Author: Shankar Dev
The “kachin conflict” is one of the longstanding armed disturbances in the south Asian region. Since independence in 1948, Myanmar has faced/facing rebellions from a number of minority groups seeking autonomy. While sporadic fighting continues with several ethnic groups, “the Kachin” are the only major group that has not reached a cease-fire agreement with the elected government of President TheinSein, who came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of Tatmadaw rule. Given Myitkyina’s (capital of KIO) proximity to China and the latter’s coercive exploitative attempts, the conflict had conceived a greater concern in the geopolitics. Before digging into Kachinsit is important to get relevant with its geography and genesis of KIO, Tatamadaw.
Kachin state is the northernmost part of Burma drained by the tributaries of Irrawady river namely Mali and N’mai. The state, comparable in size to that of Portugal or Austria is bordered by India (Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland) on the west, Tibet in the far north and China (Yunnan Province) to the east. This state has a large forest cover and rich mineral deposits. In-fact it’s the gold & jade deposits on the banks of Irrawady river which is the major source of finance for the rebel groups for their sustained operation, scaling decades. The state is mainly inhibited by seven ethnic groups – Jinghpaw, Maru, Lisu, Lishi, Azi, Nung and Rawang- who are collectively known as “Kachin”. Majority Kachin’s are Christians & characterised by “the Jinghpaw culture”. Till early 1900’s the Kachins were are also one among several ethnic groups fighting against their common enemy- The British, though in later days Kachins gave hand in hand help for the Allied forces during WW-II. When British decided to grant freedom for the country in 1947 – several groups rose for the regional autonomy in their respective strongholds.
In 1947, rebel leaders met for a consolidation with majority dominated Burmese Govt at Panglong, signing an agreement intended to guarantee ethnic autonomy in Burma. In later days Burmese govt did not give much respect to the agreement – thus their autonomy in pipeline. Later in 1961,Parliament under then Burmese Prime Minister U Nu declared Buddhism as the state religion, thus infuriating the mostly Christian Kachin population. Resented Kachin youths formed Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) with its military called as Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
1962 Burmese coup d’état:
It is one of the world’s long lived military junta scaling about 5 decades. The elections of 1960 had put U Nu as the Prime Minister and Pyidaungsu Party led civilian government. On 2 March 1962, the then Chief of Staff of Armed Forces, General Ne Win staged a coup d’état and formed the “Union Revolutionary Council“. Around midnight the troops began to0 move into Yangon to take up strategic position. Prime Minister U Nu and his cabinet ministers were taken into protective custody. Thus the country had fallen to the Tatmadaw which is responsible for most conflicts the country facing today.
August 1963 – Burmese Gen Ne Win, held peace talks with ethnic armed forces, including the Kachin. However, negotiations failed after the ethnic representatives rejected Ne Win’s demands, which included a condition that their armed forces must be concentrated in designated zones and their activities must be disclosed to his regime. Again in 1980, KIA’s political wing, met with Ne Win for peace talks. He asked the Burmese government for Kachin State autonomy with self-determination. The Burmese government rejected the KIA’s demand for the inclusion of autonomous rights in the Constitution. This was followed by violence.
1994 Ceasefire Agreement:
Taking the advantages of rough terrain, free flow of funds from Jade trade, illicit arm supply from the Chinese brethren – the KIO established a formidable regime in the northern Burma. In early 90’s Burmese military captured Jade mines which let the Kachins short of funds, were forced to sign the ceasefire agreement with the ruling military regime.
This agreement lasted for about 16yrs and broke down in 2011 because
The kanchin story wouldn’t be complete without China. Initially Chinese Kanchin descendants helped Kanchins with arms and money. But in late 90’s the Hpakant – jade mines ended up in the regime’s hands depriving KIO from its main source of income thus led to the weakening of KIO. Then military regime made deals directly with Chinese companies for gold mining and timber extraction. Such activities resulted in massive environmental degradation, soil & biodiversity loss due to excessive lumbering.
In 2007 China signed for building Myitsone dam on Irrawady River for generating hydroelectric power. This had led relocation of large peoples and greater environmental concerns. The dam project has been controversial in Burma due to its enormous flooding area, environmental impact and its location on the Sagaing fault line. Moreover, most of the electricity generated by the dam would be distributed to China, providing little benefit to the Burmese locals. This had created a strong resentment among the local junta. In 2011 this was the main reason for large scale violence.
Day by day, as Chinese influence is mounting so is the head ache for china, as a part of military-KIO fight, Burmese shells strayed onto Chinese soil, prompting a complaint from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Also tens of thousands of Kachin refugees have flooded into Yunnan province of China during the unrest. There are economic interests for China too. Oil and gas pipelines, which originate in Burma’s Rakhine state, pass through Kachin area, channelling energy starved interior China. Any instability in these ethnic regions could compromise Beijing’s attempts to secure natural resources for its economic engine.
To end the unrest Burmese govt and Kanchins had 14 rounds of peace talks in Myitkyina, China and Thailand. Later on May 31st 2013, two sides signed a seven-point agreement,in the presence of UN and Chinese observers, to end two years of fighting.
Kanchin-A global tug of war:
As China enjoy an upper hand in Burma, gave other poles like Japan, US – a reason to worry. It could be well perceived when earlier this year, US Embassy in Rangoon said it was “deeply concerned” about the Kachin conflict and noted that despite a government announcement of a unilateral ceasefire “media and NGO reports indicate that the Burmese Army continues a military offensive” against Kachin rebels near Laiza. The Embassy also called for ceasefire talks and for UN access to displaced Kachin civilians. This was widely condemned by the Burmese Govt.
Even recent peace talks in Thailand were sponsored by the Japanese, while at the meeting at Ruili, China, a border town of Sino-Burma, the Chinese were directly involved. According to some international media reports, the Chinese even interfered with the internal affairs. The Chinese interests in Burma can directly deprive affected people from international help. During Ruili peace talks some decisions related to humanitarian assistance and ceasefire monitoring couldn’t be made due to Chinese opposition. If those items were included in the agenda, NGOs from the West would flood in this seems to weaken the Sinoinfluence. Interference from Japan, China and even the US could hamper the peace process in Kanchin State and the peace process may take longer than necessary. So it’s the responsibility of International blocs & Myanmar to take the 7-point agreement as a precursor for the permanent settlement also keeping coercive exploiters at bay. As Kanchin borders 2 Indian states and influx of refugees via the porous borders, India also have reasons to pressurise the concerned parties to end the conflict.