An issue at heart of Myanmar's ethnic strife Editorial desk BANGKOK

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (2nd L) talks to journalists during a press conference after meeting with the representatives of the Karen National Union (KNU) at her lakeside residence on April 8, 2012, in Yangon, Myanmar. Picture: AP

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

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THE US Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, recently gave a testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, informing American lawmakers and the public about the positive change that has occurred in Burma (Myamar) over recent months.

Campbell was right to say that none of the progress was irreversible and that much more work has to be done before peace and political stability can be achieved in Myamar.

With regards to peace with the ethnic armies, Campbell said Myamar had made progress toward preliminary ceasefire agreements with several groups including the Chin National Front (January 2012), the New Mon State Party (February 2012), the United Wa State Army (September 2011), and the Shan State Army-North (January 2012).

"For the first time in 63 years, the Myamar government and the Karen National Union (KNU) entered into a preliminary ceasefire agreement in January 2012, and began follow-up peace discussions the week of April 4 on a host of political issues at the heart of Myamar's longest running internal conflict," Campbell said.

"These efforts to halt the fighting are important initial steps, but must be followed by genuine dialogue and negotiations to address the long-standing political and economic grievances of ethnic minority populations in Myamar including issues of cultural autonomy, natural resources, and power-sharing with the ethnic Myamar-dominated central government," Campbell said.

Sticky issue

While Campbell named the issue at the heart of Myamar's conflict and insurgency problems — the need to establish political settlements with minority groups — he neglected to outline the very sticky ways that this could directly affect US-Myamar ties.

Over the years, many of these ethnic armies have turned to illicit drugs — opium, heroin and methamphetamines — to finance their struggle against the Myamar.

Some opium warlords, like the late Khun Sa, became local heroes in the eyes of Thais along the northern border because he was fighting the Myamar junta.

But groups like the United Wa State Army (UWSA) were painted as public enemies by the Thai authorities because they were on the side of the Myamar government. In essence, a proxy war had been taking place between the Myamar junta and the Thai military and some ethnic armies were pawns in the fight.

But as far as the US authorities were concerned, the leaders of these armies, regardless of whose side they were on, were criminals because they were flooding the world's streets with illicit drugs.

Over the years, several arrest warrants and convictions were handed out to these warlords from the American and Thai authorities. Many of the accused are ethnic Chinese who commands regiments within the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army.

Perhaps the most popular name is Wei Hsueh-kang, a Yunnanese Chinese who came to the Golden Triangle over four decades ago to build his fortune and glory through opium and heroin production. Today, the drug of choice is methamphetamine.

The irony here is that the UWSA, since 2005, has been holding "drug bonfires" to commemorate the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

Unfortunately for this outfit, which is desperate to convince the world that it has kicked the habit, such PR stunts haven't paid off.

The US charged Wei back in 1993 and Thailand arrested him shortly afterwards.

But somehow he miraculously got bail and fled to the heart of the Golden Triangle. Washington placed a $2-million reward on his head. Beside Wei, almost a dozen Wa leaders have been indicted or charged by the Thai and US courts and governments.

The fact that Assistant Secretary of State Campbell didn't bring up these complications probably means he doesn't want to make matters even more complicated for Myamar.

But the status of such people will eventually come up and the US, as well as Thailand, will have to decide how they are going to deal with the Myamar government over these matters. The Nation/ANN


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