Burma is Heading in the Wrong Direction
By Aung Zaw 26 November 2016
If one wanted to describe the current political climate in Burma, it is like a roller coaster ride.
The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led government has faced ups and downs in recent months and is now at a low. There is growing criticism toward her leadership, her cabinet and her administration’s management of the conflicts in northern Burma and in Arakan State. More challenges are waiting in the pipeline.
The renewed conflict in the North needs immediate attention as ethnic leaders want to discuss political issues, but have been confronted with more military offensives in recent months, particularly after the much-touted 21st Century Panglong peace conference at the end of August.
The recent offensive by the “Northern Alliance” in northeastern Shan State—including ethnic armed groups belonging to the Kachin, Kokang, Palaung (Ta’ang) and Arakanese—is troubling and could derail ongoing peace meetings being initiated by the government. The strategy is to build up pressure on the government and to raise the issue as one that extends beyond Burma, as the target is not just security forces but cross-border trade with China.
Three of the armed groups—the Kokang, Palaung and Arakanese—were not invited to the last peace conference, but they had expressed a willingness in taking part in the process.
China sent a delegation to Naypyidaw to discuss the issues at hand—a strong indication that China holds the key in the northern conflict; the Chinese also previously promised to help the Burmese government in the peace process.
Last month, Burma Army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was in Beijing, where he also met President Xi Jinping and agreed to military-to-military engagement and increased cooperation between the two armed forces. The two also discussed the non-state armed groups based in Burma’s north.
Subsequently, ethnic armed organizations launched the current offensive.
The fact is that several ethnic armed forces in the North are under the influence of China and in restoring stability China will undoubtedly play a key role.
China’s strategic interest in Burma, as well as its recent decline of influence in the country, has also been well observed. China is concerned that several of its major business projects have faced strong opposition, including the controversial Myitsone dam in northern Burma, which has been suspended. The decision on the multi-billion dollar hydropower project is on hold and the current government formed a commission to decide and evaluate the fate of the dam in August.
In any case, Burma’s de facto leader issued a statement calling for a stop to the fighting four days after ethnic insurgents launched the offensive in Shan State. But ethnic leaders were surprised, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was silent when military leaders began their own offensive several weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the West and the UN remain focused on issues surrounding the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State. Pressure is being built up to allow access and aid to the conflict area in northern Arakan State.
Recent militant attacks in Northern Arakan suggest growing radicalization among the Rohingya population. The West asked the Burmese government to allow an independent investigation on recently abuses by security forces reported in the region, but so far there has been limited access to the conflict zone. The government denied the alleged human rights abuses and skeptics insist that the serious allegations require strong verification.
Some fear that the situation in Arakan State will soon be out of control and the army’s presence is in fact needed, as local Arakanese have feared. Arakanese politicians have a strained relationship with the current government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but are much closer to the army and are in favor of taking strong action against Rohingya Muslims.
The official line of both the Burma Army chief and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is that the Rohingya Muslims are not one of Burma’s ethnic minorities. Much of the country’s Buddhist population, including some ethnic minorities, feel the same way.
There is a danger of polarization as the West fails to speak on the issue of the ethnic Arakanese who feel that they have been guarding the western border to deter immigrants from flocking through from Bangladesh. They feel their concerns are being neglected. The more the issue of the Rohingya is raised to the level of international intervention, the more that the local Arakanese and several nationalist groups will feel a need to call the Burma Army to step in to the situation directly. There is no rationality and pragmatism with which to resolve the issue.
The relationship between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is not a healthy one, either. According to sources close to the leaders, the trust and confidence between them is quite thin, and they reportedly particularly disagree on how to approach both ethnic conflict in the North and the conflict in Arakan State.
In some cases, the exchange of smiles in front of cameras has been soothing to watch, but in reality there is rising tension between the two figures.
One theory is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership is effectively undermined and that she is losing her popularity particularly among some ethnic groups and Burman intellectuals. Some critics feel that the government is losing control of the country. The other harsh reality is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her cabinet have limited capacity with which to manage the country and to win the trust and confidence of the ethnic groups and the general population. Rising commodity prices and slow economic growth are also of major concern among urban-based residents.
A recent spate of minor bombings in the former capital, Rangoon, is a growing sign of instability and has invoked fear and insecurity, as well. Glass energy drink bottles filled with chemical liquids reportedly caused the explosions. There were no casualties in the blasts, but questions have been raised about whether the acts were politically motivated. The last one occurred at the immigration department of the Rangoon divisional government office; Rangoon chief minister Phyo Min Thein’s residence is also in the vicinity.
The situation resembles that of two powerful and dominant lions sharing a cave. A cynic might ask how long they will be able to make their friendship last.
And so this time, yet again, it seems that Burma is heading in the wrong direction.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.