Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Burma Facing War on All Fronts?

The Kachin people, marginalised by the Burmese government, are willing to fight for survival. Is China the only hope for preventing all-out war?

By Alex Ellgee for

High in Burma’s rolling Kachin hills at a training camp in May this year, officers of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) were conducting artillery training. It was the first time in nearly six years, and the young cadets were eager to learn. ‘I joined the KIA for the revolutionary principles of our leaders and to fight for Kachin ethnic rights,’ says one cadet. According to the officer in charge, for the last six years Kachin, Burma’s northernmost state, has enjoyed relative peace, and there was no need for military preparation. Now, however, the situation is different. ‘Things are tense, we need to be ready,’ he says, before entering the training hall.

The KIA was right to prepare. On the afternoon of June 9, fighting broke out near Chinese-backed hydropower projects between the KIA and the Burmese government, signalling the end of a 17-year ceasefire. Both sides dispute who started it. In state media, the Burmese government blame the KIA. The KIA, on the other hand, claim it was the Burmese that opened fire on a Kachin camp after KIA soldiers refused to leave their territory near the hydropower projects. Later, tensions only worsened when Burmese soldiers allegedly returned the dead body of a KIA officer. The Burmese claimed he was killed in the fighting, however the KIA asserts that he was stabbed and tortured.

Formed in 1961, the KIA's raison d'être was to defend their region from Burmese troops and create an independent Kachin state. Previously, in 1949, the Kachin and other ethnic groups in the region had signed an agreement with Aung San to form a federal union, the leader of the Burmese army, under the watchful eye of the departing British colonials. After Aung San – the father of Aung San Suu Kyi – was assassinated, the ethnic leaders felt the Burmese government wasn’t respecting the agreement and many took up arms, engaging in gruelling guerrilla wars with the Burmese army in the dense jungle.

Tired of endless fighting, in the 1990s many of the ethnic armies signed ceasefires with the Burmese government, and up until very recently enjoyed the perks that came with peace. Benefiting from a border with China, the Kachin were able to build up their territory and main city Laiza, which boasts hotels, casinos and even a nightclub. At one point, citizens were renting cheaper accommodation on the Chinese side and making the daily journey back to Laiza for work. But the peace wasn’t to last.

In the run up to the 2010 elections, Burma's generals proposed that all the ethnic armies that had observed the ceasefire become ‘Border Guard Forces.’ By agreeing, the Kachin would have been required to allow Burmese commanders into their ranks, lay down their weapons and become part of the state army. For the Kachin, and nearly all the other major ethnic armies, this was completely out of the question.  ‘We will never agree to their proposal,’ Lama Gum Hpan, the secretary of the Kachin Independence Council (KIC), which governs the region, said in his headquarters last month. ‘If we accept (the Burmese government's offer), the whole struggle by the people for our Kachin land will be in vain.’

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But it was clear very early on that the Burmese government wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Targeting the smallest first, The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, an ethnic Kokang, 1,000-man army based on the Sino-Burma border, was first to go. Within 24 hours the Kokang had been driven from their territory. Their leaders still hide in China. During the elections last year, fighting began with a renegade group from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) that had rejected the BGF. Then, last month, on the border of Kachin territory, the Burmese government attacked the Shan State Army – North, another ethnic group that had rejected the proposal.

As the rainy season ended, the Burmese army renewed military action against the Kachin. Some analysts argued that the new government, which officially took office in February following an election mired by allegations of fraud, would avoid conflict in an attempt to repair their hugely damaged international legitimacy. It appears, however, that little change has actually occurred. The same leaders are controlling the country, with the same military mentality – force not dialogue is seen as the best way to deal with ethnic minorities.

Why has the military dominated government once again risked losing its legitimacy? One theory suggests that some members of the Burmese government or military are unhappy with the potential reforms, which would reduce their power. In order to destroy the legitimacy of the new government and maintain the status quo, they may have encouraged other government factions to launch the offensive. The ethnic conflicts that haunt Burma have long given the military a claim to legitimacy, as without conflict there’s no need for the military. Since independence, the ethnic armies argue that the Burmese have always sought to exert control over them. Another theory suggests that the Burmese army was only trying to take back territory needed for Chinese hydropower plants and didn’t anticipate an escalation of the conflict, which they thought could be contained.

Publicly, China has shown impartiality toward the conflict and has been urging the parties to take steps to ease tensions. At first, they simply demanded Chinese citizens were kept safe. Then, when the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) ceasefire broke down on June 9, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman urged the two parties to ‘exercise restraint’ and ‘resolve the relevant disputes through peaceful negotiations.’

However, behind closed doors, many are suspicious about China’s true stance. Unlike the United Stated Wa Army (USWA), which has adopted many of China's systems, the Kachin is composed of Baptist Christians, is pro-democracy and close with the West. And as the Kachin protested in March against the creation of the hydropower projects over fears of mass displacement and the environmental impact, China may now see the KIA as an obstacle to domestic development. Despite the KIA not showing any resistance to various other Chinese projects in Kachin state, and having enjoyed a healthy business relationship with China for nearly two decades, many suspect that during a recent high level meeting between Naypyidaw and Beijing, a tacit blessing was given to attack the Kachin.

In the meeting, the official Xinhua News Agency reports that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called ‘for the smooth implementation of infrastructure projects.’ Only a few weeks later, the conflict erupted as Burmese soldiers entered into the Kachin territory surrounding the Chinese backed Myitsone dam.

According to Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, many of the Kachin feel politically marginalised and economically disadvantaged even as they are seeing an increase in Chinese investment in their region.  ‘Lack of local participation in development decisions and the absence of transparency around many projects have contributed to the build-up of ethnic tension in the region,’ she says. ‘Moreover, the construction of hydropower projects and the major gas and oil pipelines has also increased the militarisation of the ethnic areas in which they’re located or traverse, as Naypyidaw and Chinese companies seek to protect the security of this infrastructure.’

Seeing China’s concerns over its investments, the Burmese government hasn’t held back on using this as an excuse for the conflict. Burmese state media recently stated, ‘The only objective of the Tatmadaw in launching attacks on the KIA was to protect its members and import hydropower to the nation without any intention of aggression or oppression.’

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It’s still unconfirmed whether China gave the green light to the Burmese army, but it’s clear which side they’re on. Kachin leaders recently sent a letter to Beijing asking it to mediate peace between the two sides, but are yet to receive any reply on the matter. The Kachin News Group (KNG) recently reported that a meeting was held between Burmese and Chinese officials on the Sino-Burma border, where it was agreed that Burmese soldiers could enter Chinese soil to launch an attack on Liaza, the KIA headquarters. Then, on June 29, KNG reported that hundreds of Burmese soldiers were seen passing through several Chinese checkpoints in civilian uniform.

The news site is run by Kachin exiles, and the validity of information disputed.If the news is true, however, it could spell disaster for Kachin people seeking refuge in the border area. Already, over 13,000 refugees have fled to KIA territory fearing torture by the Burmese army, or being captured and taken to be porters on the frontline, as has been widely documented in other ethnic conflicts throughout the country. Many of these refugees are farmers who have had to leave behind their farmlands, and will lose their livelihoods if they can’t return. As the conflict rages on, bridges have been destroyed, communications have been disrupted, and trade routes closed, further increasing difficulties for people across Kachin state. And in recent weeks, news has emerged of women being raped by Burmese soldiers, and civilians being killed.

While fighting has subsided somewhat, there’s still a real danger of the conflict escalating into all-out war. The KIA repeatedly blames Naypyidaw’s unwillingness to enter into sincere dialogue as a driving factor for the ongoing conflict. According to the leading Burmese news site, The Irrawaddy, whose correspondent attended a meeting on June 30 between KIA leaders and Col. Than Aung, the Kachin State Minister for border affairs of the Burmese government, Than Aung wasn’t carrying official documents, and when asked to provide formal evidence that Naypyidaw would consider ending the hostilities, said he would have to consult, ‘higher authorities.’ Following the meeting, on July 3, the KIA issued an order to stop all attacks on state soldiers and infrastructure while they wait for an official response from Naypyidaw. However, in the article, the author, Ba Kaung says there’s little hope in the KIA that a ceasefire will be reached, citing a lack of trust.

It’s not only the Kachin who are in danger, but every ethnic army in Burma, as few are ready to accommodate Naypyidaw’s demands. Like the other ethnic armies, the Kachin continue to hope that the ‘new’ government will respect the Panglong agreement made in 1949. During an interview at the KIA headquarters in April this year, Lama Gum Hpan said that if the new Burmese government were willing to work with the Kachin people to ‘form a real and authentic federal union,’ then the KIO (the political wing of the KIA) would help them to do so, and join the state army. The Kachin people, he says, have always been committed to this under the conditions of the Panglong Agreement. He also added that the Kachin people have tried to enter domestic politics, but three parties were barred from joining the 2010 elections. ‘Even when we try to work with them through democratic ways, they prevent any progress,’ he says.

When Maj. Soe Win, the commander of the Burmese army’s Northern Regional Command, was reported to have said, ‘The age of Panglong has been cancelled and it’s gone now,’ this confirmed to the Kachin that there’s little chance Burma will have a functioning federal union in the near future. The Burmese offensive against the Kachin has only buried the hopes of ethnic minorities throughout the country. In the face of such threats, ethnic leaders from all corners are attempting to form their own union, without Naypyidaw. The United Nationalities Federal Council Union of Burma (UNFC), as it has been called, would see ethnic armies being legally bound to provide military support to those being attacked by the Burmese state army. If this is achieved, both Naypyidaw and Burma more widely could be in serious trouble, as the country descends into war on all fronts.

In order to avoid impending doom, many are looking to China as a way out. While the international community continues to release statements, nothing they do will have any weight compared with how China chooses to use its leverage over Burma. The United States and the EU can threaten Naypyidaw all day long, but without a real attempt by China to end the conflict, little will be achieved. The change needs to come from within. While Suu Kyi and other political activists fight for ethnic rights and keep the struggle alive, it’s proven that they have little effect on the generals’ mentality.

In the ‘new’ government, mainly made up of former generals, there are some moderates, and as the hardliners coerce the country into a renewed state of war, these moderates must find a way to change the mentality of their leadership. This is no mean feat when faced with generals who seem hell bent on wiping out any ethnic resistance, however small, to their rule of the country. If they continue along this route, then the country and its people will be destroyed. The Kachin, it appears, won’t back down, and while it’s unclear how long they can continue to repel government troops, the fighting spirit of the KIA and other ethnic groups has evidently not diminished, despite signing ceasefires.

‘We’re ready to fight for our ethnic rights, self-determination and justice for Kachin people,’ says La Sam, a 19-year-old cadet, before running off to his next training drill. ‘We will never back down.’

Alex Ellgee is a British freelance journalist based in Thailand covering ethnic conflict, politics, and human rights issues.