Guest Column

The Tripartite Power Struggle in the KIO

By Joe Kumbun 30 June 2017

After major reshuffles in the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in January 2016, the power struggle among the senior leadership of the KIO is gradually becoming more visible.

The KIO reshuffled seven positions: Vice Chairman of the KIO, the Deputy Chairs 1 and 2 of the Kachin Independence Council (KIC), Vice Chiefs of Staff 1 and 2, General Staff Officer, and Foreign Affairs Liaison. The shakeup was implemented to create a new political landscape in what some skeptics believe to have been a silent coup by the hardline leader Gen N’Ban La.

Regrettably, disagreements between three senior generals—Gen N’Ban La, Lt-Gen Gam Shawng and Maj-Gen Gun Maw—have recently erupted. This raises a number of questions: What makes this power struggle more visible? What are the major controversies at hand? And, lastly, what will be the outcome for the organization?

Historical Savior: Gen N’Ban La

Gen N’Ban La holds two positions: the KIO’s Vice Chair and the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). He is also a former chairperson in the ethnic coalition the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).

Historically, Gen N’Ban La has been known for cracking down within the Kachin ranks. The first crackdown occurred in 2001 with the ouster of Lt-Gen Mali Zup Zau Mai, the then KIO chairman. Gen Lamung Tu Jai was then appointed to the chairmanship. Since that time, Gen N’Ban La has been hailed by the junior ranks as a savior and protector of the KIO/A.

A second suppression occurred on January 7, 2004 at Pajau, the old KIO/A headquarters by the Chinese border. Gen N’Ban La, then KIA Chief of Staff, cracked down on a handful of senior ranking officers who had attempted a military coup aimed at replacing him. The plan was to instate the KIO intelligence chief, Col Lasang Aung Wah, in his role.

The coup failed. It resulted in both a major split and in Lasang Aung Wah fleeing to National Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K) territory in Pangwah, taking about 100 KIA soldiers with him. Later he would form his own militia group, the Lasang Aung Wah, stationed in Gwi Htu, Waimaw Township. Since then, Gen N’Ban La deposed several senior ranking officers and has taken on many important roles in the KIO/A himself.

Notorious Drug-Eradicator: Lt-Gen Gam Shawng

Lt-Gen Gam Shawng also holds two powerful positions: Chief of Staff of the Kachin Independence Army and Deputy Chair of the Kachin Independence Council (KIC). His name was infamously recorded in history when he commanded that scores of drug users be shot in 1990, while serving as a Commanding Officer in the No. 6 Battalion in Hpakant.

He gradually garnered higher roles in the KIO/A, serving as Commander of the No. 1 Brigade, Chief of the KIO Representative Office (the Liaison Office in Myitkyina) and as General Secretary of the KIO central committee. He then took a position as Chief of Staff after La Sang Aung Wah’s failed mutiny in 2004. During the decade of Lt-Gen Gam Shawng’s leadership, the KIA has expanded three Brigades—Nos. 6, 7 and 8—and many battalions. The greatest success of the KIA thus far has been to found the military academy in which many potential young leaders, as well as cadets from different ethnic armed groups, are trained.

Popular Maj-Gen Gun Maw

Maj-Gen Gun Maw has arguably been the officer most quickly promoted within the KIO/A ranks. He is popular among the Kachin public, particularly with youth, and is a charismatic leader. He once led a KIO negotiating team and has earned trust both domestically and internationally for his diplomacy. The major success of his career was to initiate the program Education and Economic Development for Youth, in which the KIO provides young people with basic military training and courses on drug awareness, Kachin culture and ideology, democracy and federalism. Maj-Gen Gun Maw also initiated the founding of the Military Strategic Office, of which he was in charge as Colonel. After Vice Chief of Staff Brig-Gen Zau Nan died suddenly, Gun Maw was promoted from Colonel to Brig-Gen and took on the vacant position. In January 2016, he was reshuffled as Deputy Chair II of the KIC.

What Creates Power Struggles?

From external observation, there are three potential causes of the split between these generals.

First, it is likely that there is weak communication amongst the leadership. Gen N’Ban La, who served as a chairman in the UNFC, is known to not often reveal the detailed information or policies set by the ethnic bloc to the KIO’s central committee. Due to his UNFC ties, he is known to reside largely in Thailand, contributing to a lower frequency of face-to-face meetings with other members of leadership in Kachin State. There have been reports of miscommunication regarding Gen N’Ban La’s attendance at the second session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in May. The KIO as an organization opted out of participating, but the Chinese special envoy Sun Guoxiang allegedly arranged for the Northern Alliance of ethnic armed groups to attend at the last minute—a delegation which Gen N’Ban La joined.

Another potential source of contention involves the evolving role of Maj-Gen Gun Maw. He was previously involved in several peace talks under the UNFC’s delegation for political negotiation (DPN). In this regard, he held a high profile, but his role has diminished since the Myanmar Army rejected the UNFC’s nine-point peace proposal.

Following this turn of events, Maj-Gen Gun Maw returned to the KIA’s Laiza headquarters. As Gen N’Ban La further invests in peace talks led by the Northern Alliance, Gun Maw’s opportunities to contribute to the peace process in turn become more limited.

It is possible that the three men each see one another as believing in different policy approaches and leadership styles, as well. To someone with the stance of Gen N’Ban La, Lt-Gen Gam Shawng could be perceived as being uncomfortably close with the Chinese. After Gam Shawng took a position as chief of the KIO’s economic committee, he was approached by a number of Chinese businesspeople interested in extracting the Kachin region’s natural resources. According to the economic department of the KIO, Ms. Ali Chye—a prominent Chinese tycoon—negotiated special permits with Lt-Gen Gam Shawng, reportedly bonding over shared religious beliefs.

While Gen N’Ban La has been criticized for his rigidity, the younger Maj-Gen Gun Maw’s own popularity and embrace of more “youthful” tools of communication, like social media—including the posting of KIO updates on his personal Facebook page—could also be viewed as threatening to older, more traditional members within the organization.

These three generals each have their own patrons who back them in case of a power struggle. For Gen N’Ban La, this includes junior leaders who respect him for “saving” the KIO/A from attempted coups. Lt-Gen Gam Shawng enjoys the confidence of holding control of the full chain of command from the KIA military. Maj-Gen Gun Maw obtains support from both peers within the central committee and from the greater Kachin public.

Yet historically, internal power struggles lead to splits within organizations. This was witnessed when known druglord Zahkung Ting Ying formed the New Democratic Army-Kachin in 1989, and again in 1990 with Mahtu Naw, along with whom parts of the KIA’s 4th Brigade broke away to form the Kachin Defense Army in northern Shan State, and finally, in 2004, when Lasang Aung Wah formed his 100-man militia at Gwi Htu. Observers, myself included, worry how the current fragmentation among the leadership will play out, and what its impact will be on the Kachin movement.

Healing the Fragmentation

It is believed that some Kachin religious leaders have intervened and have been advising the KIO on how to avoid a potential split. Internally, there appear to be two ways in which the KIO could act halt any fragmentation. In what could be described as a worst-case scenario, the organization could enact a statute limiting officers’ careers by restricting the maximum serving age to 60 years. Once the ruling is in effect, generals over sixty years old would be forced to resign from their respective positions and hand over power to junior generals. This could serve as a mechanism for a peaceful transfer of power.

The seemingly best option is a face-to-face meeting in which the central committee members confront and address existing contentions. Moreover, the junior officials—particularly Brig-Gen Hkawng Lum (VCS-I), Brig-Gen Aung Seng La (VCS-II), Brig-Gen Zau Tawng (Gen Staff Officer), Col Brang Nan, Col Tawng La, Col Hkun Seng and Col Naw Hkan—would need to collectively step in and put forward solutions.

Absent such a timely intervention, the existing fragmentation among the senior generals could lead to unprecedented results, including the potential split of the KIO, which no Kachin wants.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based contributor.

This article has been updated to remove a disputed statement in the original.