About three weeks have passed since the breakout of armed conflict between the Burmese military and the Kachin rebel group the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Many believe the fighting directly resulted from their struggle over the area where the Dapein Dam is being built, and blame the Chinese project for triggering the fight. Some speculate that Beijing’s pressure pushed Naypyidaw to use force against the KIA. Yet this analysis is oversimplified, ignores the longstanding hostility and complicated relations between Naypyidaw and the KIA, and will mislead key parties as they work toward a solution to the current quagmire.
The conflict, which officially ended a 17-year truce between the group and the government, started after the expiry of a June 11 deadline set by Naypyidaw for the KIA to withdraw from camps near the Dapein hydropower project. According to Burmese state media, the Burmese Army was protecting the project from KIA intimidation. The dam, constructed by China’s state-owned Datang Company, aims to export electricity to China. Since the conflict erupted, thousands of civilians have fled their homes and villages; there’s fear that the situation is sliding toward all-out civil war.
Some identify Chinese dams, including Dapein, as the catalyst of the conflict. They are located in areas of strategic importance for both sides. Approved by Naypyidaw without local consultation, they exacerbate hostility between the government and the Kachin. The latter opposes the dams, condemning them for destroying the local environment, economy, and culture. This resentment is believed to have led to the 2010 bombing of the Myitsone Dam, a massive Chinese hydropower project in upper Kachin State.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
However, this simplistic perspective misses a key fact in the Kachin situation: even without Chinese dams, conflict between KIA and the Tatmadaw was inevitable. Indeed, tension had been building even before last year’s elections – the KIA ignored several deadlines set by Naypyidaw to transform into Border Guard Forces under the Tatmadaw; the government responded by labelling them ‘insurgents.’ There had been widespread fear that Naypyidaw would use force against ethnic groups before the elections, but this was avoided largely because China convinced Naypyidaw that a few ethnic groups shouldn’t be its top priority during a critical political transition. As a result, the issue was shelved and their status remained undetermined.
Meanwhile, both sides began preparing for war. They’ve been mobilizing troops and deploying them in and near the Kachin state. The KIA has sought to strengthen its alliance with other groups. Harsh rhetoric and offensive gestures were frequently traded; Naypyidaw’s June 11 deadline came as a response to an earlier May 25 KIA deadline for withdrawal of all Tatmadaw troops near KIA posts in the Kachin State and Northern Shan State. In this sense, the conflict is the consequence of the unsettled ethnic minority issue and the undetermined status of the KIA. Chinese dams might have aggravated the situation, but they aren’t the root cause.