By Roland Watson
November 11, 2013

There is now a high stakes confrontation underway in Burma. One side, the military dictatorship's side, is pushing for a national ceasefire, followed by some form of "political dialogue." The other side, the ethnic armed revolutionary forces, however, are unwilling to commit to this. They are asking for a variety of preliminary conditions, foremost a cessation of the conflict - a "temporary ceasefire" - meaning an end to the Burma Army offensives and abuse. In other words, the resistance forces have posed a simple question: How can we have an enduring ceasefire, if you keep attacking us?

Right now, the Burma Army is attacking the KIA in a number of different areas, and also shelling the SSA-N at their Wanhai headquarters.

In effect, what we are really seeing in Burma is continued civil war, along with a political dialogue, which is to be followed by a national ceasefire, and then more dialogue. But, the term "dialogue" is not an accurate characterization. A dialogue is just talking. When any such talks have a formal structure and concrete goal, they are really a negotiation. The country is now undergoing a complex negotiation, in which the different sides have their own respective goals. Indeed, the negotiation is not about "peace" at all. Rather, it is about power.

The regime wants absolute power, and is demanding that the ethnic forces surrender (to enter the "legal fold"). The ethnic nationalities in turn want an end to the abuses that are being perpetrated against their people; a new constitution that enshrines the principles of federalism; a new Federal Armed Forces; and through all of this not only peace for their people, but real power - a significant degree of self-determination to manage their own affairs. This is what is at stake in the Burma negotiation.

Negotiation 101

In any negotiation there are two basic factors. The first is the strength of your position, and not only if it makes sense - if it is just or logical - but also if you have the power to back it up. For Burma, the ethnic nationality position is just, and for both historical and human rights reasons. "Burma" is in fact an artificially constructed nation. The ethnic nationalities have only been part of a formal political structure during the Burman empires, when they were attacked and occupied by Burman kings in the lower part of the country (Lower Burma); as a consequence of British colonialism, whereby the hill areas and the upper part of the country were also incorporated; and through the war and atrocities of Ne Win and subsequent Burman generals. In other words, all of the historical periods where Burma has been structured as an empire or nation have been dictatorial. The ethnic nationalities have been forced to participate.

The ethnic position is also just on human rights grounds. The dictators have been perpetrating crimes against humanity against them. They, on the other hand, have limited their armed resistance to a self-defense response against regime military targets.

Regarding power, there is an uncertain and uneasy status quo. The Burma Army has greater troops and weaponry, as well as foreign arms suppliers. There is also intelligence that the regime jets that attacked the Kachin earlier this year had Chinese or North Korean pilots, and further that Israeli advisors are now assisting the Tatmadaw.

The resistance, on the other hand, has the justness of their cause and their determination to fight. Even with this imbalance, the resistance has fought with great courage, and inflicted massive losses against the Burma Army. The generals have been reduced to forced conscription, including of children, to preserve their troops. Said another way, the regime cannot compel the ethnic groups to sign a national ceasefire.

David versus Goliath

For the second factor, negotiation ability, both sides have able negotiators, although once again the balance on paper favors the regime, since the entire international community of nations, without exception, has abandoned any pretense that human rights in Burma should be protected. Burma must be developed - its natural and human resources must be exploited - and nothing, not even genocide of the Rohingya minority, can be allowed to stand in the way of this. (The E.U. is actually training Burma's criminal police in how to attack pro-democracy protestors, and Australia wants to force refugees back into what until very recently were "black zones" - where villagers were murdered by Burma Army soldiers on sight!)

In addition to diplomatically siding with the dictators, the international community has also backed up its policy with money. Norway, and Germany's Friedrich Naumann and Friedrich Ebert Stiftungs, have actively been funding the "peace initiative," mainly through the Myanmar Peace Center. This initiative can more accurately be described as a concerted pressure campaign, for the ethnic groups to surrender. Harn Yawnghwe and Htoo Htoo Lay of the EuroBurma Office are the brain trust behind the campaign, and they are working closely with MPC members Myanmar Egress, Vahu Development's Aung Naing Oo, and, surprisingly, Nyo Ohn Myint, formerly of NLD-LA.

Egress is a regime crony, and Aung Naing Oo has promoted the surrender line for years through his Irrawaddy editorials. Apparently, he wants to cash in on his Harvard degree through Vahu. But Nyo Ohn Myint? He appears to have changed sides. What a tragedy, to see a good man betray the cause!

Finally, one other issue of unity also favors the regime. The major Burman "opposition" elements are in fact siding with the dictatorship. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have joined the generals in calling for the resistance to surrender, and former political prisoners for the most part are not raising their voices about the issue. In other words, the pro-regime side is unified. On the other hand, there are significant fractures within the ethnic nationalities, largely because the fraudulently elected KNU leadership, warlord Yawd Serk, and also the Wa, are corrupt and favor the regime.

Among many other exploitation cash sources, the U.N. has just reported that methamphetamine production is exploding in Burma. Many of the ethnic supporters of the ceasefire are doing so precisely so they can take part in this lucrative market.

The consequences of this disunity have prevented the ethnic opposition from mounting a united offensive campaign, a genuine revolution, which given the low level of morale in the Burma Army would lead to an outright victory; as well as attacks against ancillary regime targets such as the major investments in pipelines and mines, which projects fund the Burma Army.

In the face of this difficult situation, the real ethnic opposition has allied under the banner of the UNFC. And, because of their continued willingness to fight, they have been able to hold off the demand for surrender.

It is essential that the UNFC maintain this position - for years if need be. If the ethnic groups don't, if they follow the KNU and the SSA-S and give up, they will lose everything. Any chance of real freedom for the country will be lost, and their people will be sentenced to never-ending land thefts, subjugation, and abuse.


What is important in a negotiation is who gets what: for Burma, who benefits from the ceasefire and in what ways. A national ceasefire now, without any significant conditions, including an ending of the regime's hostilities and abuse, and withdrawal from its ethnic area bases and outposts, would be a disaster for the country. The generals would win 100 to 0. Burma would continue to be a dictatorship for many, many years, if not forever. Remember, the regime has already sent strong signals that it will not materially amend the 2008 Constitution, and that current Army head Min Aung Hlaing will run for President in 2015. This is the final step in Senior General Than Shwe's self-protection and legitimization of the dictatorship strategy.

Carl Gersham, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, recently visited Burma, and called it a pro-democracy success in a world where such victories have become exceeding rare (with a good deal of the credit for this going to President Obama's pragmatic and effectively anti-democracy foreign policy). This was a preposterous and self-serving claim. (One wonders if the NED is funding MPC as well.) Gersham also noted that progress in regional neighbors China and Vietnam is nonexistent. It is naive - outrageously stupid, actually - to think that Than Shwe and his heirs will ever give up power, when so many of their fellow autocrats are conscientiously defending theirs.

There shouldn't even be a negotiation in Burma. A final point is that the existence of negotiations presumes that the respective parties have a valid foundation. But, Burma's military dictatorship has none! It is a gang of criminals - murderers, rapists and thieves - that for the last 50 years without pause has committed the worst atrocities possible. Rightly, they should be overthrown, tried, and then either imprisoned or executed. However, given for the moment that real revolution in the country is unlikely, the ethnic forces can in no way yield. There can be no negotiated surrender: no compromise on the interests of their people, and for freedom for Burma.