The fighting in Kachin areas – the Kachin State itself and Kachin-majority parts of northern Shan State – has been one of the most serious threats to peace during Myanmar’s transition since it erupted in June 2011, ending a seventeen-year-long ceasefire. It remains the last of Myanmar’s decades-long ethnic conflicts not currently to have a ceasefire.
Since Crisis Group first raised concerns in November 2011 about the grave consequences the breakdown of the ceasefire could pose for the country’s New Peace Initiative, other Storm Clouds have gathered on the country’s horizon, including virulent inter-communal violence in Rakhine State. These are serious challenges that must be overcome if Myanmar is to keep its broadly positive transition on track. But as Myanmar can see from the Indonesian experience, transitions are complicated, long, and often messy processes. They do not always end up as those who advocated or started them intended. There are many deviations and frequently bumps in the road.
On 28 December 2012, the Myanmar army launched attacks on a base near the Laiza headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). It is not the first attack since the ceasefire failed. But this time it was backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets. This was a serious escalation, as air power has rarely been used in this or any of the other internal conflicts. It appears inconsistent with the President’s order not to take offensive actions and raises in some quarters serious questions about the extent of his authority over the military, or his own commitment to reform.
There is a large civilian population in and around Laiza, as well as a large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps. Any military offensive on the town could have a serious impact on civilians, and would likely send tens of thousands of refugees across the border into China as the town sits on the border. There are IDP camps on the approach roads to Laiza, and also at various locations in the town itself, including close to strategic targets.
The main area attacked by air last month was a hilltop military base (Hill 771 near Lajayang), with no significant civilian populations living nearby. In the official New Light of Myanmar, it was reported that the KIO had been using its position on Hill 771 to attack the main Bhamo-Myitkyina road, including military ration supply convoys to the army’s longstanding base adjacent to Hill 771. It said the KIO had been informed in advance that Myanmar military convoys would be passing along the route to deliver supplies, in order to prevent clashes from occurring, but that on all three occasions the KIO ambushed the convoys.
Following this, the army launched an operation to take the hill “as self-defence” and used air cover as part of the operation. The hill was taken on 30 December. The military now appears to be gearing up to take other nearby hill-top military bases of the KIO in order to secure its flank, so further use of air power cannot be ruled out. It has also been shelling KIO military bases around Laiza, with some shells reportedly falling on the town and several landing across the border. No casualties have been reported from these shells, but China has expressed its concern about the fighting and about the stray shells.
The KIO is not blameless. It has not reciprocated the President’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire and has continued offensive actions against military and strategic targets. At peace talks on 30 October, the Myanmar military sent senior commanders to participate, but the Kachin sent only lower-level representatives, meaning that military discussions on separation of forces could not be held. It was interpreted as a snub by the military and left government negotiator U Aung Min undermined as he had worked hard to convince the army to send a very senior army commander to attend the talks in China only for him to be stood up.
The recent fighting should be seen partly in this light, since the military may feel that without a willingness on the part of the KIO to have separation of forces discussions, military action is the only viable way to secure its frontline positions. The government has noted that it has met for peace negotiations with the KIO eleven times since its peace initiative began. At the 30 October meeting, U Aung Min also offered to begin a political dialogue with the KIO, asking the KIO to suggest a date and location to begin these talks, to which the KIO has yet to respond. While there has been intermittent fighting since June 2011, there has also been much talking, including behind the scenes.
But what keeps this conflict going? On the Kachin side, there is a deep disillusionment and suspicion that remains from their experience with the previous ceasefire and the national convention that produced the current constitution. During that period, the KIO approached it with the greatest strategic thought of any armed ethnic group and went very far in cooperating with the government’s roadmap, but got little in return. Their proposals for the constitution were ignored, and when Kachin leaders tried to register a political party for the 2010 election, it was rejected as part of a tactical move by the government to force the KIO to join the (now sidelined) border guard force. Ultimately, the previous ceasefire process did not produce economic and social gains for the population. It did not help that Kachin society gained little benefit from gem mining and illegal logging activities of the KIO.
On the military’s side, there are also vested interests in resource extraction, deep psychological reasons, and local factors. While the region remains in conflict, it is under military control and outside the remit of the reformists in Naypyitaw. There has also been a dramatic loss of face, as the national army is regularly bettered on the battlefield by a more experienced but less well armed KIO fighters who hold the high ground. Kachin snipers have regularly killed officers of the national armed forces (Tatmadaw), some say as a deliberate tactic, and this has angered the army, spurred often brutal revenge attacks, and made the military more determined not to cede territory or lose face against what they dismissively regard as an “insurgent” force. [In a forthcoming report, we plan to go into greater details on the dynamics sustaining this conflict.]
Can it be resolved? To those inside Myanmar, this is a much simpler conflict than the challenges facing the government in Rakhine state, where the hatred is deep and visceral. The years of fighting and the ceasefire in Kachin State have produced two sides that may be wary but are very familiar with each other and in regular contact. It is a complex but not intractable conflict, as outside the arena of negotiations there is now informal discussion about what the contours of a ceasefire might be as well as what might follow in terms of sharing of revenues from resources, economic development, political structures, transitions arrangements, and the possible devolution of some power. In November 2001, the government demonstrated an ability to compromise with the ethnic Karen armed groups agreeing to all their demands for a ceasefire to achieve larger national objectives of promoting economic development and may well do so with the Kachin. There is a sense that both sides are holding out for a better deal. This in the near term could add some momentum to conflict rather end it.
If there is a further escalation, it would be serious in two ways, beyond its tragic humanitarian impact. First, it would undermine the peace process more generally, by making it harder to resolve the Kachin conflict and making it harder to convince the other groups of the government’s good intentions as the political phase of the peace negotiations begins. Secondly, it would undermine the President by suggesting either that he is not the peacemaker he claims to be, or that he does not have the power to rein in the military.
The new political environment allows everyone to observe and scrutinise this conflict in a way unimaginable two years ago. For foreign governments, there are now a range of subtle ways to interact and influence those in Naypyitaw, and even the Tatmadaw, including through public pressure. These did not exist two years ago when the country was governed by an authoritarian regime, and sanctions were the only tool in the box.
It is a paradox of post-authoritarian Myanmar that such black spots can coincide with the Major Reforms Underway. Two years ago, on the cusp of President Thein Sein’s administration that took office at the end of March 2011, nobody predicted the pace and depth of reform. In Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, Crisis Group foresaw a new direction under a civilianised leadership, but we predicted the changes would be “incremental” rather than “dramatic”.
In fact, they have been dramatic. These changes have turned the country around, and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi best personifies this. Not only has her National League of Democracy (NLD) party been registered, but Suu Kyi herself has been elected to parliament, can travel the world, leads a prominent parliamentary committee, and was recently appointed to oversee an inquiry into a high profile dispute between a community and a copper mine that led to an excessive use of force by the police against monks.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, have started new groups, and in some cases been elected to parliament. They are able to debate policy as well as make laws — and the lifting of restrictions on the internet and local media has allowed all this to be widely reported. A whole year passed without the imprisonment of any journalists.
The problem for Suu Kyi now is not restrictions of her freedom to speak, but being careful about what she says so as not to not jeopardise her prospects as she looks ahead to the 2015 national elections. She has been criticised for failing to live up to her status as an icon of democracy and not speaking in the defence of the much discriminated Muslim Rohingya or the mostly Christian Kachin. This is a new, but very democratic phenomenon. Here we have an elected politician who does not always live up to expectations, something voters in democracies from New York to New South Wales could identify with. But closer to home, Myanmar is starting to look and feel less like an outlier and more like the rest of South East Asia, where the records on democracy and human rights are mixed, highly contested, and a still very much a work in progress.
Jim Della-Giacoma, former South East Asia Project Director.