Many were surprised by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) attack against the Kokang forces.
Some had been so preoccupied with the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi that they were not even aware of the impending crisis. Others could not understand why the Burmese military would turn against their allies who have had a cease-fire agreement for more than 20 years.
Yet others thought that the Burma Army would never dare to incur the wrath of China. After all, had the Chinese not, in June, requested Vice-Snr-Gen Maung Aye to maintain stability on the border? This development was especially surprising to those who were convinced that Burma is a client state of China.
This failure to anticipate events underscores the weakness of the Burmese democracy movement, in particular, and the international community, in general.
We have often failed to understand the strategy and plans of the ruling military government. We have looked at their actions through our own prisms and misinterpreted their intentions. We have tended to see SPDC pronouncements as propaganda and have not paid enough attention to what it is planning to do.
Nobody is happy with military rule in Burma so we dismiss the SPDC “road map” to democracy and its constitution. But how many of us have actually studied the constitution in detail, not to criticize it, but to see how the military actually plans to implement its “road map” policies and how we can use its plans to our advantage?
In 2004, the SPDC announced the “road map,” and last year it announced plans for an election in 2010. We were outraged when the referendum was held two weeks after Cyclone Nargis had devastated the delta and Rangoon. We would not have been surprised had we realized that Snr-Gen Than Shwe takes the “road map” seriously.
He will not allow anything to stand in its way. A series of recent events has also taken some of us unawarehe release of U Win Tin; the first ever post-1990 congress of the National League for Democracy (NLD); Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial, the unseasonable attack on the Karen National Union; the attack on Kokang and now possibly an attack on the Wa.
These seem to be the random acts of a paranoid and unpredictable leader the image we like to portray of Snr-Gen Than Shwe. But in reality, all these events have a common goal: the success of the 2010 elections. They are the rational outworking of a well-calculated and orchestrated operation plan of the SPDC.
The proposal to the ethnic cease-fire groups to transform themselves into Border Guard Forces (BGF) under the control of the Burma army is also an attempt to clear the decks before the 2010 elections. It was meant to either provoke the cease-fire groups to reject the proposal and be destroyed or frighten them into submission and acceptance of the SPDC road map.
It is clear that the BGF proposal was a provocation. This is because during the past 20 years, nothing of this matter was ever discussed with the cease-fire groups. They were told they could keep their arms and could negotiate with the newly elected government on the political terms they wanted.
Suddenly, in April they were told they had until October 2009 to decide. Analyzing the ceasefires, it is clear that the SPDC never meant to negotiate. The plan was to stop hostile action, provide incentives to entice individual commanders to split from the main groups and slowly weaken the ethnic groups to the point where they could be easily eliminated.
The cease-fire groups cannot accept the BGF because it is actually a plan to destroy the groups by attrition. But if they refuse to accept the proposal, they will be destroyed now, before the elections. The Kokang (MNDAA), the Wa (UWSA) and the Mongla (NDAA) groups rejected the BGF proposal and also refused to accept the SPDC’s road map and constitution. They do not want any changes. Therefore, if nothing changes, the SPDC will move against the UWSA and the NDAA. Which group will be attacked first will depend on the tactical advantage.
What about China? Is the SPDC not beholden to China? The short answer is no. Whatever we may think about the SPDC, the Burma Army is very proud of the fact that it is “patriotic.” The SPDC has never danced to the tune of a foreign power. It has, rather, made foreign powers big and small dance to its tune. Since the SPDC has been largely ostracized internationally, it has had to depend on China.
But it was never happy about it. When Burma was discussed at the UN Security Council and it had to depend even more on China, the SPDC began to cultivate Russia, so that it would not be at China’s mercy. But Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s problem was solved when John Yettaw decided to take a swim. He enabled the SPDC to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi would have no role in the election, and he also enabled Than Shwe to raise the stakes and create a direct link with the Obama administration.
This in turn gave Than Shwe the card he needed to ignore China’s wishes and move against the Kokang and Wa.
If Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s calculations are correct, the SPDC will be able to wipe out the Wa and Mongla groups, and the 2010 elections can be held on a less contentious playing field according to schedule.
The unpredictable factor, of course, is how much resistance the Wa army will offer. And what the reaction of the other cease-fire groups will be. Some like the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) are in the process of negotiating with the SPDC over the BGF issue.
Other groups like the KNU and the Shan State Army (South) are watching closely to see how the battle develops. If Than Shwe’s calculations are wrong, Burma could face a period of serious instability and the 2010 elections will be jeopardized.
But on the other hand, the SPDC may have decided that the elections could actually lead to democratization, and it is trying to create a pretext to postpone the elections indefinitely.
Writer Harn Yawnghwe is executive director of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office.