(Reuters) - Fighting erupted in eastern Myanmar this week after the military government held the first election in 20 years that critics say will cement military rule behind a facade of civilian government.
The clashes between ethnic minority Karen fighters and government forces are not directly related to vote but stem from a government bid to gain control over former rebel groups granted autonomy under ceasefire deals.
Myanmar is one of the region’s most ethnically diverse countries with at least 10 main ethnic groups and numerous tribes and clans.
Insurgencies broke out independence from Britain in 1948 amid fear among minorities of domination by majority Burmans. The chaos paved the way for the military to seize power in 1962. It has ruled ever since.
In the 1980s and 1990s the junta offered autonomy to rebel groups in return for ending their armed opposition. Many agreed but tension has risen sharply over the past year, and some peace deals appear in danger, over a government bid to force the groups into an army-run Border Guard Force.
Analysts say the army wants to merge minority factions into the national border force to control and neutralize them.
Here are facts about Myanmar’s main ethnic minority factions.
- KAREN NATIONAL UNION
The KNU and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), have been fighting the central government for greater autonomy since 1949. In the early months of their campaign, Karen forces, most of whom had fought in Britain’s colonial army, nearly succeeded in seizing the then capital Yangon, but were held off in a northern suburb of the city. They have been pushed back ever since.
Racked by defections and dissension, the KNU, once the largest of the groups fighting Yangon, is a shadow of its former self. In the 1980s it could claim more than 10,000 guerrillas operating from a string of camps along the Thai border, but its strength has dwindled to just a few thousand split into small groups in eastern Myanmar’s Karen State and Tenasserim Division.
The rebels suffered a major setback in late 1994 when a Buddhist faction calling itself the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), staged a mutiny against the Christian-dominated group, breaking away and defecting to the government.
The split was a key factor in the fall of the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw, where pro-democracy politicians from the majority Burman community had also sought refuge, in 1995.
A faction of DKBA fighters who are resisting being forced into the Border Guard Force has been battling government soldiers in Myawaddy this week.
- SHAN STATE ARMY - SOUTH
The SSA was formed in the early 1960s and battled the military government for years until most members agreed to a ceasefire after their allies, the Communist Party of Burma, disintegrated along ethnic lines in 1989. But some Shan fighters refused to surrender and linked up with drug warlord Khun Sa’s opium-fueled Mong Tai Army to continue their fight for a Shan homeland. In May 2005, the SSA merged with another Shan faction that split from Khun Sa when he signed a peace deal with the junta in 1996. The Shan group still fighting the government became known as the Shan State Army - South. Its commander, Yod Suk, says he has 10,000 fighters, but Thai security officials say the number is far lower.
- UNITED WA STATE ARMY
The 16,000-strong UWSA was formed when the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma disintegrated along ethnic lines in 1989. The Wa, along with several other factions to emerge from the communist force, soon signed a peace deal with the government. While the Wa say they are campaigning for an ethnic Wa state, critics say their focus is the drugs trade and they are main producers and traffickers of heroin in the Golden Triangle and, more recently, methamphetamines.
The well-armed Wa force is refusing to merge into the Border Guard Force and could be expected to put up stiff resistance if it were to resume fighting the government from two main base areas on the Chinese and Thai borders.
- KACHIN INDEPENDENCE Organization
The KIO was formed in the early 1960s and for years battled the government from the jade- and timber-rich Kachin hills of northern Myanmar. The group agreed to a ceasefire in 1994 but it too is resisting the government’s bid to force it to merge with the Border Guard Force. The Kachin force is also well armed.
- DEMOCRATIC KAREN BUDDHIST ARMY
The DKBA was formed in 1995 when Buddhist members of the mostly Christian-led KNU broke away and joined the government. A DKBA splinter faction is balking at the government order to merge into the Border Guard Force and on Monday began battling government forces in Myawaddy and the Three Pagodas Pass.
Writing by Robert Birsel, editing by Miral Fahmy