MYANMAR: Border guard plan could fuel ethnic conflict

Some 20,000 Burmese fled to Thailand earlier this month
BANGKOK, 29 November 2010 (IRIN) - Efforts by Myanmar’s military government to
incorporate that country’s numerous armed ethnic groups into a single
border guard force will probably lead to further conflict and spawn an
influx of refugees into neighbouring countries, analysts and aid workers

Myanmar, with an estimated population of 57.6 million, is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Southeast Asia.

“Tensions are building as SPDC [government] troops are trying to
control border crossings and incorporate the ethnic groups into a border
guard force,” K’Nyaw Paw, an advocacy team leader of the Forum of
Burma’s Community-Based Organizations, said. “We are preparing for more
refugees as fighting can happen at any time.”

Under Myanmar’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, all armed forces
in the country must be placed under central military command - an
ambitious undertaking in a country which has over a dozen armed ethnic
groups (all but a handful of which have ceasefire agreements with the
military government).

To achieve this, the regime has demanded that all of the ceasefire
groups be incorporated into a Border Guard Force (BGF), which would
entail disarming them, re-supplying them with government-issued weapons
and making their troops subordinate to regional Myanmar military

To date, however, only two groups have agreed: the Democratic Karen
Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the National Democratic Army-Kachin.

In August 2009, the refusal to join the BGF by one of the smallest
ethnic factions in the country - the Myanmar National Democratic
Alliance Army operating in the Kokang region of northern Shan State -
resulted in a military offensive launched by government troops which led
to more than 30,000 refugees fleeing over the border to China.

“The BGF is an indirect order [by the regime] for the ethnic groups
to surrender their weapons,” said Zin Linn, a Burma analyst who lives in
exile in Thailand.

“But without guns, the groups cannot defend their rights and their
people so they will hold on to their guns until they gain autonomy and
self-determination,” he said, adding that armed conflict will almost
certainly break out and that refugees fleeing Burma will be

Photo: Chandler Vandergrift/IRIN
Refugees outside a temporary shelter in Mae Sot
Earlier this month, fighting broke out between government forces and
a breakaway faction of the DKBA which opposes the group’s decision to
join the BGF.

On 7 November, the day of Myanmar’s general elections, DKBA troops
of Brigade 5 stormed the town of Myawaddy on the Burmese-Thai border and
took over several key positions. Fighting for control of the town the
next day led to some 20,000 people fleeing into Thailand, while clashes further south resulted in some 5,000 more refugees.

Although most of these refugees were repatriated to Myanmar within
days, some 2,000 remain in hiding on the Myanmar side of the frontier,
according to K’Nyaw Paw. “It is very difficult to access and get
supplies to these people,” she said.

Renewed fighting on 27-28 November between DBKA Brigade 5 troops and
government forces has sent some 1,200 more refugees into Thailand,
according to reports.

Fear of government offensives

Meanwhile, other groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the
United Wa State Army are preparing for possible military retaliation by
the government for refusing to join the BGF, say analysts.

“Fearing that [government troops] may launch another offensive
similar to that in Kokang, the major ceasefire groups along the border
have been building up their forces,” states a recent report
by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. “These
groups see their weapons as the last source of leverage in their
long-running battle for autonomy with the military government.”

“Both the Kachin and Wa are recruiting troops, training, and
collecting arms and ammunition,” said Linn. “They are preparing for

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