Getting embroiled: War in Kachin could spell disaster

The war in Kachin commenced in June 2011 after the 17-year old ceasefire between the Burmese government and Kachin rebels was broken.

The Kachin people in Burma have been demanding autonomy for the past six decades but have been left disappointed. Being a resource-rich region and bordering China, Kachin becomes very important geo-politically.

The war between the Burmese tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), has been very intense with the tatmadaw being engaged in offensives and the KIA using hit and run ambushes.

Recently, in February China hosted peace talks in the Chinese border town of Ruili to help both the sides diffuse the crisis after a failed attempt by Thein Sein to force a ceasefire.

But China’s role in the entire Kachin business has been doubted. While China has good relations with the Burmese government, it still maintains informal contacts with various ethnic groups.

Meanwhile, the mild approach of the activist and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the crisis has been subjected to widespread criticism. But it is said that she may play a role in diffusing the crisis if engaged by the government as she is willing to intervene in the conflict at the right time.

Thein Sein has so far not come under any diplomatic pressure by the international community, unlike during the Rohingya crisis, except by the US, which criticized the Burmese government of conducting air strikes and land operations against ethnic Kachin rebels and civilians that have led to many deaths.

Origin of crisis

One third of Burma’s 60 million people belong to one or the other ethnic minority. Over the years Burma has been dominated by the Bamar majority, and the military regime that ruled Myanmar was composed of Bamar officers who targeted the ethnic people for their campaigns of child slavery, forced labor and other such acts of exploitation.

As a result, the ethnic minority waged a war against the state with a view to gain autonomy or even independence and thus set in motion one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies in Karen, Shan and Kachin states of Burma.

The question regarding why the war in Kachin lasted all these years leads to another view - the war supports the interests of military commanders who are insecure that they would miss out if there is a transition to complete civilian control. If the tatmadaw wants to maintain its prestige then some internal conflict should supports its claim.

Since 2010, there have been massive changes taking place in Myanmar with Thein Sein coming to power after democratic elections and signing of ceasefire agreements with 10 ethnic minorities, including Karen, Mon and Shan.

But peace eluded the Kachin areas in northern Burma, which spread over Kachin state and parts of Shan state.

The Kachin minorities were not able to ink deals with the government in Burma, unlike the Karen and Chin counterparts, because the Kachin hold that the government used truce as a cover-up to broker multi-billion dollar deals with China without consulting them.

The ceasefire was broken in June 2011 and since then the Burmese army and the KIA have been engaged in a low-grade deadly combat involving land mines and unreliable mortar fire.

Hundreds and thousands of ethnic minorities are internally displaced in Burma because of the fighting between the two sides.

It has also been said that fighting in Kachin is directly or indirectly related to the interest of Burma’s neighbors and world powers.

These include nations that backed Burma’s old ruling junta and now are on good terms with the new government as well. There is also the fact that the outside involvement most often complicates the peace process.

Chinese role

It is very important to consider the China factor here. Years ago China had funded communist-led rebel army against the National Army of Myanmar.

Although later the Chinese cultivated good relations with Burma’s military junta regime, it still maintains informal contacts with the ethnic minorities. China also plays a crucial role in exploiting state’s resources and conducts trade in Myanmar.

Some experts have also cited China as the reason for the continued fighting. China has been seen to be moving behind the scenes to consolidate its interests in Myanmar, which in recent times has been opening up to the rest of the world, specially the US.  

China has a formidable influence on the internal war going on in Burma in terms of trade and economic activity, particularly in minerals, timber and precious stones. It is not uncommon to see lorries traversing Myanmar-China border in spite of an ongoing war.

The weapons and ammunitions, on the other hand, keep coming from India, Russia and other regional powers.

But China is making it obvious that it wants to maintain good relations not only with the Burmese government but also with the Kachin people who share ethnic bonds with minorities called Jingpo-as the Kachins are known in China-just on the other side of the border.

However, China’s objective for keeping close contacts with Myanmar is not limited to countering US’ warming up to the Burmese government. China also has huge interests in energy and mineral resources in Myanmar.

China also has huge investments in the country-it has spent $2 billion on oil and gas pipelines crossing Myanmar into the Yunnan province in China.

This would help China avoid dependence on shipments coming from the Straits of Malacca. Also, the economy of Yingjiang County in the Yunnan province depends on jade and wood coming from the Kachin state.

China’s trade with Kachin benefitted some of people over there but has also been seen as exploitative by many.

Therefore, China has come up with a clever strategy of not siding too much with the Burmese army against the Kachin rebels for fear that this resentment might be blown out of proportion.  

However, the fighting also creates problems for China as it would lead to a large scale movement of refugees across the border into China’s Yunnan province. Already, fighting persists in town of Laiza that borders China and has the KIA headquarters.

In fact, in Laiza, Chinese Yuan is the currency and it is Chinese mobile phone networks that help connect the people. But on the other hand, it is the same Chinese sponsored infrastructure projects that form the core of the problem in Kachin.

A case in point is the Myitsone dam, a joint venture between Burmese government and China Power Investment Corp.

For decades the Kachins have been opposing the state extracting their resources and this project adds to their anger. It also included about 12,000 Kachins being forcefully relocated to Chinese-built dams to make way for the project.

In the Chinese brokered negotiations that took place in February both the sides agreed to reduce military tension and hold peace talks that would formally end the war and lead to the establishment of a monitoring system.

The next meeting will be held after the KIO discusses the situation with other members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). The UNFC is an umbrella organization of 10 ethnic groups formed in early 2011.

Complete cessation of violence demands that a certain amount of autonomy be given to the Kachins, without which the issue would crop up again. In Kachin Baptist Churches, the prayers of they are being granted independence, are often heard.

If something fruitful is not done by the government of Myanmar, allowing for a degree of federalism for the ethnic group, then Myanmar might risk being divided along ethno-religious lines, which does not sound good for the future of a nation that only recently opened up to democratic functioning.