As military-ruled Myanmar prepares for its first election in two decades, some of its powerful ethnic minority groups are preparing for war.
Several are boycotting Sunday's vote, which they see as a step toward shattering their long-held dream of semiautonomy under a federal system. The government in turn has canceled voting in 3,400 villages in ethnic areas, disenfranchising 1.5 million people.
As tensions rise, both sides have been amassing forces, and some minor clashes have broken out. Should full-scale fighting erupt, a humanitarian crisis could ensue. Relief groups anticipate a wave of refugees, swelling the 600,000 already in neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh.
"We had high hopes to solve the problems by political means but we could not," Lahpai Nawdin, head of the media arm of the Kachin ethnic group, said at a meeting of activists and others in this northern Thailand city last weekend. "That's why we Kachin people are preparing for an inevitable civil war. We have to defend ourselves."
The military has run Myanmar since 1962, and the election is widely seen as a ploy to perpetuate its control under the guise of civilian rule.
Though the signs are ominous, experts also agree that neither side wants war. They add that China, the country's most influential and closest ally, will try hard to prevent one.
Myanmar, earlier known as Burma, is home to about two dozen minority groups, many of whom live in isolated and mountainous enclaves along the border with Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh. They make up 40 percent of the country's 56 million people.
After years of off-and-on fighting that started in 1948, when Myanmar gained independence from Great Britain, the government reached cease-fire agreements with 17 groups beginning in 1989. A half dozen others continue to fight, including the Karen National Union and Shan State Army-South.
Under the agreements, the cease-fire groups were given considerable political autonomy and allowed to maintain their armies.
But in the run-up to the election, the ruling junta rammed through a "one nation, one army" constitution and ordered the ethnic groups to integrate their forces into a new Border Guard Force.
Several groups ignored deadlines to do so, including the two most powerful: the United Wa State Army, which has the largest force with an estimated 30,000 artillery-backed fighters, and the Kachin Independence Army.
The Wa and Kachin have both stepped up military training, and some ethnic groups are forging military links.
Associated Press reporters met young recruits undergoing basic training in Kachin state in April, ready to join an 8,000-strong force fabled for its expertise in guerrilla warfare.
Meanwhile, the government has purchased 50 Russian-made M-24 helicopter gunships, which are often used in counterinsurgency operations, and withdrawn some civilian employees from potential war zones.
Last month, government soldiers encircled a Kachin army checkpoint, while the Kachin surrounded two government liaison offices in one of a growing number of potentially dangerous incidents.
Jan Zalewski of London-based IHS Global Insight, a consulting firm, said the groups face a dilemma: give up their weapons and lose their bargaining power, try to maintain the status quo or become more aggressive, thus provoking military action.
"In many ways, there are indications that the latter scenario will materialize," he said.
In August 2009, the army attacked one of the cease-fire groups, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Party, sparking the flight of more than 30,000 ethnic Kokang into China and drawing the ire of Beijing.
China has lucrative economic links with both the military junta and the ethnic groups, whose regions are rich in timber, jade and other natural resources. It also wants to forge a pathway — including a natural gas pipeline now under construction — through ethnic areas to the Indian Ocean to speed the flow of goods to its landlocked southwestern provinces and, some analysts say, to gain access for its navy ships to a port it is helping to build.
"There will be friction, but China has a big interest in keeping the situation near its borders with Burma stable, which means Beijing will pressure and bribe both the army and ethnics to maintain the status quo," said Donald Seekins, a Myanmar scholar in Hawaii.
At the meeting here last weekend, representatives from the minority groups described the election as a means to eliminate all ethnic political power.
Some called for what has so far eluded the disparate groups. "We now have no real option but to unite, politically and militarily. Now is the time to be united as one," said Nawdin, who heads the Kachin News Group.
By some estimates, a united insurgency could field 65,000 fighers and control a quarter of the country's territory.
"Critical times lie ahead," said Martin Smith, a British scholar who has followed Myanmar's insurgencies for decades. "Will the next government determine new and representative ways of establishing peace by reform and inclusion? Or will it seek military-first solutions?"