After 46 years of determined resistance to the central government of Myanmar, the military forces of the Karen ethnic minority group were driven from their headquarters in Manerplaw this week. The rout has created a refugee problem for neighboring Thailand and revealed once again that Myanmar's leaders prefer the neat logic of military strength to the inevitable compromises of democratic politics. It is a lesson that we cannot afford to forget.
Although many of the details are still unknown, this much is clear: After a lightening assault, the Karen National Union (KNU) forces were driven from their self-declared capital, sending about 10,000 civilians and nearly 4,000 fighters over the Thai border. Who led the assault is not yet clear. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) the military junta that governs Myanmar, declared that the attacking forces were made up of Buddhist rebels who had broken off from the KNU last year. By that account, the military engagement was an internal matter among rival factions within the Karen movement.
That is convenient. In April 1992, SLORC declared a unilateral cease-fire with all ethnic rebel forces so as to open the way for peace negotiations. The junta claims to have signed 13 separate agreements with rebel groups in the period since then. The KNU signaled its willingness to hold talks with SLORC last fall, but dissension within the Karen movement apparently convinced Myanmar's rulers that delay would work to their advantage. It did. The KNU has been divided between Christian and Buddhist factions, a split that led last December to the defection of the Buddhist group and the formation of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Organization (DKBA). SLORC was quick to exploit that division in the largest and strongest rebel group.
After initial denials of involvement in this week's attack, Myanmar admitted that it had provided "logistical" support for the DKBA. News reports suggest that it was much more: that government forces provided the body of the troops used in the assault, artillery fire and armored personnel carriers during the attack. If these reports are true, SLORC violated the terms of its own cease-fire.
It was certainly a tempting target. Manerplaw was the command post of the Karen movement, but it was also the headquarters of the self-proclaimed Burmese government in exile--the democratic politicians of the opposition who fled after SLORC nullified the 1990 election -- and a refuge for dissident students who had escaped the reach of security forces after the military crushed the 1988 democracy uprising.
Having seized the Karen stronghold, miliary officials in Myanmar assert that they will eliminate the guerrillas. For their part, KNU leaders maintain that they will regroup in Thailand and resume their independence campaign. Some fighters welcome the setback; freed from defending a fixed position, they can now return to the hit-and-run tactics that are favored by guerrilla forces. That could threaten to widen the war, just as a large group of Karen sympathizers in Thailand could spark border clashes.
Myanmar's neighbors and trading partners--including Japan--have stuck to their policy of "constructive engagement" in the hope that contacts with the repressive regime would educate leaders of that hermetic nation about the outside world and their responsibilities to their citizens. Last summer, Myanmar's foreign minister was invited to the ministerial talks that accompany the annual ASEAN summit as a carrot to entice SLORC to greater democratization.
A series of meetings between democracy activist Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and SLORC leaders galvanized hopes that the policy was finally paying off. But there has been no progress since and the military engagement this week -- and the regime's duplicity concerning its involvement -- suggests that the promise of constructive engagement amounts to little more than hope.
Myanmar is paying for ins intransigence. Attacks on the Karen rebels have earned it censure from the United States and Australia. Foreign companies operating in Myanmar are beginning to appreciate the taint that comes from associating with the regime and are closing up shop. This weekend, a United Nations delegation visits Rangoon to resume the dialogue begun in October by Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. That dialogue should continue, but we wonder about its worth when Myanmar's leaders refuse to keep their word.