11/16/2010 05:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Burma Clashes Lead to Regional Instability -- Analysts

Clashes between Burma's army and ethnic rebel groups this week have sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing across the border into Thailand.

A local militia claimed it had intervened in the border town of Myawaddy as Burmese troops forced residents to vote against their will in Sunday's general election. Over the course of the week, fighting spread to other parts of the border areas, involving several other militias.

"Surrender is out of the question," Col. Saw Lah Pwe, leader of a breakaway group from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), told the Thailand-based magazine Irrawaddy. His troops were forced out of Myawaddy after holding it for less than a day. "We will change our military strategy and focus on using guerrilla warfare tactics against [the army]."

Confrontation between the army and Burma's many ethnic rebel groups was widely expected among observers following the country's first general election in 20 years. But that fighting would break out this fast came as a surprise to many. They warn that the tensions over the last few days in the country also known as Myanmar, could be a prelude to further violence in the coming weeks and months.

"Tension in the ethnic areas is serious," said Priscilla Clapp, former U.S. minister-counselor to Burma. Barring ethnic minorities from participating in Sunday's elections, she said, has totally disenfranchised these groups, leaving them with the feeling that they don't have a say in determining their own fate.

After decades of internal fighting, most of Burma's ethnic militias signed a ceasefire with the government in the lead up to the last general elections, in 1990, which promised a larger say for ethnic minorities in the country's politics. Some groups, among them the Karen National Union (KNU), refused a truce, and have continued the struggle for increased autonomy from the central government.

The last offensives reflect a renewed will among rebels to unite their efforts and confront government forces. At an unprecedented meeting in Northern Thailand concluded last week, six militias, including the KNU and the strong Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) of northern Burma, agreed to join forces to counter government aggression. Size estimates of this ethnic alliance range from 15,000-30,000 soldiers.

"What we've seen so far will certainly be just a tip of the iceberg," said Gum San Nsang, secretary general of the Kachin National Organization USA, a group advocating on behalf of Burma's Kachin minority.

"The new alliance between cease fire groups and the KNU means trouble for the government," he told reporters at the United Nations on Tuesday. "Kachin areas border not just Thailand but also China. [The increased tension] will tremendously increase border instability with China. The situation will be much worse than what we've seen so far."

Sunday's elections theoretically opened a door for increased minority participation in Burmese politics, with representatives elected to the upper house. But in practice, many ethnic groups were barred from participating.

"The regime has badly miscalculated the question of disarming the cease fire militias," said Ms. Clapp. "They were promised to be allowed participation in the election, and then the status of the militias would be negotiated by the new civilian government. But instead of following through with their promises, the government forced the militias to become part of [a government controlled] border guard force."

When they refused to join this force, the militias were labeled as insurgents and terrorists by the ruling junta. "They were basically told they are now on the receiving end of the junta's gun barrel," said Ms. Clapp.

It now seems that the election that many countries in the area, especially China and Thailand, were hoping would lead to a more stable Burma, has created the exact opposite: a guerrilla war spilling over their borders.

"The 2010 elections will not bring any changes [to the situation of ethnic minorities in Burma], it will not bring any peace or democracy." said Zipporah Sen, secretary general of the KNU, by telephone from the Thai-Burma border. "There will only be increased human rights violations and violence, and it will affect the neighboring countries."

In the Three Pagodas Pass on Wednesday, all 70,000 local residents headed towards the Thai border in a mass exodus, reported the Irrawaddy, after a group of Buddhist monks failed negotiate a truce between the rebels and government troops.

The support lent to the KNU by other rebels groups comes at a great time for the Christian-led Karen group, said Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Burma Project at The Open Society Institute.

"The KNU has endured a leadership crisis and been weakened by pressure from Thai authorities on Karen strongholds in refugee camps [on the Thai side of the border]," she said. "They have very few fighters left."

"Now there is a big chance that we will see renewed fighting also in the north [of Burma]. Our sources there tell us that everybody is getting armed now, including civilians and children," she said. "Everybody is expecting war."