In Myanmar, life often follows the seasons. Farmers burn their fields during the hot season, and harvest them after the rains. Migrant workers in the mines wait for the clouds to go home and visit their family. And when the roads dry out, the armies go to war.
Residents of Kachin state, in Myanmar’s far north, have grown accustomed to this cycle during the past seven years. In 2011, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) went to war against Myanmar’s national armed forces, known locally as the Tatmadaw. It wasn’t so much a new fight as it was a continuation of Myanmar’s long, exhausting civil war. The conflict between the central government and myriad opposition groups has continued unabated in one form or another since 1948, making it the world’s longest continuing armed conflict. The KIA first began fighting for their right to self-govern in 1961, and continued that battle until 1994, when they signed a ceasefire with the country’s military-run government. After a 17-year lull in the fighting, the KIA resumed their insurgency in 2011. Since then, the fighting has displaced 120,000 residents of Kachin and Shan states, while land mines and indiscriminate shelling have killed and injured thousands.
Last fall, at the beginning of the fighting season, it seemed as though the violence in Kachin state might finally start dying down. Buoyed by the KIA’s battlefield successes during the 2016-2107 dry season, optimistic residents had hope that the current fighting season would bring a different pattern from the previous years. “This year, I think that the two sides will finally come together,” Brang Si, a farmer from Myikytina, said last October. “I think that because the KIA has been able to defend their territory, the Tatmadaw will not try again.”
The KIA has refused to join the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and insists that the current negotiating platform is biased against minority ethnic groups. Instead, they have joined with six other self-identifying “ethnic armed revolutionary organizations,” to create an alternative dialogue structure, called the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee. The FPNCC is dominated by the powerful United Wa State Army, often seen as a Chinese proxy group in Myanmar, and some analysts see the group as a vehicle for China to gain leverage over the country’s peace process.
Echoing that sentiment, a Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) representative, Dau Hka, said that the organization expected the fighting to decrease. “We can say that the fighting will be less and less,” he said in December. “We expect change will be imposed by China.”
But by early February 2018, it had become clear that the fighting was in fact more and more. As the roads dried out, the Tatmadaw launched a massive offensive against KIA strongholds across the north. Among other areas, the military began targeting KIA-controlled gold and amber mining areas in Tanai township in order to cut off a critical revenue source. Within days, thousands of residents were stranded without food or assistance, some seeking refuge in underground mines. By April, the conditions had grown even worse, as a wide KIA counteroffensive cut off what little access there had been between the battlefield and secure areas. KIA forces destroyed roads and bridges throughout northern Kachin state, making it impossible for humanitarian groups to reach certain areas and driving up the costs of staple such as rice and gasoline. Where humanitarian groups could reach, they were often harassed by Tatmadaw troops who were afraid of information leaking out.
Tanai is a difficult battleground. Its geography is not naturally friendly to the KIA, whose guerrilla fighting style is much more suited to the steep mountains and thick jungle found in the rest of Kachin state.
“We can keep this fight going for many years. We just disappear back into the jungle. Especially in northern Shan state, the geography is very much on our side,” said Dau Hka, the KIO spokesman. But over the last few years, the Tatmadaw has squeezed KIA forces along the Chinese border, limiting their opportunities for lucrative cross-border trade. As a result, the militia has been forced to expand their holdings to other, less secure parts of the north, such as the amber mines of Tanai.
The spring offensive has been felt all over Kachin state. Fighting has increasingly shut down road travel to the jade mines, the largest region’s most important economic center. The war even reached into normally sleepy Myitkyina for the first time since 2013. In early February, artillery could be heard firing just over the ridge from the military-owned golf course near the city’s airport.
In Tanai, which has seen the heaviest fighting of the year, humanitarian relief efforts have been stymied by difficult conditions. The Kachin State Red Cross, which is considered an impartial actor, and works in both state- and KIA-controlled areas, has reported difficulties gaining access to deliver aid.
The bloody stalemate has led some in Kachin state to begin questioning why the KIA keeps fighting. “They cannot win. It is clear. Maybe they can stop from losing, but what do they gain by continuing to fight?” one Myitkyina resident said. “The people at the top get rich during the war, but regular people suffer. They should all just stop fighting.”
A Tatmadaw analyst in Yangon asserted that the fighting was merely jostling for stronger negotiating positions. “The Tatmadaw is trying to pressure the KIA to sign the NCA,” the analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. “Like anywhere else in the world, before two armies come sit at the table, they will fight to get more bargaining power. It is the same in Kachin.”
It is clear that the KIA has no interest in negotiating with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government. Along with the rest of the country, the Kachin militia held out hopes after the 2015 election that the Lady’s popular support among the people would translate to concrete progress in the national peace process. However, the KIA, like other ethnic opposition groups, has been disappointed by the slow and impenetrable process of the national dialogue. Many groups have complained of the convoluted nature of the peace process, in which multiple institutional bodies all have overlapping mandates and communication is skewed by the competing narratives of the three major stakeholders: the NLD civilian government, the Tatmadaw, and the ethnic opposition groups.
Myanmar’s civilians often complain about not having any idea what is happening within the peace process. Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly said that forging peace with the ethnic opposition groups is the most important policy goal of her government, but public opinion polls show that only one-fifth of the country actively follows the process. Many people believe that those inside the negotiations have more reliable access to information than the public, but the KIO representatives said otherwise. “If we miss one meeting, we have no idea what is going on anymore, and have to ask all around,” said one KIO officer.
Most people in Kachin are disillusioned by the opacity and slowness of the peace process.
“Aung San Suu Kyi had a lot of support, and we expected her to use the people power. But she hasn’t used this power to make changes to the constitution, not changes to the country’s rule of law,” said Dau Hka, the KIO spokesman. “If Aung San Suu Kyi is out, our position will be stronger.”
Instead, it is becoming increasingly clear that the KIA only sees one reliable negotiating partner: the Tatmadaw. While shells were flying in Myitkyina in February, there were reports that KIA officials were meeting in Yunnan province, across the Chinese border, with representatives from the Tatmadaw. The small summit was supposedly organized by the Chinese special representative to Myanmar, Sun Guoxiang.
The Tatmadaw analyst in Yangon confirmed that the KIA was actively negotiating with the Myanmar military, and that people should look forward to an end to the hostilities.
By the end of April, the rains came back to Myitkyina, but there was no more optimism about a lull in the fighting. Already, the rumors had begun to spread through the city: a massive military offensive being planned for the fall, when the dry season comes again. But for a few rainy months, the farmers can tend the fields in peace.
Daniel Combs is an author and researcher who spent the last year investigating Myanmar’s jade trade and the civil war in Kachin State. He is working on a book about the country.