By C. S. Kuppuswamy
The situation in Kachin area appears to be serious and its adverse impact on the ongoing reform process cannot but be overemphasised. There are two views on the ongoing war from two different sources:
“Talks between the Myanmar government and ethnic resistance groups have raised hopes of a lasting solution to decades of ethnic strife, but the country’s established history of failed ceasefires threatens to repeat itself with potentially disastrous consequences for new foreign-funded peace and reconciliation initiatives. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the northern Kachin State.” – Bertil Lintner (AT on line 02 June 2012)
“Hundreds of people have lost their lives, thousands have been maimed or injured, and some 70,000 have been displaced from their homes. But after 1,640 battles, the conflict between Kachin rebels and the Burmese army—now into its 13th month—shows no sign of abating.” – Saw Yan Naing (The Irrawaddy, 18 July 2012).
The war between the Myanmar Army and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) started on 09 June 2011 in Momauk Township. Momauk Township lies under the control of KIA Brigade 3 (see Maps below) where tension between the military and KIA has been rising for months prior to June 2011.
Momauk Township is on the Bhamo-Myitkyina Road close to No. 1 and No.2 hydro power dams which are located near the Chinese border areas. The apparent reason for the army attack was to control the areas surrounding the hydropower dams, which have been long under the control of KIA. The planned twin oil and gas pipelines under construction by the Chinese also pass close to these areas. Because of this reason some analysts had alleged that the Chinese might have influenced the Myanmar army for this renewed fighting.
Source-Free Burma Rangers’ Report
In the last 13 months fighting has spread as well as intensified to other areas under control of the KIA, with the threat of the KIA HQ at Laiza being overrun.
The other intriguing factor is that despite orders from the government to the army to stop fighting except in self defence, the war is continuing. All the while ceasefire talks between the government and the KIA have been taking place which are now deadlocked as the KIA refused to attend the last round at Bhamo in early July 2012.
The Kachins are one of the signatories to the Panglong Agreement in Feb 1947 which gave hope to a fully autonomous Kachin State.
The Kachins are mostly Christian. When Buddhism was declared as state religion in February 1961 under U NU’s regime, the Kachins were upset and formed the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to fight for an independent Kachin State. The political wing of the KIA is called the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).
The Kachin Independence Army is the second largest armed ethnic group in Myanmar. The KIA claims to have 10,000 troops with another 10,000 reservists. The troops are divided into five brigades with HQ at Laiza.
The Kachins gave up their demand for independence and sought for state autonomy with self determination. Even this demand did not materialise and the KIO entered into a ceasefire with the military regime then called SLORC in February 1994 seeking nothing more than development of this region.
From 1994 Kachin has seen much development though at the cost of a heavy social and environmental price and with much discontentment to the civilian public. A number of hydropower dams including the recently suspended Myitsone dam are in Kachin State.
With the hope of a political settlement the KIO also attended the National Convention, which took more than 14 years to draft the 2008 Constitution. The KIO’s proposal to the National Convention for setting up a Union of Myanmar on the basis of the Panglong agreement was turned down under the threat of breaking the ceasefire agreement.
The Kachin people were (and are still) disappointed with the KIO/KIA for their failure to achieve a political settlement. Besides there were internal dissensions between the KIO and KIA during the period 1994 to 2004 which have weakened both these organisations to the advantage of the military junta.
In September 2010 the KIO refused to become a Border Guard Force under the Myanmar Army and instead made a counter proposal to transform as Kachin Regional Guard Force which was, as expected, rejected by the government.
The Myanmar Army
An extensive report on the army activities in the Kachin State has been compiled by The Free Burma Rangers, a Group that conducts humanitarian work within ethnic areas in Burma. The details of this report were published in Mizzima News (05 June 2012). The following are some of the major details extracted from this report:
- The Army is pressing attacks with over 100 battalions (approx 8000 troops)
- The Army is using 60mm, 81 mm and 120 mm mortars as well as 105mm Howitzers.
- The Army is adopting a three pronged strategy to (1) Control supply lines (2) Cut off access between 5th Brigade (including KIO HQ at Laiza) and 3rd Brigade and (3) cut off access between Laiza area and Laisen Area to the north.
- The Army is facing difficulty in resupplying their camps and pushing troops and materials forward because of frequent ambushes by the KIA on the army columns and resupply routes. As a result the army offensives have been much slowed down.
- The Army has taken control of most dam sites, areas where the Chinese dual gas and oil pipelines are being currently laid as well as areas where mining operations are taking place.
- Consequent to the army action over the last year (since June 2011) over 50,000 Kachin people have been displaced, over 60 Kachin civilians killed and around 100 Kachin soldiers killed. The casualties suffered by the army are not known though some reports indicate that the army also has suffered heavy casualties.
The KIO and the Peace Talks
With a view to end the hostilities between the KIA and the Myanmar Army, the KIO had met with government delegations in June and August 2011. Full scale delegation level talks were held in the Chinese border town of Ruili on 29 November 2011. The KIO’s demand for political dialogue and withdrawal of the army from locations close to the areas under control of the KIA as a precondition to further talks were turned down by the government delegation.
The KIO had the next round of talks with the government delegation at Ruili in China on 18 January 2012. China has been quietly hosting these talks presumably because of its major economic interests in the Kachin State and the influx of refugees into China.
One more round of talks was held on 19 June 2012 at Maija Yang (located on the China-Myanmar border) between the government team and the KIA where little progress was made.
The next round of talks to be held at Bhamo on 09 July 2012 did not materialise as the KIO refused to take part because of an army offensive launched during the weekend near Laiza, the KIO HQ. The Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Gen. Soe Win was also scheduled to attend the talks.
The KIO continues to insist for a political dialogue before agreeing to ceasefire even though most of the other ethnic armed groups have signed a ceasefire agreement within the last one year. The KIO, by insisting on a political dialogue prior to ceasefire agreement, faces the threat of isolation from other ethnic groups and may also be viewed as a stumbling block to the ongoing reforms by the international community and lose their sympathy and support.
On 01 March 2012, in his speech to the parliament on completion of one year in office, he clarified the three stages of the roadmap to achieve lasting peace in the country. They are a) to first sign a ceasefire to end hostilities b) to engage in economic development, eradicate the drugs and to assimilate into the state, military and political framework and c) to work through the parliament to address the government, national races and citizen needs. In the case of Kachins even the first stage has not been crossed because of the ongoing war.
A Union- level Peace Committee was formed in May 2012 in supersession of the earlier two separate teams working in different areas. This union-level team is divided into two parts—a Central and Working Committee—with government ministers, heads of divisions, MPs and the Chief of Army Staff. The 12-member Central Committee is chaired by President Thein Sein while Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham has been appointed the Chairman of the working committee of 52 members (The Irrawaddy-May 8, 2012).
Railway Minister Aung Min has been the main architect behind the second round of ceasefires entered into with the ethnic groups during the last one year or so. He is the leader of the delegation which has had three rounds of talks with the KIO till date.
In June 2012, the centre had also decided to drop Article 17/1 which had outlawed the KIO. This is a positive development as this was one of the demands of the KIO as it had no legal entity till date for entering into discussions on behalf of the Kachin community. This will also help people detained for being supporters of the KIO and the internally displaced persons.
The jungles and river valleys of the Kachin state are rich with minerals, jade, timber and gold. Besides a number of hydropower projects are underway in the state which will benefit the Chinese. The major grouse of the Kachins has been that they do not have a fair share of the revenue that the government is getting from extraction of these natural resources. Ironically, while this is the cause for the ongoing conflict, it is also an impediment for an amicable settlement.
KIO/KIA is totally dependent on China for its survival with illegal border trade of various goods and products. China also benefits from the exploitation of natural resources in the Kachin Region. China cannot afford to antagonise Kachins either. The currency used in Laiza is Yuan and the Kachins are using the Chinese mobile networks and telephones. Hence this peculiar relationship has posed problems for China and Naypyidaw in their mutual relations. To secure its commercial interests, it needs stability along the border and to that extent China is interacting both with the Kachins and the Myanmar Government by hosting the peace talks in its soil.
Even while the peace talks are in progress fighting continues between the government troops and the KIA despite instructions as early as in December 2011 from the President to stop fighting. KIO spokesperson La Nan said “They (the troops) have a policy and even get orders regularly from the government to eliminate us”. Thus one wonders whether the government is playing a double game by holding peace talks and fighting simultaneously to weaken the KIA and make it to come to terms. Or is the Army playing truant?
Despite the overwhelming strength of the government troops there have been no substantial gains in the ongoing war with the KIA. This shows that either the troops are ill-trained for counter-insurgency operations in such hostile terrain or they are more interested in safeguarding their areas of interest, particularly the hydropower dam sites and the mining areas, and are acting as a deterrent to KIA’s influence. Or, are the army leaders happy to line their pockets when full scale fighting benefits them?
According to media reports and reports of human rights groups, the government is also resorting to arresting of ethnic Kachins in the state under the suspicion of being sympathisers to the rebels. This has caused resentment and the civilians are resorting to mass demonstrations for release of those arrested under mere suspicion. If the reports that indicate that legislation is underway to revoke the 2010 decision which declared the KIO/KIA unlawful are correct, such arrests of civilians for supporting KIO/KIA is more of harassing tactics, which may rebound in the long run.
In this near crisis situation in the north, all eyes are on Aung San Suu Kyi. How would she view the situation in the north? With her popularity among Burmans of the plains high, how would she view the Kachins fighting, which some accounts say is reaching war like operations?
Aung San Suu Kyi conveyed in an open letter on 28 July 2011 to President Thein Sein with copies to some ethnic groups (which included the KIO) that she is ready to get involved in efforts to resolve ongoing armed conflicts between the military and ethnic groups. She has also reiterated that national reconciliation can be achieved only by political dialogue and not by military means. However, the ethnic groups appear to consider that National League for Democracy (NLD) being a party of predominantly Burmans will not help their cause and that Aung San Suu Kyi is rather ambivalent over the issue, may be, because of her helplessness at this stage.
With the experience of the 1994 ceasefire not producing a political result in 17 years time and the deep mistrust of the government, the KIO is not keen on signing a ceasefire agreement this time. The KIO is aware of the fact that it runs the risk of isolation from other major ethnic groups who have agreed to ceasefire. Having made no progress even after so many rounds of talks, the government may harden its stand further and go for total military solution which will not help the KIO/KIA.
Perhaps it may be prudent for the KIO to insist on a time frame for a political dialogue (if not a political solution) with all ethnic groups on the lines of the last Panglong agreement and enter into a cease fire agreement and hope for the best. But can this be done without a ceasefire? It is doubtful.