|Date: Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Time: 3pm – 4.30pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
Speaker: Dr Tharaphi Than, Lector, Department of Southeast Asia, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
Chairperson: Assoc.-Prof. Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies.
Dr Than’s seminar discussed the history of armed groups in *Myanmar’s civil war and how the government’s strategy in dealing with them has continued to affect the country’s relations with China. Far from being an invariable relationship, Myanmar-China relations may evolve depending on the strategies that Naypyidaw applies to dealing with the country’s ethnic minorities.
The Historical Context of the Armed Groups
The seminar began with a discussion of Myanmar’s history, tracing the development of armed groups from the outbreak of the Second World War in 1941 to the present. The formation of armed groups began when the Burma Independence Army was founded in Bangkok in December 1941. Initially allied with Imperial Japan, the group shifted its allegiance to the British in 1945 during the last stages of the war. Eventually, Aung San, the leader of the Burma Independence Army, negotiated with the last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, for a post-war disposition of the former’s forces. However, Aung San formed a paramilitary group that comprised troops which were not included in the national army. It was suspected that this force was intended for use against the British in a war for independence.
When independence was finally granted in 1948, armed groups which were formerly united to fight the Japanese and the British began to splinter. A civil war broke out as early as 1946. Later on, the military itself attempted to launched a coup d’etat. The government was weakened by these events, and began to rely on the military to restore order to the country. It was through this reliance on the military to maintain order that General Ne Win gained recognition and would later lead the military takeover of the government in 1962. He had been asked to intervene in support of the government during several attempted coup d’etats.
The civil war also highlighted the tensions between the state and different ethnic groups within the country. The Karens in particular wanted to establish a federal state as early as October 1947, and eventually rose in revolt. The Shans and Kachin groups whose territory lay at the extremities of the country also demanded autonomy. The Panglong Conference was held in February 1947. It was attended by Burman, Shin, Kachin, and Chin ethnic nationality delegations, and later paved the way for the 1947 Constitution. In the Panglong agreement, the creation of a federal state was proposed, and the frontier areas were promised more funds by Aung San than had been allotted to them during the British colonial period. The Panglong Agreement of 1947 was a significant step to national unification and was highlighted by Dr Than as a watershed for ethnic group autonomy but has not been officially implemented since the 1962 military coup. Rather, these areas have been contested with armed conflict gripping many ethnic nationality areas since then.
The Border Force Agreement and its Consequences
Ethnic nationalities participated in the National Convention that was reconvened in 2003. However, the government did not insert a provision for the creation of federal states in the 2008 Constitution. Instead, the Constitution demanded that all armed groups in the union be placed under the command of the Tatmadaw (Myanmarese Armed Forces) under what was called a ‘border force agreement’. The agreement was envisioned to settle differences once and for all between the Naypyidaw government and the different armed ethnic groups. The terms for this integration were only released in April 2009. The draft constitution was not well-received and was seen by many as a way to ensure military dominance over the state. The Kachins in particular interpreted the document as an attempt to disarm them without a political settlement as they had refused to join the border guards.
In an effort to provide a legal basis for greater autonomy for their group, the Kachins reiterated the provisions signed in the 1947 Panglong Agreement, rather than consulted previous constitutions to justify their demand for autonomy. Dr Than provided an explanation for this by stating that the Panglong Agreement was more generous in this aspect than later constitutions. In addition, the Kachins hoped to draw the other ethnic groups together to uphold the agreement. As the Panglong Agreement provided for greater autonomy for ethnic groups, it was felt that the other groups would support the Kachins in their pursuit for equality.
The Role of China and its Effect on Myanmar’s Foreign Policy
China has publicly advocated a hands-off policy in Myanmar’s internal affairs while simultaneously sustaining the ethnic groups as a buffer between itself and the military government in Naypyidaw. China has signed a number of economic agreements with some of the states of Myanmar, despite the fact that it had earlier declared that it would not interact with the armed ethnic nationalities. A loophole in the agreements permitted China to ‘temporarily deal’ with the ethnic groups under certain circumstances, allowing limited forms of aid to flow to the ethnic nationalities.
Some ethnic nationalities view China as an ally. At various times in the past, the leaders of armed groups sought shelter in China and trained cadres in China when the communists were still in active revolt. In 1968, the Communist Party of China even assisted members of the CPB who had earlier fled to China to return to the northeastern provinces of Burma.
While economic and military ties between China and Myanmar have increased, this relationship will be coloured by the game China plays in sustaining the survival of the ethnic nationalities and Chinese minority.
One audience member asked if there was any link between the 2009 Kokang Incident and the relative peace that has prevailed thereafter between the government and the different ethnic nationalities. The Kokang ethnic group is the politically and militarily weakest ethnic nationality to seek greater autonomy. Dr Than asserted that the government’s attack on the Kokang ethnic group sent a flood of refugees streaming into the Yunnan province of southwestern China, which alarmed the Chinese government. The authorities in Beijing and Yunnan were disappointed that they had not been informed beforehand by Naypyidaw of the attack, as the former had to provide for the Kokang refugees. Since then, closed door discussions between Myanmar and China have been conducted to prevent a repeat of this incident. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also met with the Chinese minority in Yangon.
Another participant enquired on the conditions of the Myanmar-Chinese relationship by asking if the Chinese minority is an important force in Myanmarese politics. Dr Than noted that the Chinese had previously engaged a two-track approach to the Myanmar government whereby there were party-to-party relations between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the CPB, and state-to-state relations between Beijing and the old capital, Yangon. However, the stoking of racial tensions began with the 1967 Chinese race riots, whereby the ethnic Chinese were targets for abuse and this reoccurred periodically through the 1970s.
Dr Than was also asked about the close relationship between Myanmar and China. Dr Than said that for now, the relationship is driven by common economic interests, so pragmatism is likely to govern both countries’ bilateral interactions. As China has been experiencing massive growth in its demand for energy, the 18 billion cubic meters of gas Myanmar sells to China may be an important factor in the relationship.
Finally, a participant asked if the ethnic nationalities are discontented by the Myanmar-China relationship at present. Dr Than asserted that many ethnic groups feel disenfranchised in the different joint development projects undertaken by Beijing and Naypyidaw, and some even feel that some industrial undertakings, such as logging, actually result in negative externalities for the ethnic groups. For instance, the deforestation of entire mountains and hillsides by Chinese logging firms has resulted in floods. Such discontent experienced by minorities is compounded by the fact that the profits of such undertakings most often end up in the hands of some government and ethnic leaders. Ethnic minority discontent is said to be on the rise, concluded Dr Than.
*The term Union of Burma was used until 1989 when a decision was made by the country’s military government to change it to the Union of Myanmar.