The men in the room look like a random gathering of office workers, managers and schoolteachers rather than people plotting to unseat a widely despised, illegitimate government. But they are here on extremely serious business: to put aside differences and find a way to rid Burma of its brutal military regime.
The group met close to the Burmese border today as the military junta continued to stall on meeting international demands for an end to the crackdown on prodemocracy protests. Dissident groups say that up to 200 demonstrators were killed and thousands were detained when troops and police shot into crowds of unarmed protesters last week; the regime puts the death toll at 10.
Based on the deference shown him, Chao Yodsuek, a bespectacled ringer for a bank clerk, clearly is the ranking person at the meeting, and he leads the discussion, speaking in the Shan dialect used by people just across the border from Thailand. Yodsuek is a colonel in the Shan State Army and a top official in an umbrella group, the Restoration Council of the Shan State (RCSS). The Shan are a Tai ethnic group who live primarily in the state named after them.
At a break in the talks an assistant distributes a statement from the RCSS, but it contains only seven rather predictable points surrounding the council's support for "the people and monks of Burma." Far more significant is the agenda the colonel lays out for ending his country's four-decade nightmare of oppression and privation, including an imminent return to violence if attempts at "national reconciliation" fail.
"A political solution is the first priority," says Yodsuek, a subdued but forceful figure in white dress shirt and dark trousers. "We'll try to solve a political issue through political means. If that fails—armed struggle."
The fact is, the Shan and an alphabet-soup collection of other rebel groups have been fighting a succession of military leaders, from Ne Win to Than Shwe, for almost 50 years, with little notable success. As the generals have grown more powerful, wily and ruthless, the rebels actually have lost territory and now pass much of their time in the shadowy areas along the border between Burma and Thailand. In previous conflicts with the junta, the Shan have been burned out of their villages, fleeing to Thailand for sanctuary. Estimates of Shan refugees in Thailand top 1 million, according to Human Rights Watch. The total Shan population has been estimated at about 6 million.
Past defeats and divisions, however, do not mean that the rebels should be discounted as a political force. Derek J. Mitchell, a Burma expert at the International Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says that these groups will play an essential role in any postreform reconciliation efforts. "The rebel groups have never had the determinant power to get their way," he says. "But you have to include them in any process; they're an essential part of any [political] solution."
The rebels themselves concede they don't have the wherewithal to defeat the junta in a head-to-head military confrontation. "First, we do not have the ammunition," Yodsuek says. "The [government] army gets weapons easily. We have to rely on the black market. We are very poor in funding. No one really helps." Further, he admitted, "all the opposition groups are not unified. We operate separately. And we are trying to change that … We're trying to get past the divisions."
Burma's recent history is awash in a dizzying array of rebel groups too numerous to list. The junta's principal opposition is Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, the NLD, a political organization. But many other groups come and go, most with relatively narrow objectives, ranging from improved conditions for ethnic minorities to autonomy for discrete regions of the country. And self-interest has often reduced their ability to work together.
Not this time, they say. "We're all working together and demanding national reconciliation," says Than Khe, chairman of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF). "We're united, whether one group is looking for democracy or ethnic autonomy."
In addition to the Shan organization, this particular parley has drawn together the Chin National Front, Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party, Arakan Liberation Party and Kachin National Organization. Than Khe's ABSDF is "working very closely with them but not part of them," the former student says, with no trace of irony.
Some have asked where the rebel groups were during the events of the last two weeks. Wouldn't the phenomenon of tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and civilians taking to the streets in Rangoon and Mandalay have been perfect timing for a few strategic antigovernment sorties? Not necessarily, says Yodsuek. "There are two problems. First, the monks and the people want to do a peaceful movement, not a violent one. Second, even if we make an armed struggle at the same time, it would give the SPDC a chance to loudly say we are terrorists, to turn public and world opinion against us. Plus, the army is far more powerful than us, though less strong in spirit. We do have [military] plans, but right now we are working on unifying the groups."
The SPDC is the State Peace and Development Council, the euphemism the junta uses for itself. The name is successor to the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, an acronym once beloved by journalists for its onomatopoeic and somewhat menacing ring. Whatever its moniker, the junta has cleverly manipulated the disunity among the rebels over the years. In the mid-1990s the government wooed a group of Buddhist soldiers from the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Karen National Union. As enticement, the splinter group, known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, received territory inside the country that it could lord over. Loath to cede real autonomy to Karens, Shan or any other legitimate group, the junta has shown no reluctance to grant the occasional fief to adversaries as a away to co-opt them.
This time around, the groups say they are united behind the objectives of establishing democracy in Burma, removing the junta, bringing peace throughout the fractious nation and eradicating the long-booming trade in opium. The entity that benefits most from the lucrative trade is the Burmese Army, says Sao Ood Kesi, a Shan official. That ill-gotten revenue gives the already powerful and massive army even more clout, says Than Khe, the student-group leader. But he insists the military is nevertheless a hollow behemoth.
"In numbers they're a lot bigger than us, at 400,000," he says. "But most of them are conscripts, and a lot of those, child soldiers. They don't have any commitment, and most of them are suffering and barely surviving and have no education."
He stopped short of saying the military could implode, noting instead in very careful language that his organization and the others would not rule out some kind of power-sharing arrangement—temporarily—with the junta, a view echoed by Shan leaders. Some critics have accused the rebels of not being flexible or pragmatic enough to consider a deal with the generals, none of whom has ever indicated a willingness to simply retire into exile with a few millions, let alone willingly face prosecution for human rights violations.
"Dialogue is the best way, all concerned parties agree," Than Khe says. "There are no preconditions. If we start a dialogue, everything would be on the table. We are very realistic. At the same time, if we see the reality and see no sign of an interest in dialogue from the military regime, we must look at other means."
And despite years in the wilderness, the rebels say they are ready to govern Burma. Yodhuek, the Shan colonel, says the rebels have "the self-confidence" to run the nation, along with experience and a phalanx of qualified technocrats. The opposition, he avers, has many young people who have been trained abroad and are waiting for the opportunity to contribute, to serve. The rebels simply want the regime to get a real dialogue going.
That, however, may take a while. Restoration Council of the Shan State officials have sent "about five" letters to the junta asking for talks. They're still waiting to hear back.