In three days Burma will be holding its first election in twenty years. Inside Burma a storm is brewing, but here, just on the other side of the border Mae Sot is a stronghold of pro-democracy Burmese activists in exile. Once a tiny trading town, Mae Sot is now a busy crossroads. Its proximity to one of only three legal border crossings to Burma makes it a hub for legal and illegal trade of all kinds, following a river of trade and migration that starts in Bangadesh and India, flows across Burma and empties out in Mae Sot. .
Its location just inside the Thai border makes it a popular destination for Burmese who are fleeing repression and human rights abuses inside Burma. The result is a place where its possible to walk through the market without hearing a word of Thai, where Imams end their predawn call to prayer just before Buddhist monks begin their morning chanting. Burmese spies have full time posts here, photographing political refugees who have made this town their home.
We made a trip out of town yesterday, and in the space of less than twenty miles our sangthaew (a truck with seats in the back that serves as a local bus) was stopped three times. Other than our group of four westerners, everyone on the bus was asked to pull out their Thai ID cards, or their papers.
The checkpoints are one small indicator of the effort that the Thai authorities are putting into restricting the access to their country from Burma. The Thais, like the rest of the world, expected a huge influx of newcomers into the refugee camps. That influx has been effectively quelled by maneuvers like this.
While the Thai government is generally supportive of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, they are also tied economically to their neighbor. More than a month before the election Burma sealed its border with Thailand, and the resulting drop in trade was a big hit to Thailand’s economy. Burma has promised to re-open the border after the election – as long as Thailand will do their part to limit the activities of the opponents of Burma’s military regime.
Several sources inside the Karen state in Burma have explained to us that the Burmese military is facing an uphill battle of mounting pressure against their military – a battle that’s of their own making.
While there are over 40 ethnic groups in Burma, there are six major groups, all of which retain their own militias. These groups occupy the border regions of northern Burma. Over the last two decades, the Burmese military has created ceasefire agreements with five of the six groups. Only the Karen National Union has never signed a ceasefire.
Since spring of 2010, the Burmese military leadership has made the rounds through the ethnic regions, demanding that their militias be absorbed into the Burmese military. The intention is not only to increase the ranks of the Burmese military, but also guarantee more votes for the military’s candidates.
The plan has backfired, unifying the ethnic groups both politically and militarily for the first time in almost two decades. A coalition has formed between the ethnic ceasefire groups, who together with the Karen faction, have all flatly refused this obvious conscription into the ranks of the Burmese military.
The ethnic regions are spread out over a fairly large area, with geographical boundaries and military forces in between, which makes actual coordination difficult to execute. Ma Bhone Kyaw is General Secretary of the National Democratic Force, a political party that represents a large majority of the ethnic groups. He explained to us that the support for one another would come in the form of responsive military actions. So, for example, were the military to attack the Karen forces, the Mon, the Chin, and the rest of the groups in the coalition will launch counterattacks in their own areas.
This puts the Burmese military in a bind – if they don’t push back against these groups who are refusing their orders, they might be seen as backing down. In response, rather than retreating from their demands, they’ve begun backtracking from the ceasefires. Already the Kachin army, one group that has agreed to a ceasefire with the Burmese military over the past sixteen years, has been labeled “insurgents” by the state owned media—a designation that could have ominous consequences.
Beyond simple threats against the ceasefire groups, the military has also made aggressive moves to take away major income generators that these groups have been awarded in exchange for their loyalty. These rewards have included management of natural resources, like mining, and most significantly, management of major drug operations. With Burma second only to Afghanistan in opium production, and with major methamphetamine operations growing in several ethnic regions with support by the military, the potential loss of income to the ethnic groups is huge. Severing these business ties is giving one more reason for the ethnic groups to collaborate with each other instead of with the Burmese military.
At this point, it appears likely that the SPDC will bide its time until after the election before making many major moves, waiting for the international eye to shift its gaze away from their country, which, inevitably, it will.
People are still fleeing Burma – we’ve talked to some of them, and listened to stories from many others, but far fewer are able to make it all the way through the jungle, across the river, and over the usually porous border into refugee camps. Instead, we’re told, those who are fleeing are camping out in the jungle on the Burmese side of the border, many of them moving daily from place to place to avoid being found by Burmese soldiers.
There is no question that on all sides, the mood is one of preparation for major armed engagement. Rather than preparing for an election, the stage is set for a perfect storm.