April 18, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

United We Stand, Divided We Fall

2 August 2011: (Commentary) The military regime likes to trumpet its hollow rhetoric about democratizing the Union of Burma through its cautiously premeditated seven-step road-map to a disciplined democracy. However, the regime’s ongoing full-scale military onslaught against ethnic armed opposition groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Shan State Army (SSA) indicates that the new Burmese military government has no intention of ending the long-standing political stalemate. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is in fact led by a general-turned-President Thein Sein, who has no intention of pursuing any peaceful political dialogue.

As the saying goes ‘violence begets violence,’ the regime should realize that its harsh policy of military offensives towards ethnic armed groups has been – and will be – met with full-blown defensive armed resistance. Naypidaw’s relentless military offensives against ethnic armed groups remain driven purely by the junta’s blatant denial of ethno-cultural diversity and ethno-political rights of equality, self-determination, and freedom.

What is crystal clear is that the regime’s propensity for violence will neither serve to bring about national reconciliation nor will it lead Burma to become a democracy; it will only deepen the enduring political grievances of systemic alienation and suppression felt by ethnic national minorities, who take up arms for decades to rightfully defend and claim their national birthright of ethnic equality and self-determination within their own territory.

More than ever before, the changing political trends and drama unfolding inside Burma have demanded that leaders of ethnic-based armed opposition groups stand together in their resistance armed struggle against successive military regimes. The political stakes are too high for non-cooperation. Knowing what they can do together and the potential power of their collective force, they need to fight their common enemy under the banners of ‘we suffer together; we will fight together; we die together; we celebrate together’.

Indeed, the notion that we need each other and will stand together is not uncommon, however. For instance, realizing the necessity to stand together in their armed struggle against the military dictatorships, the collective leadership of ethnic nationalities long embraced the principle of ‘together we stand, but separated we lose our principal battle’, resulting in the creation of the National Democratic Front (NDF) in 1976. In negotiating with the military regime, one of the overarching principles of the NDF is that members of the NDF are not to enter ceasefire agreement with the military regime individually and separately, but only as one political body under the umbrella of NDF.

However, due to the corrosion of the internal cohesion among its members and lack of commitment in adhering to their common strategy, the military regime had succeeded in effectively undermining the front by persuading some members of the front to enter into the ceasefire agreements individually. In my conversation with one of the high-ranking ethnic Mon leaders on the subject back in 2007, he confessed to me saying, “when one of our core members in the front reneges on its commitment to our core principle as one common body by choosing to sign a ceasefire with the military government, we have no option but to sign a ceasefire deal with the military government. This happened even though what we got was not even half of the terms and conditions of our original demands as a ground for negotiation.” Once one main member party signs a peace deal with the military regime, it enables the military regime to break the internal cohesion and unity, thus subsequently weakening the collective movement.

Over the years, understanding full well that the collective forces of the armed group pose a serious threat to its grip on power, successive military regimes have been employing the strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ in dismantling the collective forces of opposition armed groups.

While many of Burma’s watchers wonder about the future of armed struggle in Burma, the recent re-unification of ethnic-based armed organizations under the umbrella of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) reinvigorates the hope of many in the ongoing democratic movement. The creation of the UNFC once again signifies the realization that ‘we are more powerful and stronger when we fight our common enemy collectively, rather than fighting separately without cooperation.’ Remembering that countless innocent lives have been sacrificed with the goals of reclaiming their inalienable rights to self-determination, equality, and universal human rights within their own territory, the current and future leadership of ethnic national minorities should attempt to minimize making a collateral strategic blunder in negotiating with the cunning military government.

There are two explicit lessons that the leadership of ethnic armed groups – especially of the UNFC – can learn from the NDF’s experience. One, in any negotiation with the military regime, leaders of ethnic armed groups must not allow their economic and social incentives outweigh their political rights. Second, by firmly upholding the principle of collective bargaining, they should not enter into a ceasefire agreement with the military regime individually and separately, which would again result in lack of trust and erosion of unity among them, eventually paving the way for the military regime to dismantle them one after another.  The key forward is to stick to their basic premise and die for it unless their common political demands are met: for instance, no nation-wide negotiation means no ceasefire of any sort on any terms and conditions. On this front, in their ongoing ceasefire talks with the Burmese government delegation, leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) did a commendable job in demanding that there should be a nation-wide ceasefire if the KIO is to enter a long-term peace agreement with the military government.

Despite the ongoing talks between the KIO and Burmese delegation, the military regime has refused to dispatch high-ranking officials to find a negotiated settlement with the KIO. The regime’s unwillingness to send a high-ranking official for negotiation demonstrates that the new Napyidaw government is clearly reluctant and not at all interested in finding a negotiated settlement to the ongoing political conflict. Moving forward, we need to understand that the military regime will refuse to have a dialogue with leaders of the UNFC as a common body. By aiming to undermine the collective spirit and cohesion of such common body, the regime will make every attempt to make a peace deal with each member individually. But, this is the responsibility for leaders of the ethnic armed groups to insist that no peace negotiation will be pursued unless the military regime is prepared to have a nation-wide ceasefire agreement.

For far too long, we have allowed the military regime to dictate the terms and conditions of ceasefire agreements in a way that serves its own interest of retaining power. Realizing that we have the ball in our court at these ongoing talks, the time has come for the KIO or the SSA or KNU, or any of these smaller players, to set the ground conditions for negotiation and ceasefire agreements. To review, such terms and conditions must include the demands that: (a) no ceasefire agreement be entered into individually unless the military regime is committed to a nation-wide ceasefire deal; (b) no political dialogue for negotiation would take place unless the military regime has appointed the ministerial level official as its principal negotiator; (c) all the terms and conditions entered into negotiation must be mutually agreeable and will be signed by both parties in the presence of the international team of observers, either ASEAN or China or India or other outside appropriate parties, witnessing the agreement signed. If the regime refuses to agree to any of the above-mentioned, leaderships of armed group should choose to continue their armed battles.

Seizing the ongoing moment is a chance to showcase their tenacity and commitment in undertaking their armed struggle. In order to defend their territorial integrity and claim their right of self-determination, leaders of the ethnic armed groups should steadfastly choose to adhere to the core political objectives of their decades-long armed struggle over the incentives of the social and economic opportunities offered by the military regime. The phrase “united we stand, divided we fall” has never been more relevant.

By Salai Za Ceu Lian

The author is the Commentary Editor at Chinland Guardian. He holds a Master degree in Political Science from the University of Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at [email protected]

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