Will Karen State go to war again?

Soldiers from KNLA 201 Battallion engage in morning exercises, Oo Kray Kee village, Dooplaya District, Karen State, Burma, 26 December 2011

With the war in Kachin State showing no signs of slowing and state-sponsored violence in Arakan hitting a new crescendo this past week, it’s perhaps unsurprising that reporting on the state of Burma’s other conflicts has been largely relegated to the back burner as of late. This is understandable, perhaps, as the state of affairs in other conflict zones – Karen State being one – are not nearly as acutely violent as they are in the areas that have received the most attention lately. But the underlying dynamics of violent conflict in Karen State remain largely unchanged, which may cause a relapse if they are not meaningfully addressed.

The war between the Burmese government and the Karen people, the longest of Burma’s myriad internal conflicts, has at least superficially become less intractable since the KNU executive and the Tatmadaw Burmese government signed a ceasefire on January 12th of this year.  The ceasefire has proven tenuous at best, and has been violated by government forces on numerous occasions. The existence of a ceasefire agreement between KNU-affiliated forces and the government has not meant an end to human rights violations in the conflict zone, as commercial development and resource exploitation – key government goals in Karen State – have historically been, and continue to be, associated with widespread abuses. The pervasive militarization that has come to define the civilian experience across vast swathes of Karen State has not diminished and has, paradoxically, actually increased since the ceasefire was signed. Although attacks against civilians by the military and its allied paramilitary forces have decreased since the ceasefire, the military’s desire to assert control to secure commercial interests and increased fractionalisation within the KNU establishment itself may conspire to undo whatever limited progress has been made.

Aside from occasionally severe flare-ups of violence, as last occurred in 2010 around the time of nationwide elections, clashes in Karen State have historically been low-intensity and sporadic. The Tatmadaw (Burmese army) intentionally targets civilians in Karen State as part of its “four cuts” counterinsurgency doctrine, in order to both acquire supplies for itself as well as deny insurgents civilian support. Dating back to the Ne Win era, the “four cuts” refer to the food, funds, recruits and intelligence that the military seeks to deny insurgents access to; since 1997, the Tatmadaw has intentionally limited the amount of supplies it sends to front-line troops in order to encourage them to attack civilians, which has the twin effects of reducing their operational costs and, in Karen State, limits the ability of civilians to provide the KNLA (the KNU’s armed wing) with resources.

Faced as they have been with such predation, civilians – and the non-state armed groups that are entrusted with their security – have developed both armed and unarmed strategies to defend themselves. While these strategies have undoubtedly left civilians better off than they would be with no way to protect themselves from government attacks, armed civilian protection has invariably contributed to the increasing militarisation of Karen State seen since the fall of the KNU’s headquarters at Manerplaw in 1995. The continued use of antipersonnel landmines (APMs) in Karen State by both sides is especially concerning. In 2010, Burma ranked fifth highest in the world for landmine casualties, and was the only state in the world in which APMs were laid by both government and non-state armed forces in 2011.

Given the predatory nature of the Tatmadaw’s strategies in Karen State, and the lack of effective deterrent tools at their disposal, the KNU – and civilians themselves in the conflict zone – have come to view landmines as essential tools for protecting themselves from Tatmadaw attacks, the profound risks associated with their use notwithstanding. The KNLA and its affiliated paramilitary organisations routinely establish defensive minefields to deter Tatmadaw attacks, and in this way have used mines to increase civilians’ freedom of mobility by creating no-go zones for government troops. In cases where the KNLA is unable to lay landmines themselves, they have trained civilians in construction and placement techniques so that they can establish these defences themselves.

APMs, being cheap and effective defensive weapons, are thus widely seen in Karen State by the KNLA and civilians alike as being necessary for security in the context of predation by the Tatmadaw and its allies. While landmines are rightly perceived to pose an indiscriminate threat, calling for the KNLA and its affiliates to stop using landmines altogether absent a concerted demilitarisation effort by both sides is unrealistic, and potentially harmful for civilian security. The underlying agent of civilian insecurity in Karen State is not landmine use – it is the decades of ill-will and mistrust between the KNU and non-state armed actors aligned with them on one side and the government and its para-statal armed allies on the other.

The current no-holds-barred Tatmadaw assault on the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north should serve as a warning of the risks ethnic insurgents face when entering into a ceasefire agreement with Naypyidaw. By focusing exclusively on ending fighting in the short-term – as was the principal goal of the 1994 ceasefire signed between the KIA and the Burmese government – and neglecting issues of ethnic grievance, revenue-sharing, and regional autonomy, the Kachin ceasefire gave both sides the opportunity to stockpile munitions and supplies in anticipation of the day when the relative calm would give way to another round of combat. If both sides in Karen State continue to bolster their defenses and do not engage in meaningful dialogue, the ceasefire there may start to take on characteristics of the Kachin conflict.

But the culpability for the current environment of insecurity in Karen State cannot be distributed equally between the two sides. If there is one primary agent of insecurity in Karen State, it is the Tatmadaw. It is plain that the government has designs over Karen State that make the prospect of cooperation with the KNU unlikely, and the Tatmadaw’s recent penchant for attacking ceasefire groups – starting with the Kokang incident in August 2009 and continuing with the revival of the Kachin war in June of last year – has rightfully unsettled many within the KNU establishment. That the KNU and its allies have agreed to a ceasefire with the government at all is a substantial development, as the organisation has been staunchly protective of its autonomy and highly mistrusting of the government’s motives for its entire history.

While conducting thesis research on both sides of the Thai-Burma border in December and early January, I encountered almost universal scepticism with regards to the expected ceasefire, which was signed a few days after I left the region. My KNU-affiliated sources felt that it was a question of when, not if, fighting would resume. At the time, there was a widespread perception on the ground that the Tatmadaw would take advantage of the relative quiet to reinforce their positions, to give them the upper hand over the KNU in securing control over territory when hostilities resumed. While the ceasefire remains officially in place, reports suggest that the Tatmadaw is, indeed, using the lull to bolster its defences, with the goal of displacing the KNU from its traditional strongholds and paving the way for the kind of large-scale commercial exploitation that it has sought for years.

As with its designs over Kachin State, Naypyidaw intends to bring Karen State firmly under heel, in order to exploit its vast mineral, hydropower, and forest resources. The Karen hills also lie in the middle of the shortest overland route between Yangon and Bangkok, and the stretch of coastline immediately adjacent to them could potentially offer convenient access to the Indian Ocean for the manufacturing and agricultural heartland of Central Thailand. Its strategic geography and natural endowments make it attractive to politicians and business leaders on both sides of the border, especially as Burma’s economy opens up to the outside world to a much greater degree than before. But the KNU is still perceived as an annoyance to the government and big capital, and is seen in Naypyidaw as threatening the official development/exploitation agenda.

A case in point is a deep-sea port currently under construction at Dawei, in Tenasserim Division, which is perhaps the most ambitious and expensive project currently underway in or around Karen State. Financed largely by Thai interests, the area surrounding the construction site is partially controlled by troops from KNLA Brigade 4. So long as negotiations only focus on ending hostilities and do not address the prospect of real political and economic power sharing, it is highly possible that the Tatmadaw will choose to break the ceasefire in an attempt to annihilate the KNU militarily, as it has done with the KIA in Kachin State. For this reason, it is difficult to gauge just how deep and durable the ceasefire in Karen State truly is, and the likelihood that the government will unilaterally break it remains high.

The ceasefire has also acted as a wedge within the KNU establishment, and, for a time, split the KNU into pro- and anti-ceasefire factions along regional lines. Although the KNU has been fraught with internecine conflict for decades, the post-ceasefire period has ushered in a period of particular disunity. Many within the KNU are justifiably wary of the government’s intentions, and see any sort of thaw as potentially rendering the Karen vulnerable to the kind of devastation wrought in Kachin State. Although the KNU has thus far managed to present a moderately united front in its dealings with Naypyidaw, the organisation is starting to make a concerted effort to deal with its own problems with institutional cohesion and party discipline. At an emergency meeting held between October 25-26, the KNU central committee reinstated two recently dismissed executive members and sought to mend the rift between pro- and anti-ceasefire factions. A third round of peace talks with the government in early September focused on establishing a “code of conduct” for both sides to follow, which – if properly formulated and actually adhered to – might help avoid a violent relapse. How successful the KNU will be in either endeavour, however, remains to be seen, as current political climate precludes discussion of truly legitimating the KNU as a political entity or giving it a real stake in the development agenda.

While fighting itself has slowed considerably, Karen State remains as militarised as it was before the ceasefire was signed. Both sides continue to deploy antipersonnel mines to secure their positions in preparation for war breaking out once again, and an unwillingness to unilaterally demobilise or demine has prevented either side from taking the first step to ease militarisation. But as the primary agent of displacement and violence in Karen State, it is the government that needs to take the first step, as doing so would send a strong signal to the KNU that it is legitimately interested in partnership and conciliation. Whether or not the government is actually interested in meaningful dialogue with the KNU is, however, a matter for debate, and given their recent treatment of other armed ethnic ceasefire groups, I find it highly unlikely that they are.

Because the government’s actions have not demonstrated that is interested in real peacebuilding in Karen State, the notion that now is a good time for Karen refugees to be repatriated – as has been discussed recently – is a highly premature one. The Thai government is keen to repatriate the 140,000 plus Burmese refugees resident in Thailand, and is happy to use the excuse provided by Naypyidaw’s political and economic reforms to make a case for this to occur. But conditions on the other side of the border are in no way conducive to civilian safety and security. Some 1.5 million people remain internally displaced, and although fighting has essentially ended for the time being in Karen State, pervasive insecurity from landmines, forced labour and extortion remains the reality for many. Indeed, an influx of returnees might in fact prompt the KNLA and its allies to plant even more landmines, as more communities and individuals would be in need of protection from government attacks.

While the current stalemate in Karen State is better than what preceded it, and a pause in fighting can only be good for civilian populations for the time being, the lack of true demilitarization and demobilization, combined with both sides stockpiling for a conflict that may or may not come is highly disconcerting. The prospect of war breaking out in Karen State at any minute is real; given the government’s treatment of other ceasefire groups in recent years, it would likely be more intense and devastating than it has at any time in the 60+ year history of the Karen conflict. For true progress to be made, the KNU needs to be given real political power and a stake in the development agenda that the government is pushing for Karen State. Likewise, the government needs to take the first steps to demilitarise Karen State, through unilaterally demobilizing troops and conducting demining operations of its own accord. Doing so would indicate to the KNU and displaced civilians alike that it is serious about good-faith dialogue and equitable development, and is not the conquering occupier it is generally perceived to be on the ground. But despite the fact that an official dialogue with the KNU is still ongoing, there is no real evidence to suggest that the government has any interest in working with them to bring about a lasting, durable solution to the conflict, a fact which bodes poorly for the future of the ceasefire and long-term prospects for peace. Although the global spotlight is as focused as it ever will be on conflicts elsewhere in Burma, it may shine uncomfortably on Karen State in the near future if the government does not make a concerted effort to deal with underlying structural problems preventing peace from taking hold in Karen State  — and effort which it, unfortunately, seems unwilling to make at this point.

Alex Bookbinder recently completed a thesis titled “Landmines and Civilian Security in Eastern Burma: Implications for Humanitarian Engagement for a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.