Continued fighting between the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and government troops is an important test of whether a political transition underway in Myanmar will eventually lead towards the creation of a federalist state. The fighting broke out in June 2011, almost three months after the new quasi-civilian government headed by President Thein Sein came to power.
Thein Sein has so far issued at least two statements claiming that his administration has ordered the army to halt fighting with KIA troops. But the Myanmar army has not stopped its assaults, with especially bitter battles that saw the use of government air power in late December.
Throughout, the government has insisted its attacks on rebel positions have been defensive rather than offensive. The fog of war in the remote region, where the government has attempted to restrict press coverage, has prompted both sides to accuse the other of staging offensive attacks. This has effectively made reaching a ceasefire with the KIA impossible, despite a series of ongoing talks hosted outside of the country.
Whether the attacks are defensive or offensive, it is now obvious that neither the executive office nor the legislature in the capital Naypyidaw is in total control of the army. The Myanmar military, which ruled the country continuously for decades under different iron-fisted juntas, has remained an autonomous institution with its own agenda under the country’s new democratic configuration. That agenda is unknown, though it clearly does not need to comply, either politically or militarily, with any other branch of the government judging by its seemingly independent actions in Kachin state.
The armed forces were effectively enshrined as a separate institution under the 2008 constitution, which grants the military 25% of the total seats in parliament without participation in elections. This marked an enormous change in Myanmar’s politics: previously the military dominated all of the government’s administrative, legislative, and executive functions. It’s reach also extended into business through its control over the grant of state concessions, projects and licenses.
The Kachin’s main goal is to achieve a federalist state in a genuine democratic transition. Towards this end, there are three crucial factors to be considered: What measures within the present political context can the quasi-civilian administration take to meet the Kachin demands? How can the administration, with the military as a separate institution, guarantee the security and sanctity of any concessions made to the Kachin? And, to what extent can the Kachin trust those guarantees?
As the war in Kachin state rages, the answers to these questions remain vague. To establish a genuine federalist state in a country composed of hundreds of ethnic groups which represent almost half of the country’s population, the quasi-civilian government, legislative body and ethnic group representatives must address these important questions with urgency during this period of relative political openness. Previous military regimes avoided such questions, prompting civil wars with many ethnic groups that have now lasted several decades. As a result of those conflicts, Myanmar’s development has lagged far behind others in the Southeast Asia region.
Thein Sein’s peacemaking body, led by minister Aung Min, has succeeded in establishing several ceasefires with other ethnic groups, including the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the country’s largest ethnic armies. By launching a process that gives ethnic groups space in the political mainstream, the peace drive has given ethnic representatives a voice in attempts to amend the 2008 constitution (which many view as “non-democratic”), in plans to resettle refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs), as well as in economic development programs in their respective regions.
While other ethnic groups have accepted the guarantees made by Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration, the Kachin do not feel it has given satisfactory answers to their core concerns. Indeed, the Kachin, which maintained a ceasefire with the government from 1994-2011, are in a unique position compared to other ethnic groups. They have seen first hand how the government’s promises of peace for development brings a new host of problems and exploitation.
Complicating factors First, the Kachin state is the richest natural resource region in the country, with bountiful stores of gold, timber, jade, and other minerals. Second, the Kachin inhabit a strategic area along the border with China, the world’s second-largest economic power and over the past two decades the country’s main economic patron and international backer. Third, the Kachin army is better prepared than other ethnic groups to achieve and defend genuine autonomy from central government rule. Fourth, China’s business interests in Myanmar complicate the ongoing ceasefire talks between the Kachin and government.
China’s role in the conflict should not be overlooked. In cooperation with the government, China has invested over US$3 billion in a hydroelectric power project known as the Myitsone dam in the Kachin region, one of the root causes of the recent fighting. Over 90% of the electricity to be generated from the dam is scheduled for export to China. The project also threatens the local environment and livelihoods of Kachin living in the area.
The unpopular project was suspended, though not cancelled, in late 2011. Because the Myitsone dam is a Chinese project, and because it would have an enormous effect on the Irrawaddy River, the lifeblood of the nation and a national symbol not only for Kachin but also for the rest of Myanmar, if it is restarted the Kachin would likely respond with violence. Thus whenever dialogue takes place between the government and the Kachin, including recent meetings held in China, Beijing’s commercial interests loom large over the talks.
Despite such challenges to reaching a ceasefire, there is no shortage of opportunities for both sides to work together. Thein Sein’s representative Aung Min said to the press after his team negotiated with the Kachin leadership in China earlier this month, “We’re here to give whatever they’ve asked for, the best we could afford. We won’t ask anything from the Kachin.”
If Thein Sein’s administration truly endorses those words, there is an opportunity for the Kachin to test both the government’s and the army’s sincerity, as well as the capability of the parliamentary process to deliver a genuine federalist state in the current military-influenced political landscape.
The first test will be to what extent the administration can win over the Kachin people through goodwill gestures, including allowing international humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross full access to IDPs and refugees in the Sino-Myanmar border area. Another welcome step would be halting the Myanmar army’s alleged human-rights abuses in the region, including the torture of ethnic Kachins accused of being part of the KIA.
Economic rights in Kachin state are another key issue. Even if the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is not able to significantly amend the constitution, a current drive at the top of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s political agenda, now is the time for the Kachin to push for assured economic rights over natural resources in the Kachin region.
Article 188 in the 2008 constitution outlines vaguely the legislative and economic rights of ethnic groups. The military-influenced charter also allows states and divisions to begin practicing within a federalist structure, a first step towards the creation of a genuine federalist state. Those rights, however, are superseded by the charter’s Article 96, which outlines the legislative and economic rights of the union and promotes strong centralization over decentralization.
In other words, almost all constitutionally guaranteed economic rights are vague, except those that grant more power to the union rather than to localities. While the sincerity of the new government and the army is being tested, the legislative body in Naypyidaw should soon clear up these vague areas regarding the constitutional powers of the regional bodies through the passage of clarifying laws.
This will show whether the legislature is really interested in working towards a genuine federalist state. If so, it would be a substantial first step towards building trust with ethnic minority groups pushing for greater rights and autonomy. These initial steps must be taken first before moving on to equally important issues of cultural rights, full nationalities rights, other ethnic minority rights and changes to the constitution.
On February 12, the 66th anniversary of Myanmar Union Day, Hla Saw from the Rakhine Nationalities Progressive Party made an important point about the economic rights of ethnic groups. “We’re fine when the government sells natural resources mainly unearthed in Rakhine region and reallocates the money to support another region which is much underdeveloped such as Chin state because the Chin are also our brothers and need investments like building bridges and schools. However, we’re very unhappy when the government uses that money to buy weapons to fight against the Kachin, other ethnic groups, and us.”
As the refugee population in areas bordering China grows, Beijing’s response to the instability is being closely watched. Even if the Kachin were to win on the battlefield, China could move to absorb the resource-rich region through various means. This, in turn, could create a messy war between the Kachin and China, possibly involving Myanmar forces. Domestic armed conflicts, history shows, can sometimes spiral into international ones. The Kachin would thus be wise not to use Chinese soil in its fight against government forces.
The Kachin should also be aware that the current political situation provides an optimal opportunity to build trust while still protecting their core interests. The current fighting against the Myanmar army can easily become a long war, one that will cause great suffering for the Kachin people.
The army’s recent use of air power, an unprecedented escalation of the conflict, sent a clear message that even while the government promises ceasefires and other political concessions, on-the-ground commanders are willing to use extreme measures to win through military means.
Aung Tun has worked as a journalist inside Burma/Myanmar for several years and is currently based in Boston in the United States.
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See online: A war of many interests in Myanmar