Kate Woodsome | Washington 27 April 2010
Armed ethnic groups in rural Burma face a choice on Wednesday - join a government militia, or be outlawed and face possible attack. The standoff between the two sides has renewed fears of violence along the China-Burma border.
Burma's military government keeps tight control over most of the country. But along the border with Thailand and China, armed ethnic groups are effectively in charge. The most powerful rebels are refusing to bow to the government's pressure to join a state-run border defense force ahead of national elections later this year.
Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former rebel based on the Chinese side of the border, says the biggest group - the United Wa State Army - is preparing for a long war. He says leaders of the Wa do not want to fight, but they feel the government has left them little choice.
The Wa and other ethnic groups signed a ceasefire with the government two decades ago. They enjoy more political and religious freedom than the ethnic Burmese under the government's tight control. And income from logging, illegal drugs and cross-border trade pays for reliable electricity - unlike the rest of the country, which suffers from power blackouts.
Ready to fight
The Wa say that joining the government's border guard could be the first step to giving up their rights. They say they have at least 20,000 soldiers in Burma's Northern Shan state who are ready to fight. Reports from the region indicate that at least 5,000 Burmese troops are massing in the area.
Aung Kyaw Zaw says the government also has deployed fighter jets and tanks as a show of force. But, he says, with the monsoon rains coming in June, the army does not have time to wage a real war.
Still the military buildup is making some people nervous. Aung Kyaw Zaw says some residents have moved their cars and valuables into neighboring China, and that the elderly and some children have fled.
Jennifer Quigley is the advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington. She says the military government's poor human rights record gives civilians cause for concern.
"It could be very detrimental," said Quigley. "In the case of the Burmese regime, they have a traditional habit of attacking the civilian population and not necessarily the military. And so there's this great potential that they will seize land, they will seize forced laborers, they will seize child soldiers."
About 30,000 refugees fled into China last year when the Burmese army attacked the Kokang, a small ethnic-Chinese group also in Shan state. The Wa and its civilian population are much larger than the Kokang.
Quigley says conflict with this group could cause serious problems for China. "There is huge potential that you're looking at over 100,000 refugees fleeing into China," she said.
Thousands of Chinese troops are stationed in Yunnan province along the China-Burma border, where brisk trading brings in big money. In 2008, China reported nearly $2 billion in exports to Burma.
Chinese officials have been making regular visits to the Burmese capital to try to calm ethnic tensions. They even escorted Wa rebels to a recent meeting with Burmese officials to ensure their safety.
Political analysts say that any other poor, isolated country would pay attention to the concerns of its rich and powerful neighbor. But Burma could be a different story because of its leader, General Than Shwe.
"It's a huge question mark, said Quingley. "Because Than Shwe is not somebody most people understand."
Jennifer Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma says regional military commanders appear reluctant to start a war with the ethnic rebels. But she says, Than Shwe is focused on consolidating his power.
"One army, one Burma. No more pesky internal ethnic problems," said Quigley. "So it's going to be whether or not he's willing to jeopardize their relationship with the Chinese to have their final solution, and whether they will do that before the elections."
On the China-Burma border, former rebel Aung Kyaw Zaw says the Wa fighters will be ready, no matter what the government decides.