February 10, 2010 / 11:27 AM / 8 years ago

Elections mean nothing to Myanmar's ethnic armies

LOI TAI LENG, Myanmar (Reuters) - Whether the country is ruled by brutal military dictators or democratically elected civilians, rebels who control this jungle enclave have made one thing very clear: they want nothing to do with Myanmar.

The country once known as Burma is preparing for its first elections in 20 years, the final step in a democratic “road map” it says will end almost half a century of unbroken army rule.

But the ethnic groups who have fought for more than 50 years to defend this mountainous region sandwiched between Thailand and China have little interest in the political process.

Myanmar, they say, has never been their country.

“We are Shan, we are not Burmese. We have a different language, a different culture,” said Yawdmuang, the Shan State army’s foreign affairs chief.

“We will not participate in elections -- they are their elections,” he said.

The views of this group are echoed by other ethnic armies in Myanmar, which have also resisted the military regime’s demands to disarm, transfer their fighters to a government-run Border Guard Force (BGF) and join the political process.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta calls itself, has failed to assert its control over the ethnic groups but wants to claim the entire country is behind its elections, a date for which has not yet been set.

The polls have already been derided as a sham by critics. They say the generals, who ignored the result of the 1990 elections, will continue to wield power from behind the scenes.

But after years of bloody conflict and deep distrust, the junta’s pledges of autonomy in return for their cooperation ring hollow and have cut little ice among these ethnic groups.

“We cannot work with the SPDC, we are their enemies,” Yawdmuang said. “We are prepared to talk but the SPDC cannot accept our proposal. They say we must lay down our weapons, nothing else.”

Huge crowds of Shan people gathered on a remote mountain plateau to watch well-trained and disciplined troops celebrate the state’s 63rd National Day on February 7 with a parade of pomp and military might to rival the junta’s vast “Tatmadaw” armed forces.

ALL-OUT CONFLICT

The Shan accept their refusal to play ball with Myanmar’s stubborn generals could lead to an all-out conflict with the Tatmadaw, which has so far convinced, or forced, six smaller armed groups to join their BGF.

Compared with mainstream Myanmar people, the Shan say they have their freedom and enjoy their self-sufficient existence, trading with other groups and neighboring countries and running their own communities with farms, schools, and hospitals.

They are not prepared to give that up.

“We’ve been fighting for our independence for more than 50 years and we won’t stop until we win,” said Lieutenant-General Yawd Serk, the long-serving chief of the Shan State Army (SSA).

“We will try to negotiate. But if this fails, we have no other option than to settle this with military means.”

Analysts and diplomats say the biggest hurdle preventing the junta from seizing control is the neighboring United Wa State Army, a battle-hardened force dismissed as warlords and drugs barons by the United States.

Once backed by China, the Wa has an estimated 36,000 troops with arms funded by revenues generated from the sale of opium used to make heroin. Analysts say a conflict with the Wa, whose territory borders Myanmar’s key economic ally, China, could be protracted and bloody and would spark a refugee crisis.

The Wa have long been in conflict with other ethnic groups but with the junta’s mooted February 28 disarmament deadline approaching, the far smaller SSA now faces a big dilemma.

Despite its strict anti-narcotics stance, it realizes it needs to bury the hatchet and form an alliance with the Wa -- or face the full force of the Myanmar army alone.

“The junta is their enemy, it is our enemy and to survive against them, we must have unity,” Yawdmuang said.

”Our aims are the same, we can work together. We can let bygones be bygones if the Wa accept our anti-narcotics policy.

“But if they don’t accept it, we cannot have unity,” he said.

Writing by Martin Petty in Bangkok; Editing by Jason Szep

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