Thousands of ethnic minorities in Burma are beginning to evacute from their homes ahead of expected fighting between the Burmese Army and ethnic armed forces in the upcoming months. The military regime, led by dictator Than Shwe, is focused on consolidating its power before the planned 2010 elections, and intends to achieve this by coercing all ethnic ceasefire groups to transform their troops into the Burmese Army as border guard forces. However, most ceasefire groups and other armed ethnic groups have refused to accept the junta’s demands, citing the regime’s dismal track record of human rights abuses and the lack of equal representation for ethnic minorities in the 2008 constitution.
The deadline to join the border guard forces was April 22, but as of yet most major ceasefire groups have refused to join. This includes the Shan State Army, the United Wa State Army, the Kachin Independence Army, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Liberation Army, and the army of the New Mon State Party. There have already been skirmishes between the Burmese Army and the UWSA on April 23rd and 24th. The UWSA is the largest ethnic armed group in Burma ,with over 20,000 soldiers. There have also been reports of the junta’s forces arresting and forcing local residents in Kachin state to porter military equipment. Given the regime’s history of mass atrocities, inter alias, torture, extrajudicial killings, forced labor, the use of child soldiers, forced relocation, and burning villages, there is little reason to believe that many of the ethnic groups would willingly let the Burmese Army run their lives and determine their future.
Even Burma’s neighbors and regional allies are beginning to recognize the grave and volatile political situation on the borders. Today, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has a close relationship with the UWSA, moved an extra 5,000 troops to the border in anticipation of an outbreak of war. Last fall, 40,000 Kokang civilians fled into China after the Burmese Army attacked the Kokang Army, northern ally of the UWSA. Thai officials have also expressed their concerns over the possibility of massive influx of refugees from Burma to border camps if fighting breaks out between the ceasefire groups and the Burmese Army. In recent days, the Thais have increased the presence of their own troops in areas where they expect a heavy flow of Burmese refugees.
The violent conflicts between the Army and the ethnic groups have persisted for decades and will continue to exist because the constitution written by the military is not inclusive and democratic in nature, and does not provide the ethnic minority groups their fundamental freedom and rights. Meanwhile, it will be the civilians – mothers, daughters, sons, brothers, and fathers, who will have to bear the brunt of war and suffer from further human rights abuses.