The Forgotten War

By Saw Yan Naing 18 July 2012

Hundreds of people have lost their lives, thousands have been maimed or injured, and some 70,000 have been displaced from their homes. But after 1,640 battles, the conflict between Kachin rebels and the Burmese army—now into its 13th month—shows no sign of abating.

A Burmese photographer, who has repeatedly visited the war zone, said he witnessed the bodies of dead Burmese and Kachin soldiers piled on top of the corpses of civilian porters.

Farmers and villagers are now being targeted for attacks and interrogation by the government troops who naturally suspect them of being sympathizers or members of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).

One Kachin source in Laiza, the headquarters of the KIO on the Sino-Burmese border, told The Irrawaddy recently that the Burmese army plans to overrun the KIO headquarters very soon.

Government reinforcements, artillery and mortars have been called into the area. Men and munitions have also been increased around Bhamo in southern Kachin State and in Muse, northern Shan State, both close to KIO strongholds.

The Kachin rebels have an estimated strength of just over 15,000 fighters, many of whom had never seen action until last year because the ethnic army had signed a ceasefire with the government in 1994—a truce that stood until June 19, 2011, when something approaching a civil war erupted between government forces and the KIO’s military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Several observers have opined that the 1994 ceasefire agreement never produced a political result—nothing the KIO could hold up to its people with regard to autonomy or fundamental rights.

The KIO is widely seen as a pragmatic and politically savvy group. After the ceasefire in 1994, its leaders were offered business opportunities in logging, jade mining and other enterprises. However, many Kachins viewed these lucrative deals as a rape of the land—their land—and opposed what they saw as an attempt by the Burmese authorities to exploit the Kachins’ rich forests and natural resources.

Burmese military officers, their families, cronies, Chinese businessmen and even some KIO officials were seen as culpable in the rush to cash in.

A handful of well-respected and educated Kachin elders became involved in a corrupted political process that was structured and manipulated by members of the former military junta. Some KIO representatives even went so far as to join the National Convention in the mid-90s and again in 2004—a significant step in the regime’s much-touted “Seven-step Roadmap to Democracy,” which was originally written by former Prime Minister and spy chief Khin Nyunt.

Dr. Tu Ja, a Kachin politician who was formerly the head of the KIO, took part in government-organized meetings and joined hands with the military generals in writing the 2008 Constitution.

Tu Ja and several other KIO colleagues quit the mother organization in 2009 and formed a political party called the Kachin State Progress Party in preparation for the general election in November 2010.

However, Burma’s Union Election Commission rejected the party’s application. Tu Ja tried to register as an independent candidate but was again rejected. Then in the 2012 by-election, the government canceled voting in three constituencies in Kachin State for security reasons, and Dr Tu Ja again missed the chance to get elected.

Tensions had begun to resurface in early 2009 when Naypyidaw began prodding the various armed ethnic groups in eastern Burma to join with government forces in forming joint-battalions as a common “Border Guard Force” under Burmese command.

Asked why the KIO has taken so long to reach a peace agreement with the new government while other ethnic armed groups, including the Shan, Karen and Karenni, have reached ceasefires over the course of the last two years, KIO spokesperson La Nan said, “We will be very careful to sign any agreement this time.”

Following the experience of seeing an 18-year truce shattered, and with a tangible sense of distrust toward Naypyidaw, the KIO would appear to have dug its heels in and is insisting that a satisfactory political solution is negotiated.

According to Gun Maw, the vice-chief-of-staff of the KIA, the Kachins’ main aim is to achieve the equal rights and self-determination that was agreed upon in the Panglong Agreement, which various ethnic leaders signed alongside Gen. Aung San in 1947 as terms were being agreed for Burma’s independence the following year.

The Kachins have sent high-ranking representatives to meet with government delegations on several occasions, but without result. More recently, they rejected the Burmese government’s offer to hold further peace talks in Bhamo in early July.

La Nan said that the fighting is escalating. With reinforcements at hand, the Burmese army is closing in on Bhamo, Muse and Laiza. Shelling on July 6-7 hit KIA bases just 13 km from Laiza.

“The Burmese army is not interested in whatever peace talks are on the table,” said La Nan. “It is nearly one year since President Thein Sein ordered the army to stop attacking us, but his orders are being ignored.”

He said that Naypyidaw does not recognize the ethnic armed resistance as a political issue.

“They only see us as insurgent groups that create instability. They think that if we disarm, the conflict will disappear,” he said. “It won’t. We must find a political solution.”

He said that the civil war was born out of broken promises.

At Panglong in 1947, the ethnic Kachin, Chin and Shan minorities agreed terms with the central government for self-determination, autonomy and even the future possibility of a separate state.

However, these hopes have never been realized, he said.