started when in November 2013, President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal for greater integration with the European Union, sparking mass protests. Consequently, Yanukovych attempted to put down the protests violently. Ever since the start of this Ukrainian crisis, the United States and European Union supported the protesters, while Yanukovych was backed by the Russian.

In February 2014, anti-government protests toppled the government and Yanukovych fled the country. By the end of February, Russia invaded Crimea and the following month annexed it into the Russian Federation. In April, pro-Russia separatist rebels began seizing territory in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government launched a military counter-offensive against the ethnic Russian rebels, that had led to the ongoing War in Donbass. From late 2014, cities outside of the Donbass combat zone, such as Kharkiv, Odessa, Kiev and Mariupol were struck by bombings that targeted pro-Ukrainian unity organizations.
According to Amnesty International report, on 22 May 2015, sustained fighting erupted in eastern Ukraine that summer, amidst compelling evidence of Russian military involvement. The intensity of the fighting has ebbed and flowed since that time. To date, more than 6,200 people have been killed as a result of the conflict; over a million have been displaced—some fleeing to neighboring countries—and tens of thousands of civilian homes have been damaged or destroyed.

A ceasefire agreement between the Ukrainian government and the separatists was reached on 5 September 2014 at negotiations in Minsk, Belarus; it reduced but did not stop the fighting. Additional protocols, aimed at ensuring the implementation of the cease-fire, were signed later, but these have also failed to put an end to hostilities.

Most recently, on 11 February 2015, the “Minsk II” protocol was signed by Ukraine, Russia, separatists and the OSCE. Although its provisions have not been fully implemented, it has, to date, significantly reduced the intensity of the fighting. Nonetheless, armed clashes continue in some areas, and many fear that more intense fighting could recommence at any time.

Crimea annexation and war in Donbass

The geographically, and strategically important peninsula, Crimea, in the Black Sea has been fought over for centuries. While the world considered Crimea a region of Ukraine that is under hostile Russian occupation, Russia sees it as a rightful and historical region of Russian territory that it helps to liberate.

With the internationally recognized Ukrainian territory of Crimea’s annexation on 18 March 2014, Russia has de facto administered the territory as two federal subjects—the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol within the Crimean Federal District. The political crisis surrounding the annexation is referred to as the Crimean Crisis.

From the beginning of March 2014, demonstrations by pro-Russian and anti-government groups took place in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, together commonly called the “Donbass”, in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution or the Euromaidan movement.

The anti-government chain of protests that bloomed into the entire crisis, which begun on 21 November 2013, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev is dubbed “Euromaidan”. It is called “Euromaidan” because they were about demanding closer European integration and happened in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, also known as Independence Square.

According to Wikipedia, these demonstrations, following the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation were part of a wider group of concurrent pro-Russian protests across southern and eastern Ukraine, escalated in April 2014 into a war between the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR respectively), and the Ukrainian government.

Amidst the ongoing war, the separatist republics held internationally unrecognized referendums on the status of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts on 11 May 2014. These referendums, viewed as illegal by Ukraine and undemocratic by the international community, returned a result in favor of autonomy from Ukraine. Fighting continued through 2014, and into 2015, despite several attempts to implement a ceasefire. Ukraine and most of the international community said that Russia provided both material and military support to the separatists, who were largely led by Russian citizens until August 2014.

Conflict dimension and Russian-speakers of Ukraine

While the massive Russian intervention on the side of ethnic Russians in Ukraine seems to be the main cause of ongoing ethnic armed conflict, the secession or more equitable, power-sharing federalism movements in Donbass of ethnic Russians, on the heels of the Crimea annexation to Russian federation, were helped and empowered by the Russian Federation. Another point is that the geopolitical concern of Ukraine membership of EU might eventually become NATO member, which is highly unfeasible in the short run, but highly troubling and unacceptable for Russia. Besides, the justification of Russian’s intervention is due to the President Vladimir Putin’s expansive new concept of “Novorossiya”, which covers a large swath of territory conquered by Imperial Russia during the 18th century from a declining Ottoman Empire. This historic Novorossiya covered roughly a third of what is now Ukraine, including Crimea.

Since declaring independence in 1991, Ukraine has been divided, and the Ukraine crisis is an extension of this diversity. Most consider that this division is rooted in language. About two-thirds of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian as their native language, mostly in the country’s west; and about a third are native Russian-speakers, mostly in the east. But the language divide is not a comprehensive explanation for there are much more complicated political and ideological division that are involved. In short, those in the west of Ukraine see themselves as European and want to be part of EU, while the eastern half is sympathetic to Russia and see that their countries are historically linked.

Burma’s armed conflict and latent conflict

Similar to the situation in eastern Ukraine, Kokang conflict could be termed ethnic conflict with big neighboring country involvement, which shares the same ethnicity. Eastern Ukraine of Donbas has a high percentage of Russian ethnic population, while about ninety percent of Kokangnese are ethnically Han Chinese, within Kokang Self-Administrative Zone, like their brethren across the border in China. The Wa are national minority, who live in on both sides of China-Burma border, with a high level of Chinese influence, in all aspect of their daily lives. Both Kokangnese and Wa people were the main fighting force of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which was backed by China until 1989, when the party disintegrated and ceased to exist as a political force.

Kokangnese or MNDAA has an ongoing armed conflict with the Burmese regime, trying to achieve the rights of self-determination, equality and democracy, but the Wa or UWSA, who has 26 years of ceasefire with the government in place and only has a kind of latent conflict situation. But given the regime dissatisfaction for the Wa insistence and actually governing their area as “a state within the state”, open conflict could flare up, whenever the regime makes up its mind that this infringement of the country’s sovereignty cannot be tolerated anymore and has to be corrected, at all cost.

The Burmese regime is at war with Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA) and SSPP/SSA in northern Shan and Kachin States and also technically on war-footing with some 17 ethnic armed organizations struggling to achieve more self governance within a federal structure. Since 2011, President Thein Sein has called for peace talks with the aim of signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement. Almost all ethnic armed organizations are involved in the ongoing peace process, except MNDAA and AA, for the regime refused to acknowledge both as negotiation partners.

China’s policy on Burma

According to Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012, the security of China’s energy investment and border issues have emerged as the top two priorities on Beijing’s agenda.

The Chinese government is highly concerned with the frequent anti-pipeline reports and protests and how they might impact the construction of the pipelines. According to a senior advisor to the government, for China, Myitsone dam is only a commercial project by one Chinese company, but the pipeline project is significant on the national and strategic levels. Therefore, all measures are being taken to preempt potential risk to the pipelines. To this end, senior Chinese leaders repeatedly re-emphasised the need to “ensure the progress and implementation of the pipeline project” (Sources: Xinhua News Agency 2012a; Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2012).

The Burmese policy community is divided into two camps on how to deal with the Myitsone dam. Both agree that the permanent abandonment of the dam is inevitable, as it symbolises the free will of Burmese people, democratic awakening and independent foreign policy. However, they differ on the terms of the cancellation. The hawkish school argues that China should unilaterally give up not only the project but also the financial compensations to make up for its past exploitation of Myanmar if it is “genuinely interested in repairing the relationship.” The more realistic camp contends that China should accept Myanmar’s decision on Myitsone, “turn over the page as soon as possible” and focus on new collaborations. They also argue that Myanmar should fairly compensate the Chinese investor for the losses. But the Chinese side doubts Naypyidaw will have the financial resources to do so. (Source: SUN, Yun (2012), China and the Changing Myanmar, in: Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs , 31, 4, 51-77)

An analysis written by Bernt Berger, titled, “China’s Myanmar Policy: Dilemma or Strategic Ambiguity ?” published by Institute for Security and Development Policy, on 2 March 2015, pointed out three factors that have implicated Burma-China relation.

First is the China’s local-level authorities having different views and not conforming to Chinese central government policy, interests and cross-border issues on Burma. According to him, local authorities are suspicious of “ongoing support for armed groups or at least connivance of arms trafficking and training, such as for the Wa ethnic group, still exists.”

Second, Chinese efforts to combat narcotics in Yunnan have been successful and thus have pushed the problem further into Burma creating new problems in a region, which are infested with various ethnic armed movements.

Third, China’s geo-strategic ambition of important regional economic linkages, including transport corridors towards India (Southern Silk Road/BCIM Corridor), raises concerns for Burmese leaders, since most planned and existing transport infrastructure and pipelines pass through Kachin and northern Shan State. Besides, there is genuine concern that Chinese representatives might promote the ethnic Chinese groups interest than those of the Naypyidaw.

Apart from all these, Bernt Berger stressed the geo-political competition between the United States and China, where according to him Chinese hawkish analysts are for assertive policy of supporting ethnic groups in order to maintain leverage on Burma’s military, while Burma has maintained neutral stance to remain aloof of outside powers.

He summed up that China’s repeatedly requested Burma to guarantee stability along the border region, while offering political support and non-interference. He wrote, “Naypyidaw in return has called on Beijing to prevent local authorities from providing any unofficial support to armed groups. Although Beijing is supportive of an autonomous (ethnic Han) Kokang region, exactly how and whether to support dubious nationalist rebel groups causes a dilemma, and its actions in this regard will inevitably send signals hinting at what other countries can expect from China’s emerging neighbourhood policy.”

His last sentence, stressed that China might be profiting from what he called “indecisive restraint”. He wrote: “At the same time, not pursuing a clear stance may also serve Beijing’s interests as part of a policy of strategic ambiguity.”(Source: China’s Myanmar Policy: Dilemma or Strategic Ambiguity ? Bernt Berger Policy Brief – No. 171 March 2, 2015 – Institute for Security and Development Policy)

But all of these may be changing, with the recent release of “China’s Military Strategy”, which spells out its growing internationalization of its role and “active defense”.

The internationalization of China’s military role is stated in the Preface section of the paper as below:

  • China’s destiny is vitally interrelated with that of the world as a whole. A prosperous and stable world would provide China with opportunities, while China’s peaceful development also offers an opportunity for the whole world. China will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, pursue an independent foreign policy of peace and a national defense policy that is defensive in nature, oppose hegemonism and power politics in all forms, and will never seek hegemony or expansion. China’s armed forces will remain a staunch force in maintaining world peace.
  • It further outlined its armed forces strategic tasks as follows:
  • To deal with a wide range of emergencies and military threats, and effectively safeguard the sovereignty and security of China’s territorial land, air and sea;
  • To resolutely safeguard the unification of the motherland;
  • To safeguard China’s security and interests in new domains;
  • To safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests;
  • To maintain strategic deterrence and carry out nuclear counterattack;
  • To participate in regional and international security cooperation and maintain regional and world peace;
  • To strengthen efforts in operations against infiltration, separatism and terrorism so as to maintain China’s political security and social stability; and
  • To perform such tasks as emergency rescue and disaster relief, rights and interests protection, guard duties, and support for national economic and social development. (Source: China’s Military Strategy. The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015, Beijing)

An analysis of Rodger Baker, lead analyst, from Stratfor Global Intelligence, recently identified four main areas that China would have to take into account. They are focusing more on the growing internationalization of its role and “active defense”; difficulties to convince and remain politically neutral and capable of protecting its interests, as China expands its economic and military activities in developing countries, especially to counter the accusations of imperialism; more involvement in global defense would make it hard to maintain its professed non-interference policies and would be forced to choose sides in political and security issues; and weaker states or groups within states will attempt to leverage Chinese power for their own interests.

Perspective of Russia and China involvement in neighboring state’s ethnic conflict

The two countries, Russia and China, common denominators would be limited to being belonging to the same ethnic group, strengthening the global trend of ethnic upsurge, advocating political empowerment of ethnically related groups, directly or indirectly, in the neighboring country, among others. The differing part might be largely the concept or reasons of empowerment and the intended goal-setting or desired outcomes.

The urge for wanting to help achieve a degree of equality and rights of self-determination for the ethnically related groups are common, while the art of the achieving the goals could differ. For example, the Russian, or better President Putin, might be empowering the secessionist movements in eastern Ukraine for its bigger plan of “Eurasian Economic Union”, but nevertheless is helping them to strengthen their aspirations. Likewise, China’s goals are to secure its energy supply sources, markets and industrial bases, which are closely linked to Burma’s infrastructure maintenance and smooth flows of goods; and could not be implemented without peaceful atmosphere between the Burmese regime and the ethnic armed organizations, bordering China. This in turn pushes China to advocate peaceful settlement, strengthening the ethnic groups aspirations of greater autonomy within the mold of a federal structure. It is also noteworthy that Russia’s demand for federalism that would benefit ethnic Russians in its ceasefire agreement with the Ukraine government.

The big difference between Russia and China is that the former openly sided with the ethnic Russians of Donbass, with weapon delivery, participating with its troops, whereas the latter refrained from physical participation of the armed conflict in Burma.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict has international dimension, which resembles Cold-War setting, while Burma-China’s latent conflict is, more or less, bilateral at the moment, brewing to become regional and eventually internationalized, if it could not be handled carefully.

It is evident that China has no territorial gain ambition, so far as Burma is concerned for two reasons. One is to prove its adherence of non-interference and territorial integrity commitment and the other, to keep its restless political entities like Tibet, East Turkestan and Taiwan under one nation-state roof, China couldn’t possibly encourage the dismemberment of a country like Burma. All China now wants is a stable, peaceful border and not annexation of Kokang or Wa areas, for China’s economic interest has a much more wider dimension. Of course, the priority setting could change, once it is convinced that its national interest of secure energy flows and infrastructure network would be disrupted in anyway, by the Burmese regime.

This propels us to access Burma’s position, vis-a-vis China’s interest, which is clearly spelled out in its recent China’s Military Strategy. Two of the eight strategic tasks of Chinese armed forces concerned Burma directly.

One is the task of effective safeguarding the sovereignty and security of China’s territorial land, air and sea, which the Chinese clearly sees as being violated, given the Burmese military repeated bombardment that have landed on Chinese side of the border, intentionally or unintentionally, while attacking the MNDAA positions.

Seven people were injured in explosions on the Chinese side of the border during fighting last month between Burmese government troops and rebel forces; and five Chinese nationals were killed in Yunan province, on 13 March, when a bomb was mistakenly dropped by the Burmese military aircraft.

The recent Chinese military live-fire exercise near the border across Kokang area is an indication of China’s frustration, impatience and displeasure. It might well be signaling that it is serious in demanding for the return of peace and normalcy along the border.

The other Chinese armed forces task is safeguarding the security of China’s overseas interests, which in Burma context could mean the security of gas and oil pipelines, the delivery system cross-cutting Burma from Arakan State to Yunan province, various natural resources extraction industries, and not to forget the Irrawaddy Myitsone dam project that have been shelved, since Thein Sein regime comes to power in 2011.

Given such circumstances, there could be only two scenario outcomes. The first would be the escalation of the border armed conflict blown out of proportion, leading to the Chinese invasion of Kokang conflict areas to restore peace or employing a proxy war by using MNDAA, UWSA and NDAA like during the Communist Party of Burma’s days, when China openly aided the communist revolution, to push for a regime change. The second one is to resolve the ethnic conflict by agreeing to a genuine federalism based on equal national state basis, which would effectively end the conflict and create a “win-win” outcome for the Burmese regime, the non-Burman ethnic groups and China alike.

As it stands, the choice of war or peace will now solely depend on how the powers that be in Naypyidaw handle the situation.