Guest Column

Military Coup Renews Rebellions in Myanmar’s Kayah and Chin States

By Bertil Lintner 28 June 2021

It is hardly surprising that the ethnic rebellions in states like those inhabited by the Kachin and Karen have flared anew since the military seized absolute power in Myanmar on Feb. 1, and that Bamar dissidents from cities and towns have sought refuge in areas controlled by ethnic rebels in the north and east. That happened after the military crushed a nationwide uprising for democracy in 1988 as well. But this time, the sound of gunfire and bomb blasts can be heard in Yangon, Mandalay and other cities and towns in the country’s heartland. And, in the ethnic areas, some of the heaviest fighting has raged in Chin and Kayah states, which for decades have not seen any widespread insurgencies.

Even there, it is a new type of rebellion. Myanmar’s older ethnic rebel armies, who have been battling for self-rule and autonomy for decades, are dressed up in uniforms with insignia, the officers have ranks, they are based in camps and are organized along the lines of regular armies anywhere in the world. The “new rebels” in Chin and Kayah states have none of that, and, unlike the ethnic rebel armies, are not equipped with automatic rifles but hunting guns, homemade weapons and bombs they have assembled themselves.

Even so, if reports on social media sites are to be believed, they have managed to inflict heavy casualties on the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw. Dozens of soldiers have been killed in ambushes and by roadside bombs—which, in turn, has provoked a massive and brutal response from the Tatmadaw. Heavy artillery and airpower have been used, but since the Tatmadaw is facing a largely invisible enemy, the firing into villages suspected of harboring the rebels has been indiscriminate, houses have been torched and even places of worship, like churches in predominantly Christian areas of Kayah State, have been damaged.

As a result, according to a June 24 statement by Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary General António Guterres, “an estimated 230,000 people have been displaced because of violence, fights and insecurity.” According to local sources in Demoso, Kayah State quoted by The Irrawaddy, Tatmadaw troops have also looted shops and entered homes and taken whatever they feel like. With all of that comes widespread anger at central military authorities—and the possibility of strengthening older, centrifugal forces on the periphery, which would be a challenge to anyone who wants to keep the country together.

Kayah State is inhabited by several ethnic groups of whom the Karenni, or Kayah, are the predominant among the state’s population of approximately 286,000. Originally Animist, many of them were converted to Christianity, mainly by Baptist missionaries, in the 19th century. But the Mong Pai (Mobye in Burmese) area on the Shan State border—where more than a dozen Tatmadaw soldiers were killed by local rebels in May—is where the Kayan, or Padaung, people live. They are predominantly Roman Catholic and their women are famous for wearing brass neck rings, which make their necks seem longer.

A member of a civilian resistance group in Kayah State destroys a signpost for Moebye Police Station in late May after the group’s fighters attacked the station.

There is an old rebel army in Kayah State, the Karenni Army (KA), which is the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) but has been engaged only in sporadic fighting since it was formed in the 1970s. But Kayah State has a very different administrative history from other Myanmar states. Although Animist or Christian, its people adopted at an early stage in history Shan political culture and established their own principalities. Following the advent of British colonial power in the 19th century, central Burma, as it was then called, became a colony, while the 40-or-so Shan states achieved a status similar to that of being protectorates.

The Karenni states, on the other hand, were recognized as “independent” under an agreement signed in 1875 by T.D. Forsyth for the British crown and Kinwun Mingyi U Kaung, the representative of the king in Mandalay: “It is hereby agreed that the Burmese and British Governments that the states of Western Karenni shall remain separate and independent and that no sovereignty or governing authority of any description shall be claimed or exercised over that State.” Consequently, the Karenni states of Kyebogyi, Kantarawaddy and Bawlake were marked as “independent” on maps throughout the colonial era although, in reality, they enjoyed the same status as the Shan principalities. But British presence was light, and there was little interference in the internal affairs of the Karenni states.

The Karenni and Shan states were the only states which, according to the 1947 constitution, had the right to secede from the then proposed Union of Burma after 10 years of independence. The Kachin and Karen states, which were to be formed after independence, did not have that right. But the Karenni rose in rebellion as early as 1946 in anticipation of the formation of the Union. The United Karenni Independent States were proclaimed to safeguard the “independence” of the area. An armed wing called the United Karenni States Independence Army was formed in 1948 but the rebellion petered out after the arrest of the main leader, Saw Maw Reh, in 1949. He was released in 1953 and was among those who formed the KNPP in 1957. The KA was set up in 1974, but like its mother organization the KNPP, it was based mainly on the Thai border opposite Mae Hong Son, where it benefited from the black-market trade between the two countries. A smaller faction broke away and formed an alliance with the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), but its presence in Kayah State was very limited. When Saw Maw Reh died in 1994, the KNPP/KA lost most of its remaining strength and the movement slipped more or less into oblivion—until now.

The Kayan formed their own organization called the Kayan Newland Party (KNLP). Set up in 1964, it was for years led by Shwe Aye, aka Naing Hlu Ta, a former university student, who allied the movement with the CPB. In 1994, the KNLP was one of many rebel groups that made peace with the then military government. Local conflicts with rival groups and government demands for total surrender have decimated the group and it is now no longer active. The recent surge of fighting in Kayah State, therefore, appears to be unconnected with older insurrections.

The Chin, like the other hill peoples, including their distant relatives the Kachin, were also Animists before the arrival of the Christian missionaries. But unlike the Kachin they never managed to establish a formidable rebel army. One reason is that—again unlike the Kachin, among whom the Jinghpaw dialect became the lingua franca—the Chin remained divided by more than 30 (according to some counts, 44) different, mutually unintelligible dialects. In the 1970s, the Kachin Independence Army made an attempt to raise an allied force in Chin State—the Chin Independence Army, with the unfortunate abbreviation of CIA—but it soon vanished from the scene.

The Chin are more closely related to the Mizo (or Lushai, as they were called during the colonial era) of northeastern India, and cross-border contacts have always been strong and frequent. The establishment of Mizoram, a separate state for the Mizo, in India in 1987 also had repercussions in Chin State. Much to the embarrassment of the Indian government, the Indian flag was hoisted in several towns in Chin State in 1988. It was followed by a demand by local leaders that Chin State should secede from Myanmar and join newly formed Mizoram.

A smaller rebel group called the Chin National Front (CNF) with the Chin National Army (CNA) as its armed wing was formed when a number of Chin students went underground after the 1988 uprising. They did get some support from across the border in India, where the Research and Analysis Wing (India’s external intelligence agency) used them to collect intelligence. They were also unofficially allowed to set up a base in a remote part of southern Mizoram. It was known as the Victoria Camp and named after Mount Victoria (Nat Ma Taung in Burmese), the highest mountain in Chin State. But it was abandoned in 2005 and the CNF remained an insignificant group—until ex-general U Thein Sein launched his so-called “peace process” after assuming the presidency in 2011.

In 2015 the CNF became one of the eight original signatories of U Thein Sein’s “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement”, but it was then so small and insignificant that it was awarded an area in Chin State where it could set up a headquarters, also called Victoria Camp. It was seen as important that the so-called “signatories” were credible forces, although only two of them, the Restoration Council of Shan State and the Karen National Union, had any actual armed forces. Photos of uniformed CNA troops began to appear on social media sites, but their weaponry seems to consist almost exclusively of wooden cutouts.

The CNA does not appear to have taken an active role in the recent fighting in Chin State, where in May a local force calling itself the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) seized control of a town called Mindat and, according to local sources, killed more than 30 Tatmadaw soldiers before being forced out after heavy bombardment from the air and by artillery fire. The CDF has also launched attacks near the Chin State capital Hakha and other places in the area. But on May 28, the CNF, perhaps because it did not want to be overtaken by events, declared that it had forged an alliance with the National Unity Government (NUG), which consists of elected MPs who were ousted on Feb. 1 and other pro-democracy individuals. It is also worth noting that the main spokesman of the NUG, Dr. Sasa, is a Chin who is among the thousands of Chin who fled to India after the coup and the subsequent flare-up of fighting in the home areas. Some sources put the number of refugees in India at more than 20,000, nearly all of them from Chin State and adjacent lowland areas. A smaller number of refugees are in Manipur, the Indian state north of Mizoram.

Chinland Defense Force (Hakha) members seized and burned down a police outpost near Surkhua Village in Hakha Township in early May. / Chin World Media

It is too early to say whether the new rebellions that the coup has ignited will have any significant, long-term impact. The initial success of their ambushes could not have been carried out without widespread popular support, but in order to fight an insurgency, they would need more sophisticated weaponry than they presently have at their disposal. In the past, Thailand had a huge gray weapons market where many Myanmar rebel armies bought their guns. But that is no longer the case and China, the only other possible source of military hardware, would provide only the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and, indirectly, the allied forces of that group with weapons. None of the new rebel armies would fall into that category. The UWSA has also shown through its inactivity that it wants to be aloof of the post-coup anti-Tatmadaw movement, and will remain uninvolved.

It is also not possible that the new rebels will have access to safe havens in neighboring countries, which they would need in order to survive and expand. The Thais are not even willing to let the thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in eastern Myanmar cross the border, and those who did manage to escape to Mizoram can, at most, expect humanitarian assistance from their fellow Mizo.

And then there is the issue of ethnic identity. Is there any coordination between the new rebel groups in ethnic areas and urban guerrillas carrying out attacks in cities and towns? Will the new armies in ethnic areas, in the end, join kindred rebels fighting for autonomy or, in some cases, secession from an oppressive, Bamar-dominated central power? The only thing that can be said with certainty is that junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing probably had no idea of the forces he and his henchmen would unleash when, nearly five months ago, they decided to launch a coup, a move that has thrown the country into turmoil, causing immense suffering and tearing the country apart.

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