Burma: Risk in The Golden Land
Successful political and economic reform mean great opportunities — can the risks be averted?

City of Bagan


Ethnic reconciliation is the second significant risk to progress. The central government’s various battles with the ethnic non-state armed groups (NSAGs) — there have been wars with groups of Karen, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin, Karenni, Kokang, Pa-O, Palaung, Naga, and Lahu origin, to name a few — involve different motives and distinct cultural histories, but all the groups share an interest in some measure of political autonomy and control over their economic resources, especially when it comes to profit-sharing agreements for natural resources. Today, most of these groups have signed ceasefires, leaving the Tatmadaw to retrain its crosshairs on the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), headquartered in a region rich in jade and minerals.

The battle for control of Kachin territories is characteristic of Tatmadaw campaigns in ethnic states over the last six decades. The Tatmadaw has targeted civilians, raped women, burned churches (the Kachin are predominantly Baptist and Catholic), killed livestock, and mortared villages with chemical agents.

While President Thein Sein talks about peace like he is open to the idea of compromise with the Kachin, the Tatmadaw wants to vanquish its enemy to make a clear statement about its dominance. This scorched-earth strategy risks unraveling the fragile ceasefires with other groups.

In the coming weeks and months, the Kachin war should reveal some key signals. The Tatmadaw has surrounded the KIA headquarters in Laiza but is unlikely to attack this border city because the only spoils of war would be the displacement of tens of thousands of people currently supported by the KIA’s political arm. Other ethnic groups are uneasy about the tactics used in this conflict and will want to see some kind of guarantee from Thein Sein’s government that a replay of the horrific Kachin campaign isn’t coming to their region next.

The last eleven attempts by the KIA and Tatmadaw to discuss a ceasefire have gone nowhere, with the latter frequently disrespecting their counterparts by sending junior officers to the negotiating table, and rejecting outright the KIA’s calls for third-party moderators or observers. If Thein Sein can convince the Tatmadaw to stomach a neutral moderator and observers from the media, it would earn important political capital among other ethnic groups, are otherwise considering their respective withdrawals from the increased engagement of the last two years.

Another way to build goodwill with the ethnic groups would be for the military to allow humanitarian aid through roadblocks into rebel-controlled territory, providing welcome relief and affording all parties the political space and interlocutors necessary for negotiated resolution.

However, a ceasefire agreement is just a piece of paper, so signals about whether the conflict has an end in sight can come only from the Tatmadaw itself. High-level delegates authorized to make decisions would be a good place to start.

Ethnic conflict presents possibly Thein Sein’s most difficult challenge: It compromises both internal and external perceptions of his ability to lead, but it’s not clear he would survive direct confrontation with the military.

Spheres of influence present the third main risk to Burma. The U.S.’s “pivot” toward Asia has drawn considerable attention to the region; President Obama’s and Secretary of State Clinton’s visits to Southeast Asia, including Burma, have only intensified this. The most likely result of deepening U.S. interest will be an increasingly agitated China, along with a more active India.

In that context, Chinese state-owned enterprises will certainly continue to expand investment in Burma, notwithstanding the grumblings of marginalized local merchants. Despite questions about the transparency and rectitude of Chinese business practices, the country’s investment does not inherently pose a threat to political reforms and economic progress. The risk arises if investment is the harbinger of expanded ties between the People’s Liberation Army and the Tatmadaw that might embolden the latter, shaping not just the security landscape but Burma’s political conditions too.

In order to take advantage of Burma’s promising moment, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi must balance the inclusion of democracy proponents in a national dialogue, the resolution of longstanding ethnic conflicts, the emerging Chinese and U.S. regional competition for influence, and the Tatmadaw’s commercial and security priorities. The management of these risks will determine whether Burma proves to be the Golden Land, as it was once known, or slips back into its darker recent history.

— Christian Lewis is the Southeast Asia researcher at Eurasia Group, a political-risk advisory firm. Follow him on Twitter @cwclewis.