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Ethnic Strife Hits Burma Border

Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

November 8, 2010

Clashes between ethnic Karen rebels and Myanmar government troops roiled an important border town and spurred an estimated 15,000 to flee to Thailand Monday, a day after the country’s first elections in two decades.

The conflict raised fears of further ethnic violence as Myanmar’s armed forces attempt to cement their hold over the country’s fractious border regions. It began Sunday in Myawaddy town near Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand, during an election that appears set to deliver a pro-military parliament. U.S. President Barack Obama and other global leaders have criticized the poll as being neither free nor fair.

Vote counting continued around the country Monday, although progress remained slow and smaller opposition parties complained of irregularities in the election. State media on Monday reported election commission officials said that 40 government-backed candidates had won their races, including six retired generals.

In Myawaddy, a major trading point with Thailand, gunfire and mortars could be heard in the area from the Thai side of the border across the Moei River, and blasts and shooting continued throughout Monday, people who had been there said. On the Thai side, Mae Sot district chief Kittisak Tomornsak said fires had been set on the Myanmar side of the river.

He estimated that by midafternoon, more than 10,000 people had already waded, swum or taken small boats across the strip of water separating the two countries, and said their numbers swelled into the night.

Thai police and government officials took many of the fleeing people to a Thai army camp where they tried to supply them with tarpaulins, food, water and sanitation facilities, but Mr. Kittisak said the local government fears it will be swamped by refugees. “We expect many more to come,” Mr. Kittisak said. “It’s not clear what’s happening on the other side of the border.”

The clashes began when a faction from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army took over Myawaddy’s police station and post office. The group generally supports the military regime, but some members of Karen-based forces are pressing for greater autonomy from the Burman-dominated armed forces.

Khin Ohmar, a spokeswoman for the Burma Partnership, a pro-democracy advocacy group active in the area, said that the rebel faction seized key installations and that fighting resumed Monday. Government forces later retreated from the town and began shelling the area as they apparently awaited reinforcements. It is unclear how many casualties there have been.

“The residents say they were told to leave the town and that’s why there are so many of them coming into Thailand now,” Ms. Khin Ohmar said.

A Thai army commander, Col. Wannatip Wongwai, told the Associated Press that Thai authorities would start sending the refugees back across the border once the situation in Myanmar stabilizes.

Nearly 40% of Myanmar’s 50 million people come from ethnic groups other than the dominant Burmans. The country, also known as Burma, has been torn by a series of guerrilla wars since securing independence from Britain in 1948. But ethnic tensions in the area date back centuries.

Ethnic Karens previously sought their own state, but many in recent years have instead sought out a greater degree of autonomy, as have other ethnic-minority groups such as the Kachin, Wa and Shan. Sunday’s election, though, appears to limit the prospect of autonomous rule for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, who mostly cluster along the country’s long borders. In recent months, tensions have flared as the government stepped up its military presence in border areas and instructed former rebel armies to fold themselves into an integrated border-protection force under the direct control of Myanmar’s military regime. Analysts say the faction involved in the Myawaddy clashes resents being absorbed into the government’s Border Guard Force and appears to be resisting, as other factions in Kachin and Wa-dominated areas near the Chinese border previously have done.

Thailand and China previously have urged Myanmar not to do anything that could trigger an exodus of refugees from Myanmar. China in particular is anxious for Myanmar to tamp down any volatility in the north of the country where Beijing is building pipelines to pump oil and gas to its big industrial centers.

Myanmar’s military regime aims to create new regional assemblies where minority groups can retain their sense of identity. But analysts say ethnic-Karen rebels, among others, are skeptical that they will be allowed to exert any influence.

Many people in Myanmar are also skeptical about Sunday’s vote—the first since 1990. The country’s military leaders say it will put the country on the path to democracy. Critics allege the ballot is an attempt to sanitize a regime best known for keeping Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won the 1990 vote, under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.

Mr. Obama again criticized the handling of the polls Monday, saying in New Delhi that it was unacceptable for Myanmar’s leaders to “steal an election” and trample over the democratic aspirations of ordinary people there.On Sunday, he criticized the election as unfair.

The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party appears set to secure the largest share of the seats despite decades of economic mismanagement and harsh repression. It put forward candidates for nearly all the 1,159 seats in the national parliament and regional legislatures. Another pro-military party, the National Unity Party, contested around 995 seats.

The largest antigovernment party, in contrast, put forward just 164 candidates. The constitution guarantees 25% of parliamentary seats for military appointees. Ms. Suu Kyi was barred from participating and urged a boycott of the vote.

There was little indication Monday that residents in Myanmar’s main commercial hub Yangon were anxiously awaiting the outcome of the vote. Many residents in Myanmar’s main commercial hub Yangon remain ambivalent about the proceedings and it appeared that many boycotted Sunday’s vote entirely, judging by the low turnout seen at some polling stations.

“What good will the results do you?” asked one man, a lottery ticket seller.

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