April 25, 2014

Wardrums in Myanmar's Wa hills

By Anthony Davis 
Apr 23, '14

YANGON - Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar's armed forces, or Tatmadaw, is a man on the move. Since the beginning of the year he has traveled to Laos and Indonesia, attended large-scale war games in central Myanmar, reviewed the country's largest ever naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal, presided over the annual Army Day parade in the capital Naypyidaw and met with a string of foreign dignitaries. 

A recent less publicized engagement was arguably more significant for Myanmar's war and peace prospects. On April 6, Min Aung Hlaing flew north from Naypyidaw to the garrison town of Lashio in northeastern Shan State to hold talks with Bao You-ri, the younger brother of Bao You-xiang, the ailing leader of the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Based east of the Salween River in a self-governing "special region", the UWSA is Myanmar's largest insurgent group and is at present in an uneasy ceasefire with the government.

That Myanmar's most powerful military and political figure should himself travel from his headquarters for a meeting with a proxy of the leader of an armed ethnic group rather than delegating the task to the relevant regional commander was intriguing. Even more remarkable was that Min Aung Hlaing was flanked by Armed Forces chief of general staff Gen Hla Htay Win, Air Force commander Gen Khin Aung Myint, and Navy commander Admiral Thura Thet Swe. Such a line-up of the Tatmadaw's senior-most leadership is unprecedented in any government talks to date with ethnic groups. 
The meeting came at the same time as talks in Yangon between a government panel - including military officers - and a team of leaders from 16 other ethnic factions aimed at drafting a "nationwide ceasefire agreement", or NCA. Intended to mark the end of 66 years of ethnic and political armed strife and serve as a foundation for further progress on the military roadmap towards "disciplined democracy", the signing of the NCA has been postponed several times since July last year. The Tatmadaw has now set a deadline of August 1 for the planned grand ceremony. 

The UWSA, however, has remained pointedly aloof from President Thein Sein's self-touted peace process. Formerly a major segment of the China-backed Communist Party of Burma (CPB), the Wa have had their own ceasefire with the Tatmadaw since the CPB collapsed in 1989. After a spike in tensions caused by the Wa's rejection of demands that the UWSA subordinate itself to Tatmadaw command as part of a so-called "border guard force" (BGF), the two sides' ceasefire agreement was renewed in September 2011. 

While monitoring the negotiations surrounding the NCA, the Wa last year put forward a demand for their own state within Myanmar which would effectively legitimize the complete autonomy they currently enjoy in their "Special Region No 2" - and, presumably, the continued existence of their own armed forces to safeguard that autonomy. 

The Wa have the firepower to back such demands. The UWSA is loosely estimated to field close to 25,000 regulars backed by a large militia reserve. The group has been making consistent efforts to expand its capabilities with a view to deterring any possible Tatmadaw moves against it. Following Tatmadaw pressure over the BGF scheme, fears of such an attack were galvanized first by Tatmadaw incursions in 2009 against the autonomous Special Region No 1 in Kokang, to the north of the Wa area, and then by a major government offensive against the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in late 2012 and early 2013. 

Whether the younger Bao was flattered or intimidated to find himself facing Myanmar's most powerful military chiefs remains unclear: the details of their April 6 exchange have not been disclosed. However, it seems likely the message from the military's side was the same as that which was passed to a delegation from the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) - a de facto ally of the UWSA - at a separate meeting in Lashio that same day. As described to the Irrawaddy magazine by one SSA-N source: "He [Min Aung Hlaing] said the armed groups should lay down their guns as there should only be a single army for the country." 

Show of strength
In late February Min Aung Hlaing was conveying a rather blunter message from the Tatmadaw: a divisional-level live-fire exercise held outside the central Myanmar town of Meiktila. Dubbed "Anawratha" after the founder of the 11th century Pagan Empire, the well-publicized war games involved a panoply of military power centered on mechanized infantry of the Magwe-based 88th Light Infantry Division using indigenously produced Ukrainian armored personnel carriers and Chinese infantry fighting vehicles. 

The infantry was supported by intense firepower from main battle tanks, a range of artillery systems including multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), 105mm and 155mm howitzers, and close air support in the shape of rocket-firing Mi-35 helicopter gunships and low-flying Mig-29 air superiority fighters. Shortly after, a blog site dedicated to the Myanmar military understood to be close to the Tatmadaw described this display of military might as a "final warning" to the UWSA to join the national peace process or face the consequences. 

More optimistic observers of Myanmar politics, including a growing Western lobby that consistently defends Thein Sein's political reforms and national peace initiative, will choose to assume that the ratcheting up of psychological pressure on the UWSA is essentially just that - psychological pressure. The expectation will be that the Wa, not known for their sensitivity to diplomatic signals, will simply call Naypyidaw's bluff as they did successfully to threats in 2009 and that the ceasefire status quo will be preserved. 

Such assumptions may well be dangerously misplaced, however. The last time the Tatmadaw staged well-publicized divisional-level exercises outside Meiktila was in March 2012 with a display of firepower primarily intended to impress the KIA, which was then under pressure to renew a ceasefire that had collapsed in mid-2011. When the KIA refused to reenter negotiations, the war games were followed up at the end of year dry season with a full-scale campaign aimed at neutralizing the Kachin headquarters at Laiza. 

The mounting pressure on the Wa thus poses some stark questions: will the UWSA continue to reject participation in the peace process and, if so, does Tatmadaw strategy envisage securing a nation-wide cease-fire with a large majority of ethnic groups by August and then, with that agreement hand, moving decisively against the Wa at the beginning of the dry season in December? 

Conventional wisdom suggests that such a government offensive is improbable for at least three main reasons. First is the sheer scale of operations that would be necessary to break the back of the UWSA. In their Special Region No 2 along the Chinese border the Wa field three main-force brigades with artillery and armored support units. Further south in what is known as Military Region 171 along the Shan State's border with Thailand five smaller brigades are based. The UWSA also has a reliable ally in the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) which fields a further 3,500 to 4,000 mainly ethnic Shan and hill-tribe troops in its Special Region No 4 wedged between Wa territory and the Mekong River. 

Simply put, taking on the UWSA - a large, well-trained and highly motivated force fighting on home ground with its back to the Chinese border - would amount to the largest single Tatmadaw campaign since Myanmar's independence from colonial rule in 1948. Considering the likely involved size of forces and firepower in such a conflict, the human cost would be correspondingly heavy. Military analysts believe any full-scale assault on Wa territory would see casualties rising rapidly over the 10,000 mark and possibly far higher during the first few months of the dry season. 

A second and related factor centers on doubts over the Tatmadaw's capabilities in conducting sustained, combined-arms operations involving the coordination of infantry, armor, artillery and close air support in rugged, hostile terrain. Tatmadaw performance in the Laiza campaign of late 2012 and early 2013 against the KIA, which faced dogged resistance from a far less capable enemy, was at best unimpressive, particularly in regard to the effectiveness of close air support. At worst, it reflected serious problems of planning and coordination. 

Finally, war against the Wa would inevitably incur the diplomatic wrath of China. Since May 2011, China and Myanmar have been joined in a "comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership", and Beijing has repeatedly impressed on Naypyidaw the importance of stability along their common border since well before then. The Tatmadaw's 2009 incursion into Kokang - essentially a minor policing operation by comparison with a potential campaign in the Wa Hills - prompted the exodus of an estimated 36,000 refugees into China and heated protests from Beijing. Any invasion of Wa territory would by some estimates drive at least 100,000 civilians across the border. 

Expanding arsenal
Nevertheless, there are also powerful arguments almost certainly being aired in the upper echelons of the Tatmadaw in favor of a decisive move against the Wa. The most compelling is that the longer the Tatmadaw waits the more problematic the task will become. 

Militarily, the UWSA is clearly playing for time while expanding its forces and modernizing its arsenal with increasingly sophisticated weapons. This rearmament has involved acquiring new systems from across the Chinese border, including armored vehicles and a limited number of 'Hip' Mi-17 transport helicopters for which UWSA crews have been undergoing training in China. 

Far more important, however, has been a rapid build-up of stockpiles of infantry weaponry - including man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) - and ammunition intended, if necessary, to sustain what one senior ethnic commander monitoring the resupply process described in late 2012 as a "10-year war." 

Socially and economically, Special Region No 2 has come to resemble more an annex of China than a region of Myanmar. The lingua franca in the UWSA and the region generally is Mandarin Chinese; the currency is the Chinese yuan; and the mobile telephone network serving the area is Chinese. Meanwhile, Chinese investment in both the rubber and, more importantly, rare earth metal industries is significant and growing. Viewed from Naypyidaw, the continuation of the status quo, let alone the recognition of an autonomous Wa State, risks the region's de facto accession to China. 

A second factor is a mood of rising nationalist pride and confidence inside the Tatmadaw. This trend appears to derive partly from a process of rapid military modernization which is reinforcing a long-held institutional mission of upholding and defending national unity and sovereignty - a mission which inherently demands an end to the anomaly of states within a state. Nascent militarism, which blends into rising Buddhist nationalism with decidedly xenophobic tinges, appears to be gaining currency across Myanmar society judging by social media posts and a number of popular jingoistic blogs. 

Myanmar's new nationalism has focused on two main foils. Growing discrimination and outright attacks against the ethnic minority Rohingya community and Muslims more generally have been widely reported. Less visible but never far from the surface of the popular mood is angst over Chinese influence in the country. 

Unease over China's fast expanding role in Myanmar's economy grew under military rule and found striking expression in the movement to halt the construction of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project in Kachin State in 2011. Against this backdrop, a military campaign against an armed group which is widely regarded as a Chinese proxy force operating within Myanmar's borders would likely not be a hard sell. It might even be popular, not least in the run up to general elections scheduled for 2015. 

International angles
Internationally, any conflict with the Wa would be presented by Thein Sein's government with little need for cosmetics as a war on Asia's largest narcotics-trafficking cartel. The UWSA's unsavory record as an organization which since the late 1990s has engaged in industrial-scale production and region-wide export of methamphetamine and heroin and whose top leadership has been formally indicted in an United States court would go far to mute criticism in the West. 

By contrast, China's reaction would be angry and loud. But having predicated its Wa strategy on deterrence - quietly assisting a UWSA build-up that makes war too costly for Naypyidaw to contemplate - the collapse of that deterrent would leave Beijing with surprisingly few options. 

Sanctions against Naypyidaw, let alone active support for a protracted Wa insurgency, would serve only to push Myanmar more rapidly towards the US, Japan and Europe, compounding already lively Chinese fears over perceived containment. A more comprehensive breakdown in bilateral relations would also threaten China's extensive economic interests in Myanmar and the security of new natural gas and oil pipelines built across the length of Myanmar from the Bay of Bengal to fuel the growth of southwestern China. 

From Beijing's perspective, allowing matters to deteriorate to that point would be virtually inconceivable. As was the case after the Kokang operation in 2009 and the Myitsone Dam reversal in 2011, China would probably have little choice but to protest and adapt to new realities. 

In the final analysis, the central factor in the Tatmadaw's calculus remains a military one. The preferred option would clearly be a combined-arms blitzkrieg with heavy emphasis on artillery and air strikes that would swiftly overwhelm key military and administrative centers and smash the UWSA as a cohesive force. Were the Wa to succumb to the temptation of attempting to defend fixed positions against overwhelming firepower, a victory of sorts might well be achieved. 

The risk for the Tatmadaw would be sliding into a morass of open-ended guerrilla resistance. Such a conflict could easily metastasize south into eastern Shan State and along the Thai border, destabilizing a wide swath of territory between the Salween and Mekong Rivers and inflaming relations with other ethnic minorities. Should a war with the Wa drag on with rising casualties, it could also do immense damage to the military's own national prestige and political leadership role. 

The purely military calculus suggests such risks far outweigh the costs imposed by Wa intransigence and an unpalatable but hardly unbearable status quo. History, however, is long on examples of strategic miscalculations with far-reaching repercussions triggered by military hubris and national pride. 

Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's. 

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