Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Will Reform Bring Burma Peace?

Signs of democratic reforms in Burma are welcome. But are they likely to help bring an end to ethnic unrest in Kachin state?

By Tom Fawthrop for

Burma’s flurry of reform measures, coupled with the breezy spirit of openness prevailing in the former capital of Yangon, has created genuine hope that Burma’s underlying fault line – its ethnic divisions – can now finally be resolved.

Yet the ongoing conflict in the northern state of Kachin looks like it could remain an intractable blot on the landscape as Burma attempts to shake off a 40-year legacy of rule by a brutal military junta.

“The president called for a ceasefire in March. But more troops were sent,” says Ja Seng Khawn, daughter of former Kachin Independence Organization Chairman Brang Seng. “The conflict has intensified. Government troops burnt down villages, and 65,000 civilians have fled from their homes.”

Earlier this month, government troops moved closer to Laiza, the largest town inside the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) liberated zone. And, despite calls for peace talks, the fighting is continuing.

Karen, Kachin, Chin, Shan and other dissident ethnic forces have been demanding equal rights and local autonomy for more than forty years, and their repression at hands of the military has thwarted any attempt to create a genuine Union of Burma based on its myriad cultures and diversity.

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Prospects appeared to be brightening with the apparently reform minded President Thein Sein reaching out to non-Burmans, and efforts to bring a halt to the fighting have enjoyed better results in the case of the  Karen National Union and its armed wing. A draft agreement for a ceasefire has already been signed.

After decades of bitter conflict with the central government, the dissident Karen forces never dreamed that one day the president would invite their banned organization to peace talks in the capital. However, on April 12,Thein Sein hosted seven KNU leaders in Naypyidaw after another round of peace talks was successfully concluded in Yangon.

Various sets of talks have taken place with other small ethnic armies, including the Karenni, Chin, Shan and others, but it’s primarily the resource rich Kachin state that finds itself excluded from the friendly embrace of the government’s charm offensive.

Indeed, there’s been very little charm exuded by the government peace panel responsible for the talks. The panel is led by Aung Thaung, a former industry minister described in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables as a “notorious hard-liner.” It has met a KIO Kachin delegation in China on three occasions, but without any success in reducing hostilities.

“Wecalled for military operations launched since June 2011 to stop, in order to achieve a ceasefire,” says Ja Seng Khawn, now based in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, after years of working with the KIO leadership. “They didn’t listen to us. There’s no trust between the two sides.”

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told lawmakers in a landmark address to the parliament during his recent visit to Burma that “the conflict in Kachin State is inconsistent with the successful conclusion of the ceasefire agreements with all other major groups.”

But observers say that although both the Karen and Kachin have very similar demands, namely equal rights for their peoples, autonomy and a greater say over natural resources and development in their territories, ending the hostilities in Kachin state will be particularly complicated.

In the eyes of the Kachin leadership, the partial democracy emerging in faraway Yangon has little meaning for those suffering from military abuses in Kachin state. And they trace their frustrations back decades.

For many, the conflict stems from a betrayal of the founding principles of the 1947 Panglong Agreement. The founding father of Burmese independence and the Union of Burma, Gen. Aung San, had pledged equal rights for all ethnic groups and a commitment to autonomous states within the union.

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“We Kachin played a big part in working with Gen. Aung San to forge a Union of Burma, a united front with Burmans seeking independence from British rule,” says Lahpai Nawdin, editor of the Kachin News Group.

However, Aung San was assassinated, and the promise of equal rights between Lower Burma and the ethnic groups that dominate Upper Burma werenever honored.

“The fighting will never stop, until we get back to the Panglong Agreements,” Lahpai Nawdin says.

The Panglong Agreement, with its commitment to ethnic rights and autonomy, stands in stark contrast with the existing army-based Constitution. And, although Thein Sein has recognized the need to amend it, he’s unlikely to embrace a total rewrite that removes the special role of the armed forces, and its centralization of power and authority in the capital Naypyidaw.

Still, the president did spring a surprise with his decision to suspend the Myitsone dam in September 2011. The mammoth Chinese project, on the Irrawaddy River, is designed to generate almost as much electricity for China as the Three Gorges dam, by some estimates.

“The Myitsone area is famous since ancient times,” Ja Seng says. “It’s very important to us Kachin people. It is a sacred land of our heritage.”

The Kachin Independence Army, with an estimated 8,000 soldiers securing a swathe of liberated territory bordering China, for its part, warned dam developer China Power and Investment that “the Kachin people will never accept the dam.”

In response to KIA threats to disrupt dam construction, the army rushed troops to the Myitsone site to protect the project in June 2011, one of several factors behind the collapse of the ceasefire between government troops and rebel Kachin forces signed back in 1994.

But the Myitsone area isn’t just important to the Kachin. The dam is intended to supply 90 percent of the electricity it generates to China. But a leaked environmental impact assessmenthas warned that immense damage could be inflicted on the ecosystem and fisheries around Burma’s most important waterway.

With this in mind, Thein Sein announced the extraordinary decision to defy Beijing in September 2011. Defending his stance, he told the surprised gathering something they simply weren’t at all used to hearing: “we are respecting the will of the people.”

Asia World, a company that flourished under the rule of Gen. Than Shwe and his military junta, is the local partner in the Myitsone Dam. Any peace agreement that meets even some of the Kachin demands for greater control over their natural resources is likely to be fiercely opposed by hardliners including Asia World.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Ban Ki-moon and Western governments alike are all supportive of Thein Sein’s reforms, and all are also anxious to see an end to the ethnic conflict that has wracked the country. But a return to the historic Panglong Agreements would be anathema to senior military commanders and business cronies of the junta.

Ultimately, to bring an end to the fighting in Kachin state, the president needs to reshuffle his government, reduce the role of hardliners, and then push to revitalize peace talks with the Kachin. To do this, Thein Sein will need to secure the cooperation of senior military commanders. Only then can a serious dialogue with a very determined KIO take place.

Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al-Jazeera and the New Statesman, among other publications.