Myanmar’s presidential elections, set to take place towards the end of this year, will be crucial in determining the country’s ultimate direction. Yet, in many ways, what matters for the future of a unified country depends on what happens in its ethnic areas. Without a lasting peace in the fringes, political stability in the rest of the country will be next to impossible.
Myanmar is anything but a unified state. Since the second half of the 20th century, more than a dozen armies, most of them formed around ethnic groupings, have been actively fighting the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw, in a series of stop-and-go conflicts. An understanding of these conflicts and their historical development is critical.
Home to 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, many with their own languages, customs and faiths, the country has long been divided along ethnic lines. The seven biggest minority groups are the Chin, the Kachin, the Karenni, the Karen, the Mon, the Rakhine, and the Shan. Ethnic Burmese, or Burmans, who make up nearly 70 percent of the population, control the major political institutions and military.
In the remote fringes, a number of ragtag militias operate under varying degrees of autonomy, mostly along the country’s resource-rich border areas. The Kachin Independence Army, the country’s second-largest armed group, has more than 8,000 fighters. The United Wa State Army, the largest of the ethnic militias, controls a territory larger than the country of Lebanon and boasts a fighting force of an estimated 30,000 soldiers.
Since the government began its reforms in 2010, ceasefire agreements have been signed with most of the rebel armies. However, the ability of both Naypyidaw and the ethnic militias to maintain the peace has proven difficult and fighting still flares up regularly.
How did these groups come about in the first place?
The history of ethnic animosity in Myanmar harks back centuries and there are many blank spaces. Martin Smith, a renowned historian of Burmese ethnography, rightly noted that “many important details of Myanmar’s ethnic past are still conjecture”. But certainly one of the most impactful periods on ethnic relations was the colonial period.
The British began the colonization of Burma in 1824 but it was the exiling of the Burmese King Thibaw in 1886 that established official British rule. The country was divided into two administrative areas: Ministerial Burma and the Frontier Areas, places formerly governed by a series of ethnic tribes and independent kingdoms.
British rule was a mixed bag of strategies. Some areas were governed by British officials, some by local rulers and others by Indians imported from the west. The British favored some of the minority groups, such as the Chin, Kachin and the Karen, granting them positions in the military over the ethnic Burmans. In 1925, the British set the exclusive recruitment of those minority groups as official policy. This would have a lasting effect on post-independence ethnic relations as minorities would come to be associated with the bitter days of colonial rule.
Towards the end of World War II, British control of the country had waned considerably and gears were put into motion for the formation of a postwar, independent government. One of the leaders of the independence movement was a young Burman general by the name of Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the current figurehead of the National League for Democracy political party and one of modern Myanmar’s most celebrated figures. The late general, skilled in conflict mediation, was one of the few leaders capable of negotiating peace between the various armed factions that had formed in the anarchy of World War Two and Japanese occupation. “He had a magnetic personality, and one could not help following him,” remarked one Karen soldier about the general.
In September of 1947 General Aung San and the leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups drafted an accord that would eventually lead to a new constitution and Burmese independence under a union system of governance. The historic Panglong Agreement was signed by all in attendance and promised, among other things, “Full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas”.
It was understood by those there that minorities not represented at the conference should also gain self-determination.
The British were strong supporters of ethnic autonomy. The British director of the Frontier Areas, supported by several officials, put forth a proposal at a 1946 meeting of ethnic leaders, a precursor to the Panglong Conference, trying to ensure the creation of a United Frontier Union, a semi-autonomous region that would include territory governed by Karen, Chin, Karenni, Kachin and Shan peoples.
Furthermore, a British White Paper of 1945 contemplating Burma’s future status stressed that decisions made regarding the Frontier Areas should not be made without the minorities’ consent.
Aung San also stood behind the ethnic people. On the eve of the Panglong Conference he announced: “As for the people of the Frontier Areas, they must decide their own future. If they wish to come in with us we will welcome them on equal terms.” On paper, the post-war world was looking pretty good for Burma’s minorities.
But things quickly went south. Only a few months after the signing at Panglong, Aung San was assassinated under shady circumstances in Rangoon. His untimely death plunged the country into chaos and the months leading up to independence in 1948 were marked by insurrection, violence and ethnic revolt.
“Whatever spirit of unity might have existed at Panglong was already in tatters at independence and would be completely extinguished by the time of the second military coup in 1962,” wrote Matthew Walton, a senior research fellow in modern Burmese studies at Oxford University.
From that point on national leaders declined to honor the assurances of the Panglong Agreement and mutual trust between the central government and the ethnic groups would deteriorate.
The military takeover of Burma in 1962 further eroded ties between ethnic groups and the national government. The new self-installed socialist regime arrested several ethnic leaders and began a series of military campaigns in the frontier areas, many of which were awash in drug production that had ramped up in the expansion of the Vietnam War.
Relations were further complicated by a proxy war along Burma’s eastern flank between Maoist China and the U.S. Provided with aid, training and weapons by Washington, the Burmese army went on the offensive against the Beijing-backed Burma Communist Party, a guerrilla group made up of various ethnic peoples. Shan State, where they were operating, became a war zone.
The Tatmadaw eventually gained the upper-hand and managed to reach cease-fire agreements with the various militias fighting in the area.
“There was no more war, but nothing like peace,” wrote the historian Thant Myint-U in his book Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia. “In offering the ceasefires Burma’s military leaders had also promised development in the hills. Tighter Western sanctions and the cutting-off of United Nations and World Bank aid made it hard for them to keep their promise.”
This lack of development coupled with an increasingly exploitive Burmese government out to sap the myriad natural resources native to ethnic lands would continue to breed discontent among the minorities. Militias were organized and already existing ones strengthened in part to protect cultural and political autonomy promised in the Panglong Agreement but also to ensure access to the bountiful and profitable natural resources found in ethnic lands.
Fighting continued on and off along the border areas throughout the 1980s and 1990s between the various armed groups and the Tatmadaw. Ceasefires were made and broken, peace negotiations begun and halted. In 2009 the Burmese government tried a new strategy: if ethnic fighters agreed to join a Border Guard Force under the command of the Tatmadaw, fighters would be granted amnesty.
The proposal said nothing of political compromises or ethnic autonomy and most of the major armed groups rejected the offer. In response the Tatmadaw launched a new offensive in the northeast of the country in 2010. Sporadic fighting has gone on ever since, resulting in thousands of deaths, countless injured and hundreds of thousands displaced.