Two of Burma's ethnic Shan rebel groups have joined forces - one breaking a cease-fire with the military government - as they step up their struggle for an independent state. The move raises fears of renewed violence in Burma if other rebel cease-fire agreements break down.
The Shan State National Army, or SSNA, and the Shan State Army agreed to join forces at a base near the border with Thailand a few days ago. The agreement between the two rebel groups ends the SSNA's decade-old cease-fire pact with Burma's military government.
The SSNA accepted a cease-fire in 1995 on the condition that its troops could keep their arms. But Burma's military this year called on the Shan to disarm. In February, to add pressure, the military government arrested several Shan leaders and charged them with treason.
At the ceremony marking the deal between the two Shan groups, SSNA leader Colonel Sai Yi said "peaceful diplomacy had failed," so the SSNA decided to work with the Shan State Army. The combined force will have as many 5,000 troops under arms.
Like many other ethnic minority groups in Burma, the Shan community has fought for an independent state since Burma gained its independence in 1948.
Burma's military government had reached cease-fire agreements with about 17 of the country's rebel groups. Many of the agreements were reached in talks with officials led by former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. He was ousted last year and now is under house arrest. Many regional experts say they fear the more hard-line government now in place may be trying to crack down on minority groups.
Debbie Stothard is coordinator for the rights group the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma. She says the deal between the Shan groups may be a reaction to the crackdown.
"It's a very strong and telling development because it tells us that the moderate Shans - the Shans more willing to compromise with the military - have decided any benefits from the cease-fire have now been eroded to the point where they were willing to go to war," she said.
Ms. Stothard says if Rangoon had released the Shan leaders, moderates would have stood by the cease-fire. She now expects rising tensions between ethnic groups and the military government. "It is quite possible that the ethnic groups may take the gamble and see which way the cards will fall if they take a stand against the military regime," she said.
Dr. Naing Aung, executive director of the Network for Development and Democracy, a rights group based in Thailand, says the military hopes to persuade smaller groups such as the Shan to sign cease-fires to put more pressure on larger ethnic forces - such as the Karen, which does not have a formal cease-fire agreement with the military. He thinks that plan will fail.
"The other big ethnic groups that make the cease-fire are aware [of] this development and they have a serious concern," said Dr. Aung. "As far as I have heard most of the cease-fire groups - if they are forced to lay down their arms without reaching an agreement, they will not do it."
Burma is under pressure from many governments, including the European Union and the United States because of its poor human rights record and its suppression of the pro-democracy opposition.
Burma says it is trying to gradually move toward democracy and in the past year it has twice convened a national convention to draft a new constitution. The SSNA originally took part in the convention, but has withdrawn because of the pressure to disarm.