By Nehginpao Kipgen
Almost all ethnic armed groups have successfully signed ceasefire agreements with the Burmese government. The Kachin Independence Organization and its armed wing Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA) is the only major armed group still battling the Burmese army.
It is pertinent to ask why the government has failed to reach ceasefire agreement with the KIO/KIA. Similarly, when all other major ethnic groups have agreed to cessation of armed conflicts, why are the Kachins still fighting? Are their demands different from the rest of ethnic minorities?
Along with the Chins, the Shans and the Burmans, the Kachins signed the historic Panglong agreement to form the Union of Burma in 1947, a year before the country`s independence from the British. However, in post-independence Burma, the Kachins felt betrayed and discriminated by the Burmese central government.
The Kachins were denied autonomy that was agreed in principle during the Panglong conference. Moreover, the Kachins, who are mostly Christians, opposed the introduction of Buddhism as state religion by Prime Minister U Nu government during the first parliamentary democracy.
The KIO/KIA, which was formed in 1961, initially demanded independence from the Union of Burma but later opted for autonomy based on the Panglong agreement. The group first signed ceasefire agreement with the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the then military government, in 1994.
The 17-year-old ceasefire ended in June 2011 primarily because of two important reasons. Firstly, in late April 2009, the KIO/KIA refused to accept the terms and conditions of transforming itself into Border Guard Force which would come under the direct command of the Burmese army. Secondly, the Burmese military’s interest to control lucrative hydropower projects and other natural resources in Kachin state led to the attack on KIA on June 9, 2011.
The conflict has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives on both sides and the displacement of tens of thousands of Kachin civilians. Rounds of meetings have been held without any concrete result. The KIA demands that cessation of armed conflict must lead to or guarantee political solution.
It also demands that the government declares a nationwide cessation of hostilities toward minorities and hold a national conference that resembles the Panglong conference. The government’s position is that ceasefire should precede any political dialogue. The Burmese government wants to sign ceasefire agreement at individual group level, contrary to the KIO/KIA’s demand for nationwide ceasefire.
As the conflict escalated, the Burmese government on January 3 admitted the use of fighter jets and helicopters to attack the KIA positions. The government claimed that fighter jets and helicopters were used to clear the KIA fighters who were attacking logistic units of the Burmese army. The KIO/KIA said the Burmese army was preparing to attack its headquarters in Laiza town.
The continued military offensive is an indication of increasing distrust and heightened tension between the two groups. The current violence is a consequence of unresolved historical problem and should not be studied in isolation. It is part and parcel of the larger minority problems in the country.
The minorities have made a consistent demand, that is, political autonomy. Armed conflict in Kachin state is a hindrance to Burma’s democratic transition. The conflict also damages Burma’s credibility as it happens when the international community has begun to show great interest in the country.
In light of the deteriorating situation, the democratic opposition led by National League for Democracy must not remain silent on the issue even if both sides have committed human rights violations. An ambition to win majority seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections should not overshadow the urgent need for a solution to the Kachin problem.
Ethnic armed groups that have signed ceasefire agreements with the government should understand that genuine peace and national reconciliation cannot be achieved with themselves alone. As much as they have struggled together for the past several decades for the restoration of democracy and for the establishment of a federal union, it is now equally important to show solidarity to the Kachins.
Several collaborative efforts have helped enlighten the centrality of minority issues in the decades-old Burma’s problems. Leaving the Kachins on their own at this juncture of political transition will only weaken the bond and friendship of ethnic minorities’ common struggle for equality of rights and autonomy.
The international community, especially the Western nations that have lifted sanctions on Burma, should use their economic and political influence to end the crisis. If the conflict does not end, the US government should reconsider its intention to invite the Burmese military to a US and Thai-led multinational military exercise in 2013.
The United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations should put pressure on the Burmese government that continued violence in Kachin state is unacceptable. Since the KIO/KIA does not demand secession or independence from the Union of Burma, a negotiated political settlement is not an impossible task.
History has shown that minority problems in Burma cannot be addressed militarily. A blame game between the two warring parties will not yield peace and stability. It requires mutual trust, participation and commitment from both the KIA and the Burmese military.
The ultimate objective should aim to end the war-like situation; provide assistance to the internally displaced persons, and bring a political solution to the lingering problem.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/ Myanmar. He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and nonacademic analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published internationally. His latest article entitled “US-Burma Relations: Change of Politics under Bush and Obama Administrations” is scheduled for publication in Strategic Analysis by Routledge in March 2013.