Build Trust to End the Kachin War

By The Irrawaddy 11 June 2014

The war in Kachin State, northern Burma, is about as old as the country’s reform process. On June 9, 2011, a mere three months after President Thein Sein assumed office, a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down and fighting erupted between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army, the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).

The war has since driven more than 100,000 ethnic civilians—mostly Kachin, but also Shan and Palaung—from their homes and they continue to languish in camps on both sides of the frontline. This week, the war entered its fourth year and there are no shows signs that the conflict will end soon.

Burma’s government and the KIO have held a number of meetings over since March 2013 in order to end the fighting and reach a ceasefire, but an agreement has proven elusive and clashes continue. In April, fighting escalated again on the border of Kachin and Shan states and some 2,700 civilians were newly displaced. Some reports have put the total number of clashes and skirmishes in the last three years at about 2,500.

It’s not easy to end conflict between the government and the various ethnic armed groups, but in Kachin it seems more difficult than elsewhere. The KIO and its ally the Ta’ang National Liberation Front are the only two major armed groups that have not yet signed a ceasefire with Thein Sein’s government.

“It is like solving the chicken and the egg problem,” Khon Ja, a well-known Kachin peace activist said of ending the conflict.

Yet, Khon Jha believes the Burma Army and the flawed, military-drafted Constitution are largely to blame. “Looking from one side, it is the Constitution which is problem. According to the Constitution, only one person can make war and end war. Because the commander-in-chief is standing at the top of the hierarchy, according to the Constitution, he alone is accountable in this matter. If the Constitution would provide checks on the commander-in-chief, the war would have been over by now.”

The main concern for every single ethnic armed group is to get equal rights and self-determination for their people, as agreed upon in the Panglong Agreement signed in 1947. But Burma’s Constitution puts great political power in the hands of the military and gives the government and army control over ethnic regions.

Critics like Khon Ja openly question whether the president can even control the military. Thein Sein has said numerous times that there will be a nationwide ceasefire soon, but he has never publicly disagreed with the army over its operations in Kachin.

What is certain is that distrust between the government and ethnic groups is the one of the biggest obstacles to peace, and the recent escalation fighting in Kachin has only deepened this distrust.

Both sides in the Kachin conflict must immediately take steps to build up trust and ceasefire negotiations must resume in earnest. The Kachin people who have suffered more than anyone else during this conflict deserve to go home after three years of war.