The election in Burma largely conformed to predictions. Condemned by outsiders, it was to some extent ignored by many in the country: turnout was reportedly low. The US, Britain, Australia and other industrialised democracies decried the junta’s apparent vote-rigging, slanted electoral rules and refusal to let the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of house arrest before the polls. There are suggestions in Burma now that she will be released within weeks, though the terms of that release remain unclear. Most major human rights organisations have also focused on the unfairness of the election and the impact of the rigged vote on Burmese politics.
Meanwhile, in northeast and eastern Burma, a potential catastrophe is unfolding. For several months, the junta has been warning ethnic minority armies that it will attack them if they do not lay down their arms and join a junta-dominated border guard force. (A ceasefire has been in force for more than a decade.) Earlier this year, several of the ethnic groups agreed to fight the junta together. Burmese analysts say the insurgents have been buying up small arms and heavy weaponry, recruiting fighters from the surrounding civilian populations, and selling large quantities of drugs to pay for their guns.
The day after the election, the junta launched a campaign against ethnic Karen insurgents, sending tens of thousands of refugees across the border into Thailand. At least thirty people, both civilians and soldiers, were killed yesterday, and many more are likely to die in the coming week. One of the insurgent groups seized the town of Myawaddy on the Thai border, burning down government offices.
Emboldened by its rigged election results, the junta is likely to widen its battle against ethnic armies to many other parts of the country. Facing this threat, other insurgent armies have promised to come to the aid of the Karen group. The insurgents have stepped up their plans to reinforce the towns they hold throughout the north and east, which means a Burmese military attack on these fortified garrisons could be especially bloody. The fighting could also spill over the borders of Thailand and China.
The refugees who make it to Thailand suffer malicious treatment at the hands of Thai security forces, and Thailand’s foreign minister recently warned that the country may start repatriating Burmese refugees. Many other civilians will not make it to the border. Instead they will have to hide out in the jungle, in fear of being caught by insurgents or the military, which is known for subjecting captives to forced labour and gang rape. Too bad, then, that the world pays virtually no attention to them.