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Implications of Myanmar’s Earthquake

by Joshua Kurlantzick
March 29, 2011

Army soldiers carry weapons as they walk to the earthquake struck area in Tarlay March 28, 2011.(Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

Besides the obvious destructive impact on human life – the death toll is already above seventy, which is likely a severe underestimate — the earthquake in northeastern Myanmar last Thursday could have political and strategic implications as well.  That region is home to a number of ethnic minority militias, many of whom have fought the central government on and off for decades. Most had signed cease-fires more than a decade ago, but the regime has, over the past two years, pressured many of the ethnic minority militias to essentially give up their arms and join a border guard force run by the regime. Not surprisingly, nearly all the militias have refused, instead banding together and often purchasing new stocks of arms, sometimes allegedly with money from narco-trafficking. The regime has held off on attacking most of the militias, though it has taken the fight to several smaller ones.

The earthquake could alter the tenuous détente between the regime and the militias. The government may see an opportunity to use the pretext of relief and reconstruction – which it is not likely to actually do, given its history — to extend its writ farther into ethnic minority areas in the north and east.  Such pressure will only heighten tensions in northeastern Myanmar, potentially sparking a backlash against the government . After all, many of the ethnic minority militias have been looking for a reason to push back against the regime’s orders to disarm.

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