It is hard for a population of “over 100” Karen refugees to go unnoticed in a town the size of Regina. If you can recognize Southeast Asian textiles, you’ll meet Burmese refugees (of various ethnic groups) here without even trying. The Canadian news service (CBC) recently put this community into the spotlight, as the ramifications of a triple homicide within the Karen community command local police attention, and test the public’s indifference. Although the city of Regina may be an obscure place from any other vantage, it is fair to say that Burma seems obscure from here, the capital city of one of Canada’s central provinces. This article raises some questions surrounding “Burma in Canada” and also “Canada in Burma”, as the never-ending civil war competes for column-inches with the revolutions of 2011, and America’s decennial of wars in central Asia.
A nation of fifty million that manages to make itself obscure, Burma recently resurfaced in the small world defined by CBC radio for two reasons (difficult to follow even in plain English). One, Burma’s civil war entered a new stage with open hostilities against the Kachin (a word that, I suspect, resulted in many newsreaders reaching for the dictionary). Two, last year’s triple-homicide within Regina’s Burmese refugee community resulted in the region’s first police announcement in the Karen language (with each C.B.C. announcer taking trouble to pronounce “Karen” in a slightly different way).
The name of Burma itself, I note, is now officially pronounced “Myanmar” (since 1989) –an amendment that has failed to catch on with broadcasters for political reasons. Europeans first started calling the country Burma when the Portuguese established a trading station there in 1514. Today, there’s an implicit disapproval of the Burmese government expressed simply by calling the country Burma (rather than Myanmar); and, from the other side, a 500-year legacy of European imperialism is associated with using the wrong term.
It has never been more difficult for a civil war to find space in the news section than in 2011: while Europe has to look across the mediterranean at Libya, the possibility of a military intervention in Burma is precisely zero.
Since Kosovo set the precedent, public morality has been thought of in terms of military intervention (potential or actual); and that precedent was so important because of the absence of any cold-war counterweight to NATO bombings. Every civil war has thus become the business of nations rich nations to debate: at a minimum, civil war is the perfect pretext for regime change. At a medium setting, there is at least an expectation that a policy decision should guide selling arms to one side or the other. At a maximum, it’s an opportunity to divide one state into two or more (although outside powers are not always eager to do so, as with Somalia vs. Somaliland).
The bombing of Serbia (and the eventual creation of Kosovo as a separate nation-state) was made into a moral cause on the simple grounds that it would have been immoral to do nothing. At the time, the phrase “we cannot sit idly by while…” was followed by lists of atrocities, some hypothetical and others actual. The same standard is never applied to Burma, where comparable atrocities (some lesser, and some worse) have come to be regarded as normal, along with “sitting idly by”, since at least 1988, some would say 1948.
The American invasion of Afghanistan has been accompanied by cautionary comparisons to Vietnam, but the mainland of Southeast Asia itself is simply too close to Vietnam to be conceivable as the theatre of another American war: in this case, the comparison isn’t merely cautionary, it’s prohibitive. Snipers in Syria raise the question of an intervention, but the bodies can pile up in Burma without any such question even being asked.
Since the close of World War Two, the Burmese have provided a panoply of insurgencies that China, America or anyone else could have chosen to support. Some of the uprisings wrapped themselves in the flag of human rights and democracy, others in the flag of Buddhism, and a few in Maoist or Christian Missionary trappings. None have found durable patronage from outside powers, although a trickle of support gains public attention from time to time. The final “Rambo” movie put a spotlight on American missionaries who vacation as “hobby insurgents” on the Thai-Burmese border.
Mainland China’s principle is that they never provide military support to separatist movements, nor to ethnic insurgencies; remarkably, they have followed it in refusing to support Maoists within Burma. The NATO approach is simply to avoid describing their interventions as supporting a (separatist) ethnic insurgency, although this is often enough the case (and the promotion of Kosovo as a moral cause helped to “mainstream” the practice). If Kosovo has a legitimate claim not only to independence, but to achieving it through foreign subvention, why not Somaliland? Why not various provinces of Burma, such as the Kachin and Shan states?
The Wikileaks diplomatic cables now verify what has been common knowledge on the ground: neither China nor Thailand want “in” on Burma’s civil war. Both countries could stand to gain by lopping off Burma’s provinces, but the dream that Burma would stabilize itself was apparently more appealing than the annexation of war-torn pieces of the whole.
In the absence of the type of foreign support that so many of the (ethnic minority) combatants have been asking for, the civil war has been internationalized through other means. Burmese refugee communities (of every ethnic group) can be found as far afield as… well… Regina.
This is a diaspora that can now provide its own war matériel, a process they have practiced for decades over the borders with Thailand and Yunnan (not to mention India and Bangladesh). One crucial vector that has changed is the development of highways and infrastructure around them, during the same period of time.
In Burma, the new phase of the war will inevitably be a civil war for four. At a minimum, Thailand, Laos and China will participate in one and the same conflict; indeed, they would need to take military action just to minimize their adjacent populations’ involvement in the war. Each of the rebel groups (too numerous to list in full here) exists on two sides of at least one border: the Kachin are also based in China (where they’re known as the Jingpo), the Shan are based in both Thailand and China (where they’re known as the Tai Yai and the Dai respectively).
The central government of Burma can’t win the war without crossing those borders, and, indeed, this is a short explanation as to why (in more than 50 years) they’ve never won such a lopsided war. Would the Chinese be willing to stamp out the support for the Kachin coming from within China? To do so would produce a small-scale civil war of China’s own.
In Yunnan, I met a rather clueless European journalist who managed to cross China’s border into Burma on foot, interview rebel leaders, and return unharmed, without speaking any of the local languages. His lack of savvy was what made him remarkable: if he could do it, any tourist could pull it off.
Foot and packhorse crossings are nothing new, but the intrepid reporters at the Irrawaddy have lately made borderless crossings with four wheels on paved roads, in and out of Kachin state. Sadly, for all sides, if the war doesn’t actively destroy that type of infrastructure it can never end. The expansion of trade has changed the game (for arms, opium, jade, and the movement of human beings themselves, both as soldiers and slaves). The loss of those roads would plunge the area back into the isolation, dire poverty and disease that defined it throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This is what I presume the Chinese are trying to avoid, for their own people and the region; in allowing rebel governments-in-exile to operate out of Yunnan, they are paying a significant price.
The Burmese presence on the other side of the Chinese border will be much more important than the Chinese within Burma, and the same is true (in miniature) of the Burmese minorities in Thailand. One of the reasons why the escalation of the war is now inevitable is that Burma’s attempted glasnot (and brand new constitution) would never really allow these “comprador” communities to return: ceasefires are possible, but not a peace that would actually re-integrate these minority diasporas into Burma.
In terms of ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation, and the real prospect of genocide, the Burmese civil war has always offered more of a justification to care (if not intervene) than Kosovo or the Sudan. Even worse (or “better”), the Burmese have oil. However, The Kosovo standard was never extended as far as the Sudan; it is not clear now if it will apply to Syria or all the way around the mediterranean. Burma? No chance.
In this context, it becomes difficult for either reportage or propaganda to address the simple reality of “somebody else’s civil war”. Hypothetically, some could argue that a laissez-faire attitude toward other peoples’ civil wars does less harm than “intervention” (also known as “imperialism”, depending on who pays the bills at the newspaper you’re reading). I don’t think I’ve seen that argument in print even once in the last ten years.
Supporting “intervention” is no longer thought of as “pro-war”, and, conversely, allowing a civil war to resolve itself (without intervention) is no longer thought of as “anti-war”. In contrast to the 1980s, there is, indeed, no “anti-war” movement in Canada, and it is not clear how such a movement would deal with post-Kosovo-consensus civil wars.
Perhaps because it is more immediate (and perhaps because there is public amazement that Regina has a Burmese expatriate community at all) the C.B.C. has reported on the local murder of a family of three refugees in greater detail than the war that sent them here in the first place.
There’s a third thing that “we” have in common with the Burmese refugees: flooding. Although it hasn’t made the local news, refugees in North-Western Thailand are struggling with the simple problem of being underwater at the moment. As in Saskatchewan, the disappearance of working roads soon results in the scarcity of food, but the possible knock-on effects for disease and starvation are incomparably worse in Mae-Hong-Son than in La Ronge. It would be immoral to do nothing, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
With a defensible claim to being the longest-running civil war in the world, the Karen rebellion (at arms since 1948) have little cause for hope within their own country, and, I expect, they’ll find little cause for hope in this one.