ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Why is the Kachin Independence Organization Keeping Silent on the Myanmar Coup?

From the insurgent group’s perspective, it makes little difference who roams the halls of power in Naypyidaw.

By Joe Kumbun for
Why is the Kachin Independence Organization Keeping Silent on the Myanmar Coup?

A patch on the uniform of a Kachin Independence Army fighter stationed in Laiza, Myanmar, on March 30, 2012.

Credit: Sebastian Strangio

When the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, launched a coup d’état before dawn on February 1, the Myanmar people and the international community were shocked and unified in their condemnation. All have strongly urged the regime to relinquish its forceful rule, unconditionally release all detainees, and transfer power back to the elected civilian government.

Immediately, domestic and international constituencies issued statements castigating the military takeover. Among them were some of Myanmar’s many ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). For instance, the Restoration Council of Shan State strongly condemned the coup regime. Furthermore, a few top leaders of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army posted photos with three raised fingers on Facebook, demonstrating solidarity with the country’s burgeoning anti-coup protest movement.

However, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of the largest EAOs in Myanmar, has remained silent on the military coup, except for a concerned note from KIO Vice Chairman Lt. Gen. Gun Maw, and for a message delivered via the Peace-Talk Creation Group (PCG), a group of Kachin businessmen who assist with peace talks by mediating between the KIO and the government.

On February 8, Gun Maw posted a note on his Facebook page, raising his concerns that the authorities might use lethal force against protesters and urging demonstrators to be careful. Similarly, after mass demonstrations erupted in Kachin State and across the country, the KIO on February 9 invited the members of PCG to meet at its headquarters. The KIO said it would not get involved in the current political chaos, but urged the Tatmadaw to avoid a violent crackdowns on the protesters, otherwise the KIO would raise its voice in defense of the people. It also urged the protesters not to be violent.

Many people – protesters, activists, and politicians alike – are upset by the continuing silence of the KIO regarding the military coup. Some observers and analysts have even jumped to the conclusion that the KIO might have been co-opted by the Tatmadaw. Others have assumed that China may be pressuring the KIO not to condemn the coup.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In fact, none of these assumptions are true. The KIO’s silence can largely be put down to three factors.

First, the KIO accepts neither the 2008 Constitution nor the elections that Myanmar has held under its aegis. Col. Nhpang Naw Bu, chief of the KIO’s information unit, confirmed as much last year when interviewed by the Kachin News Group, a local news outlet. “We do not accept this constitution and, therefore, we do not accept the general election either,” he said. In essence, the KIO does not accept any government, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, elected under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which contains numerous safeguards of the Tatmadaw’s power. If the KIO condemns the military coup and the abrogation of the NLD’s landslide victory in the November elections, this might be interpreted as an implicit acceptance of the Constitution. Thus, it keeps silent.

The second reason for the KIO’s silence is that the exact coloration of Myanmar’s elected government – whether NLD or otherwise – is simply not that important for the KIO. At the end of the day, the organization has to deal with the military rather than the elected government in the ongoing peace process. The KIO appears to have been disappointed with the NLD government’s apparent inattention to ethnic minority peoples and their concerns. For instance, when the Tatmadaw conducted major operations against the KIA in gold and amber-rich Tanai, in the west of Kachin State, in 2017 – operations that displaced thousands of Kachin people – the NLD kept silent. Neither President Htin Kyaw nor State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi raised their concerns. For the KIO, therefore, it is largely irrelevant whether or not the NLD rules in Naypyidaw.

The third reason is that the KIO has felt a degree of stagnation in the peace process under the NLD government, as compared to the progress made under the previous administration led by President Thein Sein. While in power from 2011 to 2016, Thein Sein’s government formed the Union Peace-making Central Committee (UPCC). The UPCC was comprised of 11 people, including armed forces Commander-in-Chief Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and other generals. Under the UPCC, the Union Peace-Making Work Committee (UPWC) was formed, and included 52 people, including Vice Sen. Gen. Soe Win, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw. The UPWC’s members included union ministers, state and regional chief ministers, the Tatmadaw’s regional commanders, and 18 ethnic MPs from both the Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) and Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House). The Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) was also formed in order to provide technical support to the negotiation body.

When the NLD took the power in 2016 following its landslide victory at the national election of November 2015, the UPCC, UPWC, and MPC were dissolved and replaced by the National Reconciliation Peace Commission (NRPC), comprising 13 people, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi excluded the Tatmadaw’s top leaders from her peace team, including just three lieutenant generals.

For many EAOs, the NRPC mechanism proved less effective in the peace talks than its predecessor.  According to a prominent leader from the KIO, the NLD government stood only as a facilitator for peace talks between the Tatmadaw and EAOs, rather than negotiator in its own right.

Many within the EAOs, including the KIO, perceived that the tripartite talks – between the government, Tatmadaw, and EAOs – have consumed more energy and time. When asked by Radio Free Asia about the difference between the peace process under the Thein Sein and NLD governments, Colonel Naw Bu said, “…the difference between them is that it seems like Myanmar has two governments [the NLD government and Tatmadaw]… when the NRPC agrees to something, the Tatmadaw rejects it and vice versa.” Therefore, it is less relevant for the KIO whether or not Myanmar has an elected government. It believes that the Tatmadaw is the only actor that can decide whether the future holds a ceasefire or a continuation of the conflict.

In a speech on February 5, the 60th anniversary of Kachin Revolution Day, KIO Chair Gen. N’Ban La stated the KIO had negotiated with successive military regimes so as to achieve peace and build a federal union. N’Ban La said that the word “federalism,” a concept long considered taboo by previous military regimes, had been successfully proposed by the KIO. As a breakthrough, federal discourse has been widely and freely discussed in Myanmar.

In a televised speech to the Myanmar public on February 8, Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader, claimed that the Tatmadaw desired a lasting, sustainable, and nationwide peace, and pledged to move forward the peace process through the NCA. After seizing power, he also reformed the Tatmadaw’s peace negotiation committee, which now comprises seven lieutenant generals.

Hopes for peace thus now entirely depend on how the military leaders show their magnanimity toward the EAOs that have long demanded and fought for equality and self-determination. For better or worse, the key to peace in Myanmar now lies in the hands of the Tatmadaw

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Joe Kumbun is an Independent Political Analyst based in Myanmar.