BANGKOK, Thailand — Soon after Burma’s polls closed Sunday, gunshots rang out and black smoke streaked the sky along the Thai-Burma border. Since then, roughly 15,000 Burmese civilians have poured into Thailand to flee fighting between the army and an ethnic militia.
Has a bogus, unpopular election nudged Burma into full-blown civil war? Not yet, but an escalation of violence is highly likely.
Ruled by military dictators since 1962, Burma (also called Myanmar) has just held an election that the West almost universally condemns as fraudulent. As U.S. President Barack Obama put it, the military-assembled party rigged the vote to “hold the aspirations of a people hostage to the greed and paranoia of a bankrupt regime.”
Then came the shooting. On election day, a brigade of armed militants from one of Burma’s major ethnic minorities, the Karen, seized a town across the river from Mae Sot in Thailand.
The Burmese army was chased out. Buildings were set ablaze. A unit of Thai troops, bracing for any cross-border incursion, took shrapnel wounds from wayward grenades or mortars that killed one soldier. More than 15,000 Burmese rushed across the river into a makeshift shelter: a Thai army camp on a soccer field filled with tents.
But what may appear to be an election-day backlash under the banner of democracy is in fact much more complex.
Burma’s anti-junta resistance is a stew of guerrilla “liberation” armies assembled by ethnic groups, which amount to 40 percent of the country’s 55 million population.
The various tribes — namely Karen, Shan, Kachin, Wa, Chin, Mon and Rohingya — are easily oppressed because of their disunity. They share no common language, only a common enemy: the junta, which has shot, enslaved and harassed them for decades.
Rumors of a post-election army campaign to crush their ethnic militias has just this month spawned a much-needed alliance among the tribes.
This guerilla bloc, however, is complicated by overlapping loyalties and internal tribe fighting. Some factions have consented to junta bribes and pressure to become a government-aligned “border guard force.” Some have agreed to shaky cease-fires. Some refuse to stop fighting.
The ongoing battle on the Thai-Burma border is carried out by a ethnic militia that has previously linked with the government to attack its own tribe: the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. They are at odds with the tribe’s Christian faction, largely kept afloat through U.S. religious charities.
The Thai-Burma border strikes are being waged for democracy, so said the ethnic militia brigade’s Col. Saw Lah Pwe, according to junta opposition magazine The Irrawaddy.
But they represent just one brigade’s refusal to become a junta-aligned border guard force. (The rest of his army remains in league with the junta.)
The battle could just as well have resulted from a negotiation breakdown regarding control of lucrative illegal trade routes funneling gems, timber, migrants and other lucrative commodities into Thailand.
A truer test of the ethnic militias’ resistance will come if (and many groups say when) Burma’s army launches a headlong campaign to destroy their guerrillas once and for all.
Burma’s recent purchase of 50 Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters is considered evidence of the coming attacks. So are reports, from Amnesty International and others, that the Burmese army is amassing troops in zones occupied by ethnic militias.
Believed to wield more jungle-fighting prowess than the conscripted Burmese military, the ethnic groups’ combined force of 60,00 to 80,000 militants would face a well-supplied, half-a-million man army.
Academics define civil war as conflict in which at least 1,000 die in a year and the weaker faction delivers at least 5 percent of the fatalities. This potential conflict, appearing more likely by the day, would almost certainly qualify.