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Jane's Intelligence Review - Burma' (r)

Subject: Jane's Intelligence Review - Burma's ceasefire agreements in  danger of unravelling  

Jane's Intelligence Review

November 1, 1998

SECTION: ASIA; Vol. 10; No. 11; Pg. 23  

LENGTH: 4196 words  

HEADLINE: Burma's ceasefire agreements in danger of unravelling  

BYLINE: Bruce Hawke  

HIGHLIGHT: Bruce Hawke visits Shan State, Burma, where the Burmese Army
isstifling all opposition with a campaign of ethnic cleansing.  

 The precarious ceasefire agreements between the military government
 and ethnic minority armies in Shan State, Burma (Myanmar) look
 increasingly vulnerable, and are in danger of falling apart
 altogether. Mutual distrust between Rangoon and the numerous
 quiescent insurgent groups has reached unprecedented levels. The
 junta accuses the ceasefire groups of arming and providing support
 to rebels, while the ethnic leaders are suspicious of Rangoon's
 divide-and-rule tactics and accuse it of racially-motivated genocide
 and a score of other abuses in Shan State. Both arguments are
 supported by substantial bodies of evidence and both sides are
 tooling up and digging in for a resumption of hostilities.
 In 1989, following the breakup of the Communist Party of Burma
 (CPB), Rangoon negotiated a series of peace agreements with the
 ethnic armies which emerged in the CPB's wake, and went on to
 conclude agreements with other non-communist groups in the years
 that followed. The details of the verbal deals were never made
 public and vary from groups to group depending on their military
 (and hence bargaining) power.
 The agreements allowed the insurgents to operate in liberated zones,
 have free trade access to the people's Republic of China (PRC)
 and/or Thailand, and freedom to engage in the heroin trade,
 unhindered by the government. In return, Rangoon had peace on the
 border, allowing it to concentrate on consolidating its position in
 lowland Burma and other areas.  

    The architect of these deals was Brigadier General (now Lieutenant
 General) Khin Nyunt, the chief of intelligence and until recently,
 the most powerful individual in the junta. The deals were, however,
 far from universally popular with the insurgent groups, many of
 whose leaders wanted to keep fighting, or even within the Burmese
 Army, as many commanders saw compromise with these  ethnic leaders
 as unnecessary and undignified. In all, 15 ceasefire agreements and
 three 'surrender in exchange for immunity from prosecution'-type
 deals were officially made across the country, and an unofficial
 deal was struck with mutineers from the Karen National Union (KNU),
 which effectively marginalised it.
 The man credited with negotiating the deal and engineering the
 split, Colonel (now Brigadier-General) Sein Win, the military
 commander of Pa-an, Karen State, was rewarded by being recalled to
 Rangoon and appointed Minister of Sport.
 Although there were reports of occasional shoot-outs between
 ceasefire groups and government troops, particularly the Kachin
 Independence Army (KIA), the Shan State Army (SSA) and Karenni
 Nationalities Progressive Party (KNPP), the agreements held together
 fairly well until 1996.
 In January of that year, following the defection of part of his Mong
 Tai Army (MTA) in 1994 and an ongoing battle for control over key
 areas of the Burma-Thai border against the United Wa State Army
 (UWSA) and regular Burmese Army troops, Khun Sa signed a surrender
 deal with Rangoon. One of his ethnic Shan commanders, Major Yord
 Serk, refused to accept the surrender deal and resurrected the
 long-defunct Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) taking
 1,500-2,000 troops with him to fight the government.
 Later in the year, the KNPP ceasefire fell apart altogether.
 Arguments over profit-sharing of logging deals on the Thai border
 with local Burmese government military commanders spilled over into
 full-scale fighting between the 1,000-1,500 strong Karenni  force,
 and the vastly numerically superior Burmese Army based at Loikaw.
 SSA leaders became furious at a brutal, if low intensity war of
 attrition being waged by the Burmese Army in southern Shan State. In
 this war, rural families have been subjected to forced relocation,
 forced labour and to being conscripted as porters on the
 battlefield. Regular incidents of extortion, rape, torture and
 extra-judicial killings on the part of government troops were rarely
 if ever punished. Since March 1996, well over 1,000 civilians have
 died as a result of Burmese Army massacres.
 The Burmese government was upset by a meeting held at Mae Tha Raw
 Hla, one of the few remaining KNU bases in Karen State, attended by
 the eight groups currently fighting against the Burmese Army. Also
 in attendance at the meeting were several representatives of groups
 with current ceasefire agreements. Sai Pao (aka Ai Pao-sin), the
 UWSA's northern command pointman in Thailand, and a close associate
 of UWSA chief Ta Pang, was there. Also in attendance was the KIA
 representative in Thailand, Zaw Seng, and New Mon State Party (NMSP)
 delegate Nai Hunter. They all signed an agreement on 15 January,
 pledging to fight the Burmese government. The UWSA leadership in
 Pangsangh told outraged Burmese authorities that Sai Pao did not
 have their authorisation to attend or sign on behalf of the UWSA.
 The same excuse was made by the KIA of Zaw Seng's participation, but
 Rangoon was probably correct in being skeptical of the denials. Nai
 hunter was officially expelled from the NMSP under pressure from the
 Burmese government.
 At the same January meeting, an agreement to form the United
 Nationalities Shan State Army (UNSSA) was signed. It comprises the
 SURA with its 3,000-4,000 armed troops and four small rebel groups
 also operating in the state, the Wa National Army (WNA - not to be
 confused with Wei Xue-gang's former army with the same name), the
 Pao People's Liberation Army, the Lahu Guerrilla Force (LGF) and the
 Palaung State Liberation Front. While it is a small start, it must
 be of deep concern to Rangoon that the groups are starting to talk
 and co-ordinate, rather than fighting among themselves, as has been
 the normal practice in the past.
 Also of some concern to the junta was the fact that in September
 last year, the three ethnic-Shan groups, the SSA, Shan National Army
 (SSNA) and SURA signed an agreement to merge at meeting held in Seng
 Kaeo. The main motivation for the merger may have been to facilitate
 a ceasefire for the SURA faction. This despite the fact that the
 SURA is fighting the government and the other two groups have
 ceasefire agreements. The Burmese junta refused to recognise the
 merger, but SURA troops regularly visit SSA- controlled areas near
 Hsipaw in between fighting engagements against government troops.
 The United Wa State Army
 Whether there will be wide-scale fighting or not in Shan State in
 the near future depends largely on the United Wa State Army (UWSA),
 by far Burma's largest, wealthiest and most powerful ethnic minority
 army. The UWSA was described by the US State Department as "the
 world's biggest armed narcotics trafficking organisation," and is
 profiting enormously from the trade in heroin and amphetamines. From
 the available evidence, it is plowing much of the proceeds back into
 arming and equipping itself.
 The UWSA actually consists of two factions which live uneasily with
 each other. The main force (the northern command) is based in the Wa
 hills of northern Shan State between the Salween river and Chinese
 border. A second faction (the southern command) is based in southern
 Shan State opposite the town  San Ton Du, in Chiangmai Province,
 The southern command (formerly the Wa National Army) is led by a
 China-born heroin and amphetamines trafficker with close links to
 Taiwanese Intelligence, Wei Xue-gang. He fields about 5,000 troops.
 The northern command has grown significantly since the ceasefire
 agreement in 1989 and now fields somewhere around armed 25,000
 troops, up from the 15,000 it was estimated to have nine years ago.
 In 1994, the Burmese Government invited the UWSA to bring 2,000
 troops down from the Wa hills to the Thai border to bolster Wei's
 forces and to fight MTA troops present in the Maung Yone Valley. The
 Burmese were happy to use the Wa as proxy army, but the UWSA had its
 own agenda. The troops were brought down, but under the command of
 Ta Tahng (aka Wei Sai-tang), a senior northern command general.
 These troops, the '894', were hardened fighters with an unparalleled
 record on the battlefield. They eventually forced the MTA out of the
 area and claimed it for themselves.
 There are now 8,000-10,000 northern command troops on the Thai
 border controlled by Ta Tahng, now the effective second in command
 of the UWSA. They have solidified their position by bringing down
 thousands of Wa civilians to the border (In the process they have
 displaced thousands of ethnic Shan civilians, a point which does not
 sit well with Shan leaders). Breaking with longstanding tradition,
 polygamy has been encouraged in an effort to quickly increase the
 population base on the border.
 The headquarters of the 894 may be reached from Thailand by taking a
 road which juts north from Highway 1089 to the west of the Thai town
 San Ton Du. Before the frontier, vehicles must pass through two Thai
 Army checkpoints. Officially, the border is closed. In practice, it
 is business as usual.
 On the other side of the border is Wei Xue-gang's well- appointed
 base, complete with a large parade ground, a shooting range,
 barracks. His fortress-like (and fortress-sized) residence atop Hill
 361 is surrounded by ramparts and trenches. Training and technical
 support at the camp is provided by Taiwanese advisors.
 Roughly 25km further along the road is the southern end of the Maung
 Yone Valley and the northern command troops of Ta Tahng. There is
 currently a lot of construction in progress. Thai  contractors are
 making all-weather roads to link the valley with Mong Hsat, the next
 valley north where the northern command also maintains a garrison.
 There were, at the time of writing, six graders with Chiangrai and
 Phitsanulok licence plates, four scoops, three rollers and at least
 10 dump trucks at work. A Thai building contractor has just
 completed a school and hospital and a new barracks was under
 construction. There were at least 20 new Toyota four-wheel-drive
 pickups and landcruisers in evidence.
 Also in evidence were small numbers of Chinese-nationals working as
 advisors - there were 10 school teachers and medics in their 20s
 (the Chinese equivalent of Peace Corps), and at least five older men
 who appeared to be either military advisors or intelligence
 personnel. Ta Tahng's troops were well fitted out with Type 56 and
 M16   assault rifles, RPK and RPD light machine guns, PK machine
 guns, RPG-7 portable rocket launchers, and there were also 81 and
 120 mm mortars in view. A UWSA source also claimed the camp had two
 105 mm howitzers, though they were not in public view.
 Relations between Pangsangh and Rangoon soured noticeably towards
 the end of 1997. In December, the Ministry of National Planning and
 Economic Development announced that it had blacklisted a UWSA front
 company operating in Rangoon, the Myanmar Kyone Yeom Company Ltd.
 Its chairman, Michael Hu Hwa (aka Colonel Kyaw Myint), who claimed
 to be a deputy minister of finance for the UWSA, openly and brazenly
 flouted Burmese business laws and regulations.
 A hastily arranged meeting the next day between Lieutenant-General
 Khin Nyunt and senior UWSA leaders, including Ta Pang in Rangoon,
 led to the blacklisting being revoked and the cabinet minister
 responsible, David Abel, being moved to another ministry portfolio.
 However, in February, following adverse international publicity
 regarding the company and the fact that its chairman was openly
 distributing circulars defaming members of the government, Myanmar
 Kyone Yeom was closed down for good.
 Tensions between the northern and southern commands of the UWSA are
 reaching a critical point. The northern Wa have long been suspicious
 of Wei Xue-gang and his purely commercial operation. Also at issue
 was his uncomfortably friendly relationship with leading figures in
 the Burmese Government, especially Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt.
 Wei's previous usefulness to Pangsangh, in that his operation
 provided the brains and the international connections to produce and
 distribute heroin and repatriate the profits, became redundant. The
 northern UWSA now have their own chemists and distribution channels,
 according to western intelligence sources, and they also have their
 own access to the Thai border.
 During 1997, several Wei Xue-gang heroin shipments were seized by
 the Thai authorities while none originating from the northern
 command were touched. Wei believed that the northern command
 pointman in Chiangmai, Sai Pao, had fingered his production to the
 police, according to Wa sources. In late 1997, it was rumoured that
 Sai Pao was going to attempt to have Wei assassinated.
 Wei pre-empted him. On 7 January of this year, Sai Pao was gunned
 down outside the Princess Hotel in Chiangmai as he was leaving the
 wedding of a friend's daughter. His assailant was riding a motorbike
 and wearing a police uniform. According to intelligence sources, Wei
 had contacted corrupt elements in the Chiangrai police, who hired an
 assassin from Petchaboon Province.
 In June, Wei Xue-gang was indicted on heroin-trafficking charges by
 a New York federal court. The US Justice Department put a US$2
 million price on his head. He quickly travelled to Rangoon to
 negotiate an immunity-from-extradition deal with the junta. Wei was
 especially vulnerable: born in China he has no legal right to
 Burmese nationality, though he has at various times held Taiwanese
 and Thai (his Thai documents named him as Prasit Chivinnitipanya)
 According to one intelligence source, "Leaders in Pangsangh were
 concerned that he might 'do a Khun Sa' and invite the State Law and
 Order Restoration Council  (SLORC/SPDC)  troops in to take over his
 patch". Ta Tahng, head of the northern command Thai border area,
 wanted to attack Wei's camp according to sources close to him. Wei
 was, at the time of writing, in Pangsangh trying to negotiate a
 rapprochement with the UWSA but according to Wa sources was not
 making much headway. He had been there since the beginning of July.
 "I think he's looking for a dignified way out," said an intelligence
 The Wa ethnic group have a long tradition of headhunting. Ta Lai,
 the official leader of the UWSA, openly admits to having taken a few
 heads in his youth. Though a debilitating stroke in 1995 has left
 him as little more than a figurehead, he has regularly and vocally
 expressed a desire to take a few Burmese heads again. These
 sentiments are also expressed in private by other Wa leaders.
 As the Burmese economy implodes, the possibility of widespread civil
 unrest or communal rioting in urban areas becomes a more likely
 possibility. In the advent of Chaos in the cities, minority armies
 plan to seize the opportunity to attack government positions. If the
 much expanded and better- equipped UWSA decides to join them,
 victory for the Burmese Army is not, however,  a foregone
 For its part Burma took delivery earlier this year of 20 130 mm
 towed field artillery guns from North Korea. The gun, a Soviet
 design, was used with devastating efficiency by Vietnamese Army
 (NVA) troops during the Vietnam conflict and is easily manoeuvrable
 in difficult terrain and jungle tracks and would be highly suitable
 for use in Shan State. However, the Burmese Army is suffering from
 morale problems.
 Burmese Army desertions in Shan State have been steadily increasing
 at the intensity and brutality of the war against the SURA has
 increased. They are now an almost daily occurrence. On 14 July this
 year, 78 soldiers deserted from the Kengtung-based Golden Triangle
 Command and made their way to Thailand, the largest mass-desertion
 to date. As disenchantment among the rank and file increases, the
 possibility remains open that battalions, given the opportunity, may
 turn and support rebels - or at least refuse to fight them.
 The campaign against the Shan
 A brutal if low-intensity war of attrition is being waged by the
 Burmese government against the only sizeable minority army in Shan
 state not to have not signed a peace agreement. The conflict and the
 government's policy in dealing with it has caused probably the
 worst, and least documented, human-rights abuses currently in Asia.
 Refugees from the fighting arriving at the Thai border recount
 harrowing stories of forced labour, forced relocation to rural
 squatter camps, conscription for portering, gang rape and mass
 murder, all at the hands of Burmese Army troops. The catalyst for
 the atrocities can be traced back to early 1996.
 In January 1996, Khun Sa officially surrendered to the Burmese
 government. A large contingent of his army refused to surrender and
 became the SURA led by Major Yord Serk, and has been fighting
 Burmese forces in southern Shan State ever since. It claims 4,000
 men, and operates deep into Shan State. The two other ethnic Shan
 armies operating in Shan State, the SSA and the Shan State National
 Army (SSNA) have both signed ceasefires with Rangoon. The SSNA were
 previously part of Khun Sa's MTA, mutinied in 1994 and made peace
 with the government.
 In late 1996, discouraged by Burmese Army-inflicted human-rights
 abuses and serious procurement and financial problems, the SURA
 attempted to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese
 government. Yord Serk sent several letters to Senior General Than
 Shwe, the prime minister of Burma, appealing for dialogue,  but
 received no reply. In fact, the Burmese government warned the other
 two ethnic Shan groups not to contact or assist the SURA. However,
 in September 1997, the leaders of the three Shan armies met at the
 Shan State Army headquarters Seng Kaeo, near Hsipaw, and signed an
 agreement to merge as the Shan State Army, hoping to be able to
 negotiate a ceasefire agreement under the SSA'a umbrella.
 The Burmese government refused to acknowledge the union. Sao Sai
 Naung, head of the SSA at Hsipaw and of the recently formed
 tripartite SSA went to Rangoon in a failed attempt to negotiate for
 the SURA faction. The renamed Burmese government junta, The State
 Peace and Development Council has reiterated its intention to crush
 the SURA.
 Since March 1996, the Burmese government has forcibly relocated over
 1,400 villages throughout 7,000 square miles (approximately 18,400
 square km) of southern and central Shan State. The number of people
 affected by the relocations is estimated to be in excess of 300,000.
 The villagers have been herded into rural slums in a strategic
 hamlet-type policy aimed at cutting off supplies and support for the
 At least 80,000 have come to Thailand as unofficial and unrecognised
 refugees,  according to the Shan Human rights Foundation. This is in
 addition to the 400,000-500,000 economic refugees from Shan State
 that are already in the country. They receive a less than warm
 welcome from Thai authorities, who are beset with economic problems
 and are trying to keep relations with Rangoon on an even keel. The
 refugees from the fighting can be relatively easily discerned from
 the economic migrants because they arrive at the border in family
 groups while the latter arrive mainly as groups of young men.
 The depopulated area in Shan State has become a free-fire zone. Shan
 villagers sneaking back to tend their crops are routinely shot on
 sight by Burmese troops. As both the government forces and the SURA
 have stepped up their campaigns since the beginning of 1997, some of
 the re-located villagers have been forced to move a second time.
 Since the beginning of 1997, the Burmese Army has increased the size
 of the depopulated free-fire zone by 2,000 square miles to 7,000,
 and it now covers most of southern Shan State.
 Since the beginning of 1997 there has been a sharp increase in
 reported atrocities on the part of Burmese government soldiers, who
 appear to have been given a carte blanche by Rangoon to do anything
 deemed necessary to control the spread of the SURA. The carte
 blanche, in addition the usual forced portering, includes the mass
 rapings and killings of Shan villagers, even well outside the
 free-fire zone. According to eye-witnesses who have visited some of
 the relocation sites, they more closely resemble concentration camps
 than strategic hamlets. An 1800 to 0600 curfew is often brutally
 enforced. The relocated villagers, cut off from their fields,  are
 often forced to either beg or move to look for waged employment.
 There is serious malnutrition among many at the relocation sites.
 There have also been several documented cases where Burmese Army
 troops have shelled and killed civilians inside relocation sites in
 retribution for battlefield losses against the SURA.
 The Shan Human Rights Foundation, a non-governmental organisation
 (NGO)  working with refugees on the Thai border and internally
 dislocated villagers inside Burma, has confirmed and documented 664
 extrajudicial killings of Shan villagers during 1997, including the
 designations of the battalions responsible. Although the list is by
 no means complete, some murders are not reported and others cannot
 be verified and are left out of the compiled figures, it provides a
 guide as to which units were responsible for the worst atrocities.
 Most of the eastern command battalions and some northeastern and
 golden triangle command units have engaged in  extra-judicial
 killings. A handful of battalions stand out in the scale and
 brutality of their abuses.
 The worst offenders are from the eastern command based in Tanggyi
 which maintains a degree of relative autonomy, rather than from the
 55th Light Infantry Division (LID) based at Aung Ban, which takes
 its orders directly from the War Office in Rangoon. This suggests
 the killings were not ordered by Rangoon as a matter of policy, but
 that the War Office is turning a blind eye in the interests of
 wiping out the Shan resistance.
 The worst offender was the Light Infantry Battalion 524 (LIB524)
 based at Kwan Heng, with 193 killings of civilians, including the
 massacre of almost an entire village during July 1997, which left 96
 Second, and the most consistently brutal over the year was Infantry
 Battalion 246 (IB246), also based at Kwan Heng, with 157 documented
 killings of villagers in 28 incidents. Troops of the LIB515 based at
 Le Char was documented as killing 66 civilians, while the LIB 332
 based at Ming Peng, has been documented as responsible for the
 deaths of 41. There were two mass murders in July 1997 which left no
 known survivors, one with 26 victims and another with 17 dead, which
 occurred in areas where the LIB524 and the LIB516 (based in Nam Sam)
 The abuses have been largely - though not entirely - one sided,
 perpetrated by Burmese government troops on Shan villagers. In early
 June 1997, SURA troops massacred 25 ethnic Burman settlers at Pha
 Lang, east of Kun Hing. The Burmese Army responded with an orgy of
 rape and murder of Shans in the area. In all 215 Shan civilians were
 documented as killed in a joint operation which included troops from
 the IB246, the LIB513, LIB516, and LIB524 and lasted four weeks.
 Many were tortured before being executed, 43 were beheaded and left
 on the side of the road as a warning to others. Figures for the
 first six months of 1998 are as yet incomplete, but anecdotal
 evidence suggests the scale and brutality of the abuses has if
 anything increased.
 Documented mass murders by units with no previous record of such
 activities in areas formerly not subject to slaughter, suggest the
 Shan State commands are widening the net, both to wipe out the SURA,
 and to intimidate the rump-SSA and SNA. In early May, the
 Hsipaw-based IB22 of the northeast command massacred 36 villagers,
 near Nam-Zarng. The victims all had valid permits to be in the area.
 There have been documented mass-killings of civilians by three
 Golden Triangle command battalions to June of this year by the Mine
 Tong-based IB65 (15 killed), the Mine Sert-based LIB333 (28 killed),
 in addition to mass killings by eastern command units and numerous
 smaller-scale killings by troops from all three commands and the War
 Office-controlled 55th LID.
 The extent of the dislocation of villagers and the brutality the
 military displays in dealing with civilians, including the rapes and
 massacres of children, has led many Shan leaders to suspect that
 Rangoon is intentionally depopulating Shan State. Author and Burma
 specialist Bertil Linter described the abuses as "a policy of ethnic
 cleansing." There has been an increase in the number of
 ethnic-Burman civilian settlers in Shan State over the past two
 years, according to residents of Shan State, but as yet there does
 not appear to be any centrally co-ordinated migration to the region.
 Bruce Hawke is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.  

GRAPHIC:  Photograph 1, Soldiers; Photograph 2, Refugees.; Photograph 3, Ta
Pang (PaoYu Chang), commander of the UWSA.; Photograph 4, Wa soldier in a
harvested opium field.; Photograph 5, On the border between Thailand and
Burma border. Shan refugees continue to arrive in sizeable numbers, fleeing
persecution by the Burmese Army.; Photograph 6, Villagers in Burma sharing
a very large opium pipe. One of the principal exports of the country,
heroin finances both the government and the ethnic armies.; Photograph 7,
Two boy-soldiers, one holding an AK-47.; Photograph 8, Wa soldier selling
opium to a female broker from China.; Photograph 9, Aung San Su Kyi, leader
of the democratic opposition to the Burmese regime.; Photograph 10,
Boy-soldiers on the way to the front.  Graphic: Burma ceasefire agreements.