Getting Kachin Back

Written by Salman Pervez  •  Analysis  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

The Myanmar government is pursuing all options to resolve the conflict in the Kachin State. However, the violence seems to escalate with each passing day. 

The Myanmar national army and armed rebels have been fighting the Burmese Civil War in five states since 1948. These states include Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Rakhine and Shan. The conflicts have resulted in thousands of causalities, displacing over a million civilians in the country. Amongst these five conflict zones, the Kachin State is significantly important due to its borders with China and India.

The Kachin Independence Movement became alive in the 1940s when Myanmar (then Burma) was under British colonial rule. The objective of the Movement was to provide rights to the ethnic groups and minorities living in Myanmar. The conflict intensified during the 1960s when soldiers from the Burmese army defected to the Kachin Independence Army to voice their opinions against the government. Kachin enjoyed independence from the 1960s to the mid-90s with an economy largely funded through smuggling and narcotics.

In 1994, the Myanmar army seized jade mines from the Kachin forces. Trading in jade stone is a lucrative business in Kachin whereby the rebel forces demand large sums of money from private companies visiting Myanmar to extract minerals. The conflict ended in 1994 when the Kachin Independence Army signed a peace agreement with the government of Myanmar. However, in June 2011 the Myanmar forces violated the ceasefire and attacked the Kachin army in Bhamo. The fighting resumed when the government attempted to take control of the areas that come under the influence of the Kachin Independence Army. Another ceasefire came into effect in January 2013 with the intervention of Myanmar’s president Thein Sein, but with sporadic clashes occurring throughout the state.

Bordering with Kachin is China, which has made efforts to bring the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army at the negotiating table. China has intensified its efforts to strike a peace deal fearing that the Kachin conflict might spill into Chinese territory. As a precautionary measure, China established a military command office in Nabang. It has also set up four refugee settlement sites with facilities to accommodate nearly 10,000 people.

Since December 2012, four bombs from Kachin have landed near China’s borders with Myanmar. Although there were no casualties, the Kachin conflict is affecting Myanmar-China relations with insecurities growing on both sides. China’s foreign ministry has expressed concerns and dissatisfaction over the issue and has demanded Myanmar take necessary steps to avert any cross border violation. Despite a stern warning China harbors a soft corner for Myanmar because of the Kachin people living in China. This ethnic group, also known as Jingpo, is one of the 56 officially recognized ethnicities in China, which dwells in the Yunnan Province, bordering the Kachin state.

The Kachin conflict has escalated in terms of magnitude over the last few years, catching the attention of the U.S, which closely monitors the region because of its close proximity to China. Last November, US-Myanmar relations received a boost when President Barack Obama visited Myanmar as the first sitting U.S President in history. Even though Obama made his visit when the Myanmar government and the Kachin rebels were locked in conflict, the President refrained from issuing a statement. Critics argue though that President Obama’s visit may have influenced Myanmar’s President Sein to declare a ceasefire. However, in January 2013, days before the ceasefire, Myanmar carried out airstrikes against the Kachin rebels, which shocked the U.S and the UN. Such aggression can certainly affect Myanmar’s relations with both China and India, two South Asian countries that enjoy economic dominance over the region.

Confusion came to the surface between the U.S and Myanmar when the former expressed deep concern over the Kachin conflict. Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the U.S embassy’s statements, which appeared to be supporting the Kachin Independence Army. China has not intervened into the Myanmar conflict because of its state policies and past failures to lessen tension in conflict zones. China seeks to play a larger role where its influence reaches the entire globe rather than to remain confined to South Asia. It seems as if the U.S will have to find a diplomatic solution for Myanmar as China’s submission to state policies prevent it from intervening into the conflict. Although China is fast becoming a superpower with economic and political influence over South Asia, the U.S is playing a leading role in Southeast Asia. The U.S government has been a silent witness to the rising conflict in Myanmar and its five states. Many political commentators believe that if China raises its concern over the issue, the U.S will definitely make an effort in solving the crisis.

The Kachin conflict affects South Asia in many ways. Myanmar cannot afford to have sour relations with China, its strongest supporter in the long run. Furthermore, the conflict is fuelling a humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of civilians are leaving Kachin and settling in relatively safer parts of Myanmar or crossing into China. The Kachin conflict also has the potential to spill over into Assam if it grows in magnitude. If India shows agitation over the conflict, Myanmar will be crammed between two South Asian economic powers - a situation which the country absolutely cannot afford. 

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