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Is Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict Really Over?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
August 30, 2013

UN special Vijay Nambiar takes pictures of burnt houses in Meikhtila on March 24, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters) UN special Vijay Nambiar takes pictures of burnt houses in Meikhtila on March 24, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

The visit on Wednesday by the United Nations’ special envoy to Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, to Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization, is a positive sign that the conflict in Kachin state might really be over. [Asia Times has a fine summary of Nambiar’s visit.] The peace deal between the KIO and the Myanmar government, signed in the spring, was obviously a major step forward to ending the decades-long conflict, but it did not provide real closure—it was not a final ceasefire. Among many Kachin leaders, there remained even after the peace deal signing a high degree of mistrust of both the central government and regional army commanders, who frequently, during past ceasefires, had gone over the government’s orders and launched their own attacks in Kachin state. The Kachin’s armed wing has not put down its weapons, and many Kachin desire a high degree of autonomy from the central government, a type of autonomy hard to imagine for many ethnic Burmans, including those in the National League for Democracy. The fact that Kachin state contains massive natural resources will make this autonomy debate even harder, when it is picked up at the next round of peace discussions in September.

Still, both the Kachin news service and several prominent Kachin leaders say that, since the most recent peace deal, the level of violence in Kachin state has dropped dramatically, suggesting that the central government—with the assistance of China—has gotten a handle on regional commanders and increasingly can prevent them from making policy on the ground.  The fact that the central government allowed Nambiar to visit Laiza, even after the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, recently infuriated Naypyidaw by charging that during a visit to Myanmar he was left unprotected and attacked by a Buddhist mob, shows that President Thein Sein’s government is increasingly confident that the level of violence in Kachin state is dropping and is unlikely to spike again.

Thein Sein’s approach to the UN also reflects the government’s growing confidence that its narrative of peaceful reconciliation and reform is playing extremely well in the international community, drowning out worries about Kachin state and even the inter-religious violence that continues on in Myanmar, leading to the gutting of another town by Buddhist mobs just last week. This sunny narrative has elements of truth in it, but there is still no clear future plan for a federal Myanmar, a federation that would offer the kind of autonomy that the Kachin and many other ethnic minorities desperately want. But Thein Sein is right: the government has gained the upper hand in international approval, as compared to the KIO and other ethnic rebels. Will this force the KIO to make even more concessions at the September round of peace negotiations?

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Chindits

    Will this force Terrorist Tatmadaw to make even more concessions at the September round of peace negotiations?

  • Posted by chindits

    Q: Is Kachin conflict really over?
    A: has Kachin achieved what they are fighting for the last 6 decades?

  • Posted by Duwa J

    This hopeful article is strong on suggestion but weak on empirics, which has been par for the course for much of the coverage of the Kachin conflict. The evidence presented appears to be a few choice tidbits to support yet another in a litany of speculative reporting that has erroneously proclaimed that peace is around the corner.
    For one, the KNG has noted an overall decline in fighting in recent months, but it has also indicated that in recent weeks the fighting has increased between pro government militias and the KIA. It’s worth considering that the rainy season has often led to a lull in government offensives over the last six decades of fighting in Burma. Moreover, an article in the Shan Herald Agency for New (SHAN) – “More than 1,000 casualties in the Kachin campaign: Army report” – indicates that the government offensives at the end of last year took a shockingly large toll on the tatmadaw forces.
    Second, reports of the significance of the so called “cease-fire agreement” between the KIA and the government have been grossly exaggerated. A dimension of the “cease fire that’s not a ceasefire” that continues to elude so many Burma watchers are that they are negotiated by the civilian government, rather than the military. Inferring that the government’s permission for Nambiar’s visit to Laiza is evidence of the military’s subordination to former military rule amounts to a fool’s errand. Note that last week SHAN reported that regional commanders had countermanded attempts by the SSA to reduce prospect of fighting through advance warning of troop movements. (See SHAN “Shan army overtures spurned by HQ”). Despite the difficulties in discerning the relationship between former general Thein Sein and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – Commander and Chief of the Burmese Armed Forces, this type of speculation deserves a higher standard rather than a specious connecting of the dots and more explication of the actual mechanism whereby the military has come under civilian control.
    The last few sentences of the article contain a kernel of truth: “the government has gained the upper hand in international approval, as compared to the KIO and other ethnic rebels. Will this force the KIO to make even more concessions at the September round of peace negotiations?”
    It’s worth considering the impact of the media’s reporting on the conflict and the wishful thinking that the military is willing to negotiate in good faith with the KIA as one dimension of their gaining the upper hand.

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