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Date: Fri, 20 Jan 1995 03:02:37 -0800 (PST)
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Subject: BPF: The Hunting of the SLORC
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Date: Fri, 20 Jan 1995 03:02:29 -0800

The Hunting of the Slorc

By David Arnott, Burma Peace Foundation, posted by BurmaNet, June 1993 and update of March 1994

The distinction between "political" and "military" is by no means clear in a state so profoundly militarized as Burma, where Clausewitz' dictum is reversed, and politics is simply war carried out by other means.

The Chinese sage Sun Tsu says in The Art of War that "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting". In its conduct of the civil war SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council, the martial law administration ruling Burma), is currently using Low Intensity Conflict strategies, which avoid major military confrontation, but are designed to force a "political" (read "politico-military") settlement on the ethnic opposition and divide them from the political opposition. These strategies are closely tied to SLORC's attempts to acquire constitutional "legitimacy" by means of a National Convention, and are aided by the pressure which Burma's neighbors are putting on the non-burman ethnic groups to sign a cease-fire. But no lasting solution to the country's problems will be achieved until the three main actors -- the military, the political opposition and the ethnic opposition -- meet on a basis of equality and with a strong political will to achieve national reconciliation and the restoration of democracy. The politico-military devices described in this paper must therefore be seen as measures by SLORC to retain power, reverse international criticism, especially at the UN General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights, and attract foreign investment and development assistance.

The search for legitimacy:

The legal status of the military junta ruling Burma, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, is that of a martial law administration, which in international law is permitted to govern only during a state of emergency. SLORC is therefore a completely illegal regime since by its own admission, the "law and order", dis-turbed by the 1988 democracy movement, have been restored. Its only legitimate course would be to step down and hand over to the victors of the 1990 elections. But it is set on clinging to power, and in common with most dictatorships which rule by brute force, especially those operating within a hierarchical culture, is anxious for some form of legitimation beyond that of the bullet. This ambition was not significantly furthered by SLORC's suppression of the monkhood, the body which traditionally legitimizes Buddhist rulers, nor by the election results of 1990 when the people overwhelmingly voted for the opposition. Lacking anything more substantial, SLORC seeks "recognition" by association: monks, ethnic nationals in traditional dress, visiting businessmen and statesmen, UN officials and even ordinary tourists, are all liable to be paraded across the state-run print and broadcast media alongside SLORC officials in order to "prove" that SLORC has won acceptance from these various communities. To judge from The New Light of Myanmar (the revamped Working People's Daily), the official -- and only -- newspaper, one would assume that the SLORC leadership does little else but make offerings to senior monks, receive visiting dignitaries, and inspect construction sites. It claims legitimation from every contract signed and even from its membership of the United Nations, though it is states rather than governments which the UN recognizes.

But SLORC's main source of "legitimation" is the civil war, which like the previous administration it has maintained as a justification for continued military rule -- the argument is that without the army in control, the different ethnic nationalities would secede from the Union and split the nation. SLORC has therefore avoided a peace settlement with the ethnic opposition as a whole up to this time, though it has approached most of the groups individually, and made deals with some of them. This may soon change, however, since SLORC is busy constructing an alternative source of legitimation in the form of a New Constitution which would stretch a thin skin of civilian administration over the real power -- which of course would remain firmly in the hands of the military. (One problem is that without the civil war it might be more difficult to justify the 50% or so of the national budget thought to go on military expenditure.) The device by which it is seeking to bring this off is the so-called "National Convention", which is charged with drafting the basic elements of the constitution. One of the stated objectives of the Convention is to guarantee the "participation of the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military) in the leading role of national politics of the state in future." The members of the National Convention have been hand-picked by SLORC. Even so, their activities are rigidly controlled, with strict rules as to what subjects can be discussed and how, and severe penalties for infringements. Some participants are representatives elected in 1990, but these comprise a small percentage of the total Convention, which is an unrepresentative body with no mandate whatsoever from the people. In spite of their being hand-picked, however, many members of the Convention, at no little risk to themselves, have walked out, largely on account of the requirement, quoted above, that the military should retain its political dominance.

Changing civil war strategy

In parallel with the National Convention, SLORC is pursuing a politico-military strategy to end the civil war, which cannot be won by traditional military means alone. Even if such fixed bases as Manerplaw were taken, the ethnic minority armies could use classical guerrilla tactics indefinitely. And so long as the civil war continues, mineral and other kinds of extract-ion by US, Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Korean companies among others, will be hindered; dams and pipelines cannot be built, and the foreign exchange SLORC needs to prop up the collapsing economy will not be forthcoming. Over the past couple of years, therefore, SLORC has been developing some alternative strategies inspired by Sun Tsu and Low Intensity Conflict (LIC).

In Karen, Kachin, Mon and Karenni areas, there have been a number of minor skirmishes over the past year between the Tatmadaw and troops of the ethnic opposition, but most Tatmadaw activity has concentrated on terrorizing and controlling the minority civilian populations. The army comes into villages and shoots a couple of people if any of its men have been attacked by Karen, Karenni or Mon soldiers. It has relocated villages to sites grouped around military camps and established free-fire zones in the areas not in the immediate vicinity of the camps.

This "strategic hamleting" serves several purposes

it provides hostages against military attack, a pool of "voluntary" labor for the army in various road-building and other construction projects, as well as for forced portering; it separates the villagers from the ethnic minority fighters, thereby reducing their flow of intelligence, recruits and material support; and a belt of such "hamlets" and the intervening free-fire zones may eventually form a cordon sanitaire to control movement between the non-burman areas and the interior, thus allowing the formation of Bantustans. Along with this demographic engineering, there has been a large build-up by the Burmese army over the past two and a half years which has led some observers to predict a major military offensive.

In my view, however, the increased number of troops is not intended for purely military purposes. Along with control of the civilian population, it is part of a LIC strategy to apply politico-military pressure on the non-burman ethnic nationalities to come to a cease-fire on SLORC's terms. When combined with "persuasion" from the neighbors to sign a cease-fire (China and Thailand can apply a stranglehold on the Kachin and Karen respectively since these groups depend on cross-border communications and supplies), such pressure would appear almost irresistible. Sun Tsu, quoted above, tells his students that if they can achieve an overwhelming superiority in position, weaponry and men, and at the same time offer a way out so that the enemy does not have to fight, the stronger party may be able to dictate terms without a battle.

SLORC could accompany coercion by inducements, and offer "generous" terms ("an offer they could not refuse") to the non-burman nationalities -- retention of arms, continued control of their territories, access to international development assistance etc. SLORC would no doubt prefer to deal with each group separately or, failing that, with the four main combattant groups, the Kachin, the Karen, the Karenni and the Mon. If the groups hold out, SLORC might agree to a settlement and a nation-wide cease-fire with the National Democratic Front (NDF). The Tatmadaw would hardly be enthusiastic about negotiating with the broader Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) since this would counter its general strategy of dividing the alliance between the ethnic and political opposition.

This alliance presents SLORC with its greatest threat, since it combines political legitimacy with military force. In fact, as the price of a settlement the ethnic minorities might have to expel their allies in the political opposition from their territories, abandon the long-term struggle for democracy; surrender control over natural resources in their territories to companies holding concessions from SLORC; and perhaps accept a reduction in the area of their territories. Of course, if any of the minorities do not agree to a cease-fire on SLORC's terms, an actual military offensive is not excluded.


There is no guarantee, of course, that SLORC will succeed in these undertakings. Although some of its working groups are still meeting, the National Convention has been postponed several times, after very few plenary meetings, on account of the resistance, even among the hand-picked participants, to the requirement that the military remain at the centre of political life. Even if a constitution is railroaded through the National Convention, it would take a few years to consolidate, and if the 82-year old Ne Win dies before this happens, there is a high probability that the army would split into two or more warring factions in a struggle for State power. Some observers think that certain regional commanders are already building up their private armies and fiefdoms in preparation for a breakdown of central power in the post-Ne Win era.


One scenario is that SLORC might succeed in concluding a "political" settlement of the civil war, imposing a constitution, and persuading its neighbors and the international community that the process has been legal and political enough. In this case countries, agencies and corporations with myopic optimism or short-term interests might agree to renew bilateral and multilateral development assistance. Corporate investment from Japan and other industrial countries would no doubt be renewed, and provide a temporary alleviation of Burma's economic sickness. (A nationwide cease-fire with the promise of a "political" settlement would certainly smooth SLORC's passage at this year's General Assembly, where there will be many voices calling for sanctions and an arms embargo.)

Without real political and economic change, resumption of ODA (Official Development Assistance) and increased foreign investment would mean that an unrepresentative, authoritarian and unstable military regime could remain in power, buy better weapons, continue to starve and abuse its people, sell off its natural resources, destroy its economy, bully its neighbors, and destabilise the region. In addition, a settlement forced on the ethnic nationality armies would be unlikely to last long. Already the Wa and some of the other groups SLORC made deals with in 1989 are expressing dissatisfaction about the arrangements and rattling their weapons. And no ethnic group or alliance believes that SLORC can be trusted to honor a peace treaty beyond the period of military, political or economic expediency. The question of the duration of a peace settlement is of particular interest to investors, who require long-term guarantees of stability -- for instance it would take up to 15 years to construct the proposed dams on the Moei and Salween rivers, pipelines are notoriously exposed to attack, and it would be politically embarrassing for companies to have their personnel and equipment protected by the Burmese army against the local people. Perhaps SLORC calculates that by the time the "political settlement" breaks down, enough money will have been brought into the country by governments, corporations and multilateral agencies to justify the exercise.

A centralized military state

Burma is a military state, as it has been for more than 30 years, with an all-pervasive Military Intelligence. A new constitution, if SLORC succeeds in imposing it, will make no essential difference to this reality. Politics, for the Burmese military, is simply war carried out by other means, to reverse Clausewitz' dictum. The development of the more sophisticated politico-military strategies described in this paper does not indicate any lessening of SLORC's commitment to the growing militarization of what is already the most militarized state in the region. There is no reduction in the rate of increase in military expenditure and recruitment, for instance. The Burmese army has shown its willingness to bully its neighbors Thailand and Bangladesh, with periodic incursions onto their territories which have resulted in the death of a number of their nationals. If the Burmese army reaches its projected target strength of 500,000 men under arms by the end of the decade, it will be the largest (apart from its friend China, and India) and most battle-hardened fighting force in the region, though not yet the best armed.

China, Thailand and Constructive Engagement

Ninety-five percent of Burma's trade is with China and Thailand, and China is SLORC's main arms supplier. These countries, if they chose to do so, could pressure SLORC into entering into negotiations with the real leaders of the political and ethnic opposition for restoration of democracy and national reconciliation. Instead, they are using their influence to encourage a settlement of the civil war on SLORC's terms, in isolation from the restoration of democracy, thereby supporting continued military rule. China's motives for this approach are not difficult to identify: the present leaders would hardly welcome a democratic Burma with leaders sympathetic to the Chinese democracy movement and to the aspirations for self-determination of the Tibetan and other peoples within the international borders of the PRC (Burma shares a border with Tibet). They might also suspect that a democratic Burma would turn more to India than to China. Thailand's motives are more complex, but one could mention the close links between the Thai and Burmese military which are manifested on commercial as well as political levels, as well as Thailand's desire to counter Chinese influence in Burma.

As far as the ASEAN policy of Constructive Engagement is concerned, this description of a long-term policy by the Burmese military to retain power tends to undermine the view that economic assistance and an increase in trade will alone lead to significant change, and broadly supports the arguments for additional forms of international action, for instance UN-facilitated negotiations between the three main actors, reinforced if necessary by selective sanctions, perhaps including an arms embargo on SLORC. ASEAN member Singapore, which acts as a channel for arms to SLORC, would no doubt resist an arms embargo. This may also be the case with other ASEAN members and India, if they see Singapore's role, though bilateral, as reducing SLORC's dependence on China.

This analysis suggests that the policy of Constructive Engagement has not dissuaded SLORC from retaining centralized military control over political and economic life in Burma. In fact the injections of foreign cash into Burma have enabled SLORC to keep the economy afloat without the radical decentralization and demilitarization of the economy needed for long-term improvement. The devices of the National Convention and the forced politico-military settlement of the civil war are simply means to give a constitutional and political gloss to continued military dominance. There is no indication that the military intends to reduce its control over the economy, which will thus remain centralized, oriented towards military expend-iture, highly dirigiste and incompetently managed .

The basic articles of faith of Constructive En-gagement are that quiet and friendly though firm advice by Burma's neighbors is better than confrontation, and that economic development will lead to political liberalization and greater respect for human rights. On the former point I would say that both are needed. On the latter, there is no evidence that the economic development of countries like South Africa, whose racist ideologies and discriminatory citizenship laws are somewhat similar to Burma's, has led to political liberalization or an improvement in the human rights situation. In fact, as South African Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu has frequently said in relation to Burma, the kind of international sanctions which have been most effective in forcing political change in his country might also bring about change in Burma.

The choice for ASEAN countries and others, including India and China, who wish to extend their influence in Burma through trade and investment, is one of long- or short-term interest: Do they want a country in the region which is politically and economically centralized and militarized and in addition, economically incompetent? Burma is a country of 43 million which is increasing the size of its army to half a million, has shown a willingness to bully its neighbors and which after Ne Win's death might enter a period of classical civil war compared with which the conflict in Cambodia, with a population of 7 million, may seem a minor event in terms of refugees and the destabilization of the region. Is a short-term policy worth the risk?

If so, ASEAN and Burma's neighbors should continue their present course, congratulate themselves on symbolic and superficial changes, enjoy the short-term benefits of cheap fish and teak, and block international efforts to pressure SLORC into more radical political and economic changes.

If on the other hand they are willing to join a serious international effort to encourage real political and economic change in Burma, an effort which must also contain a dimension of dialogue with SLORC or its successor regimes, their experience, contacts and leverage, especially that of China and Thailand, will be invaluable.

Implications of this analysis for the political and ethnic opposition: If this analysis is even partially correct, it would support the opposition tactic of opposing the National Convention internally and in international forums, and stressing its unrepresentative and illegal nature. It would also suggest that a close alliance between the political and ethnic opposition is feared by SLORC, and should therefore be developed and reinforced.


SLORC is an illegal regime using an illegal process to acquire "legitimacy" through cosmetic constitutional changes. Its aim is to preserve the political and economic dominance of the military. It is also seeking through a barely-disguised policy of military coercion to force a "political" settlement of the civil war. If it were to succeed in these attempts, the resulting arrangements would be highly volatile and could easily destabilise the region.

There is also no sign that the ASEAN policy of "Constructive Engagement" has done more than encourage SLORC to develop such strategies. The economy is still under centralized and incompetent military control; the Kyat is still overvalued by a factor of about twenty; consumer prices have risen sharply since 1988, including that of rice, which has more than tripled; domestic production is stagnant; foreign investment is highly risky; and meanwhile, the people starve and Burma's ethnic and religious minorities are subject to unspeakable, racially-motivated atrocities.

Medium- and long-term stability in Burma require the establishment of genuine demo-cracy, respect for the ethnic nationalities' demands for national equality and the right to self-determination, and the demilitarization and decentralization of the economy. One necessary step would be the negotiation of a credible timetable for the transition of power to the representatives chosen by the people in 1990. Such negotiations would involve U Tin U, U Kyi Maung and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The process leading towards long-term stability would also require unforced negotiations with the alliances of the ethnic nationalities.

The main actors are therefore the Tatmadaw, the political opposition and the alliances of the non-burman ethnic nationalities. Three-way talks between these groups on a basis of equality are an essential part of any meaningful process of national reconciliation and democratization, and would provide a good medium-term goal for international diplomacy.


The international community and countries in the region should:

  1. Recognize that the process of imposing a constitution to "legitimise" continued military dominance, in opposition to the people's choice of civilian representatives in 1990, is illegal, destabilising and a mockery of demo-cracy and popular participation;
  2. Recognize that a forced end to the civil war, whether described as "political" or military, is unstable in the medium and long term. SLORC does not have the political or economic capacity to maintain a forced settlement other than by military means;
  3. Cease encouraging SLORC to adopt such coercive and short-term measures, which isolate the civil war from the restoration of democracy;
  4. Recognize that "Constructive Engagement" alone is making no impact on the deep structural problems of Burma's economic and political life, which can only be solved through genuine democratization, decentralization and demilitarization of government and economy. Attempts should be made to coordinate the strategies of Constructive Engagement with the sanctions and other measures which industrialized countries are contemplating. At its forthcoming session the General Assembly should:
  5. Make an explicit condemnation of the Nat-ional Convention, on the grounds that this is an illegal body with no mandate from the people, designed to provide a "constitutional" fig-leaf for the perpetuation of naked military rule;
  6. Recommend to individual member states and to the Security Council that they impose selective sanctions, perhaps including a prohibition on investment in Burma and a ban on trade in arms and timber. The lifting of sanctions should be made conditional on the initiation of, and progress in,negotiations between the three main actors in Burma: the military, the ethnic nationalities and the political opposition. The negotiations should be on the basis of equality between these parties, who should demonstrate a strong political will to achieve national reconciliation and to draw up a credible timetable for a restoration of democracy and the fulfillment of the will of the people expressed in the elections of 1990;
  7. Call on the Secretary-General, in collabor-ation with countries in the region, to use his good offices to facilitate such negotiations.

(March 1994)

The preceding text was written between April and May 1993. Events in Burma since then have led some people to believe that SLORC has yielded to its public relations advisers and international pressure and is making genuine moves towards national reconciliation and the restoration of democracy. However, although a number of small gestures have been made such as more visitors for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the release of a number of political prisoners, SLORC logic remains essentially military, with all policy decisions subordinated to questions of control of people and territory, and survival of the ruling group. The National Convention has been kept on track, despite frequent suspensions of the plenary for resisting elements in SLORC's proposed constitution.

As regards the civil war, the Kachin Independence Organisation signed a formal cease-fire with SLORC on the 24 February. Thai pressure on the Karen and Mon to agree cease-fires with SLORC has been reinforced by such measures as the Thai authorities' seizing consignments of medical supplies intended for the Karen (with implications for other supplies including ammunition), the announcement of a prohibition on NGO cross-border assistance, the closing of part of the Thai-Burmese border, and the expulsion of the senior Karen diplomat from Thailand.

An element not adequately dealt with in The Hunting of the SLORC is the destabilising role of forced labour, enforced recruitment and economic sabotage in combination with forced relocations and the general terror tactics of the "People's Army". Forced labour is not only a terror tactic, but also does severe damage to the economic life of a village by depriving it of agricultural and other workers. One stage in the Burma army's recruitment drives is the destabilisation of the village economy by forced labour and eviction from land to make way for military installations and farms. A point comes where joining the army is the only way of surviving. The families of the recruits receive important economic and other privileges. The consistent pattern of economic sabotage seen in reports on the activities of the Burma army -- burning of fields, killing of animals, stealing of foodstuffs and other items, destruction of houses etc, compounds the damage, which in combination with forced relocations and terrorisation results in the destabilisation and collapse of village communities, abandonment of villages, increased internal displacement and mass exoduses to neighbouring countries.

The view expressed in The Hunting of the SLORC that SLORC would be prepared to offer autonomy and retention of arms to the ethnic nationalities has had to be modified. Fragments of information emerging from the preliminary talks with some of the ethnic groups suggest a much harder line than anticipated, which would require virtual surrender on the part of the armies of the ethnic groups. It appears that SLORC is seeking localised cessations of hostilities round the proliferating military "development" enclaves implanted in the territories of the ethnic groups rather than the nation-wide cease-fires which the ethnic groups want. SLORC's intention is presumably the progressive occupation and partitioning of the non-burman areas by means of this counter-insurgency/development strategy. Presumably also, this will be accompanied by forced relocations, forced labour and economic sabotage unless the Burmese military has changed its working methods. This will lead to the further abandonment of villages, increased levels of internal displacement and mass exoduses into Thailand on a scale hitherto unknown on this particular border. However, until SLORC has sufficient troops to occupy the whole of the non-burman territories, this process is likely to be gradual, and not necessarily consistent. Several scenarios or stages come to mind:

  1. Politics but no arms: the non-burman peoples preserve their identity and still participate in national politics. Local autonomy and participation in future national elections is the picture presented by Xuwicha Hiranyapruek, the Thai businessman who as advisor to the Thai National Security Council (NSC) and intimate of SLORC has been shuttling between the various parties peddling cease-fire deals. However, a SLORC spokesman has said that to take part in national politics the minority organisations would have to disarm.
  2. Arms but no politics: the non-burman ethnic nationalities preserve their identity and weapons but refrain from participating in national politics. A policy of separate development. And the tungsten, copper, nickel etc?
  3. Assimilation: the non-burman groups merge their cultural and political identity into a greater Burmese identity. This scenario is supported by reports of the continuation of the policy of cultural and genetic burmanisation (minority languages are discouraged and soldiers are encouraged to marry girls from the ethnic group which predominates in any given non-burman area).
  4. Selective military occupation: important areas (towns, rich agricultural land, development projects of various kinds, actual or potential mines, hydro-electric and other energy projects, strategic areas for defence or communications etc) are occupied by the military and their families and subjected to further burmanisation, while the non-burman populations are driven onto marginal land and called on to provide labour, brides, and recruits for the army. The "Liberated Areas" are penetrated by various kinds of military enclaves centered around development projects and other locations of strategic, economic or communications significance, for which localised "cease-fires" are negotiated. Such enclaves, needless to say, also act as fortresses for military purposes, and when linked up, can act to partition the general area. In addition to these enclaves, one may expect the implantation of settlers from burman and other non-local ethnic groups in areas abandoned by the indigenous populations as a result of SLORC's Low Intensity Conflict strategy. Such settlement has been reported (not confirmed) from Arakan, where land and houses abandoned by the fleeing (Muslim) Rohingyas are reported to have been occupied by (Buddhist) Rakhine settlers.
  5. Total military occupation: total military occupation of all the minority areas would be a simple development of scenario 4. (Mao's Go strategy?) SLORC troops might not mass on the Thai border, but there would be little to prevent them if it suited their purpose. One would certainly expect a very large number of refugees to seek asylum in Thailand under these circumstances.

Some of these scenarios could occur simultaneously and/or sequentially. For example, 2 and 3 could apply respectively to the ethnic heartlands and the mixed areas, and then lead into scenarios 4 and 5.

It is fascinating to speculate on how SLORC sees NGOs and UN Agencies contributing to these undertakings; -- presumably they will supply the "carrots" while SLORC applies the stick.