Will escalation of Kachin conflict lead to full blown civil war?

By: Sai Wansai
Thursday, 24 January 2013

One wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry, when the Thein Sein regime ordered a unilateral ceasefire in Lajayang and in all conflict areas – Kachin State and northern Shan State - with the Kachin Independence Organization/ Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA), it never has a chance to take hold, as the fighting, or rather the government’s troops offensive, continues right after the unilateral truce was supposed to take place last Saturday 19 January, at 6:00 hours in the morning.

Sai Wansai
And so the second ceasefire directive from Thein Sein government was roundly and conveniently ignored by the Burma Army, as was also the case in December 2011, when the first, unilateral truce order was doled out to stop the fighting in Kachin State.

La Nan, a spokesman for the KIO, said there were Burma Army artillery attacks and “skirmishes” on Saturday morning around Lajayang, at the very place and time the cease-fire was supposed to take effect.

On the same Saturday, according to AP, the Kachin rebel official said the latest fighting was taking place at Hka Pot and Hka Ya Bhum, both rebel-held hilltop posts located to the north and west of Laiza, respectively. He said fighting was also taking place in Hphakant, more than 100 miles farther away.

Hka Ya Bhum is a mountaintop KIA position and one of the last lines of defence of Laiza, a city home to many civilians and refugees, according to Free Burma Ranger’s report from the front line.

Free Burma Ranger wrote, at 14:00 hours on 21 January, the Burma Army began burning houses in Na Long, a village of approximately 100 houses.  Na Long is 9km west of Lajayang, which is 6km west of Laiza.  The fires were visible from Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions atop Hkaya Bum.  It is unknown whether any of Na Long’s residents were still in the village.

Thein Sein in a speech in Rangoon Sunday 20 January, said government forces are within an "arm's length" of the main KIA base in the town of Laiza, on the border with China. He said he has ordered troops not to attack the base as a show of good will.

The rational or excuse behind the government offensive, even after its recent unilateral ceasefire announcement, is that it is just conducting and returning fire in “self-defence”. One couldn’t help to imagine if burning down a village of defenceless villagers is suppose to be an act of self-defence.

The latest Thein Sein regime unilateral ceasefire is designed to shore up its reformist posture, woo international aids and opinion, while painting the KIO as an odd man out, when 13 other armed ethnic groups have already signed initial truce with the government.

One notable backing of government position came from The International Crisis Group (ICG) South East Asia Project Director Jim Della-Giacoma according to Kachin News Group analysis on 17 January, when he claimed in his 10 January blog posting that the KIO “has not reciprocated the President’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire and has continued offensive actions against military and strategic targets.”

Contrary to the ICG pro-government position, most ethnic resistance armies and non-Burman ethnic and well-informed Burman population sympathize with the KIO; and that both of Thein Sein regime’s unilateral ceasefire overtures were only declared but never implemented or followed by the Burma Army.

But the benefit of doubt given to Thein Sein as a reformer begins to evaporate, especially in the eyes of non-Burman ethnic nationalities, with the ongoing offensive in Kachin and Shan States.

Meanwhile, the KIO in its reply to the recent government peace talk initiative that political dialogue will only occur within the mold of United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of ethnic armed group representing 11 members, including the KIA, 6 of them currently have an initial ceasefire with the Thein Sein regime.

The government and the military might think that with the fall of Liaza, or total blockage of the city, will force the KIO to negotiation table from the position of weakness, and thus could dictate the terms of agreement; somewhat along the line of total surrender. But the likelihood is a transformation of partly, positional defence resistance of KIA, especially in areas around Laiza, to full fledge, heightened guerrilla and urban warfare, which would even be more costly in terms of human causality and economy.

The UNFC and also other ethnic armed groups are well aware that after the Burma Army is through with the Kachin, it will be their turn to endure the beating. And as such, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), in preparation to counter the Burma Army’s attacks from the air, is arming itself with sophisticated weapons acquired from China, with the blessing of its authority.

On 21 January, DVB wrote that the Chinese-made PTL02 Wheeled Tank Destroyers is believed to have taken place in the middle of last year, according to Janes Intelligence Review. The author of the report, Thailand-based intelligence analyst Anthony Davis, says that the delivery marks “a significant escalation in the equipment supply to the UWSA” from China.

It said that the transfer of the armoured vehicles, which was reportedly accompanied by Chinese-made man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS), is likely closely connected to recent political developments in Burma.

No doubt, the recent Thein Sein cosy relation with the West must have pushed the Chinese to reconsider its relation with the non-Burman ethnic armed groups along the border, which it has not bothered to make use of in any significant way until now.

According to a report in Foreign Policy, on 15 January 2013, titled “Has China lost Myanmar”, a Chinese government analyst at a private gathering in November said that China should “diversify” its approach. "The border ethnic groups are our card and China needs to play it well," said another influential Chinese analyst in Beijing.

These Chinese analysts argue that China should also support the border ethnic groups in their struggle against Naypyidaw by pressuring the Burmese military to relax its attacks and keeping the border open to allow the movement of timber, jade, and other natural resources. According to these analysts, assisting the minority groups will restore China's leverage over Naypyidaw and push Myanmar to respect China's national interests. After all, in their view, since Myanmar is throwing itself into the arms of the West, China has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Thein Sein reform process, particularly in resolving the ethnic conflict, is in essence the same with General Ne Win’s peace call of 1963. Ne Win had directly demanded the surrender of armed ethnic groups and the communist and acceptance of his Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) regime without question, which led to the breakdown of the peace talks. But Thein Sein regime is more refined in a sense that it at least offers a semblance of power-sharing by introducing multi-party parliamentary system with State and Region governments, albeit without their own self-drawn constitution, political decision-making power, rights to administer their own natural resources and a fair share of taxation revenue.

Apart from that, Thein Sein peace overture demands a total surrender of all ethnic armed groups in the form of Border Guard Force (BGF) program that would be under the sway of Burmese military. And it also insists that the reconciliation process be thrashed out within the mold of its 2008 Constitution, within the parliament, which is dominated by military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and impossible to amend military favoured Constitution, the non-Burman ethnic groups have no chance whatsoever to regain their rights of self-determination and equality.

The point here is that the successive military regimes from Revolutionary Council, BSPP, State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to the present Thein Sein regime have not deviate from the original military doctrine, starting from 1962, when Ne Win stage a military coup in the name of preserving and upholding national unity.

The military mindset or doctrine continues to be the same, which is the concept of ethnic Burman domination of national politics, complete with rigid central control. In short, what Thein Sein has delivered is a semblance of democratic trappings, where the Burman population in low land receives partial freedom and democratic rights, but oppression and military occupation in non-Burman ethnic areas. That is why the present regime has been reluctant to come up with the commitment of a federal solution, which is the original agreement signed between the Burman and the non-Burman ethnic groups  in Panglong, Shan State, in 1947.

Thein Sein and the Burmese military know the real root cause and also the viable solution. Unless the Burman political class is ready for a change of heart and abandon their ethnocentric, racial supremacy doctrine and accept the aspiration of ethnic rights to self-determination, equality and democracy, the reform process will be meaningless. In concrete term, the military and the government need to implement an all-inclusive, power-sharing political system, following the withdrawal of military occupation from the ethnic areas. One could well imagine that ethnic conflict resolution is unattainable, so long as more than fifty percent of the Burma Army troops – some 280 out of the total 526 Burma Army battalions - are stationed in Kachin and Shan States and treats them as colonial possessions.

Thein Sein regime might now be diplomatically having an edge, due to the West eagerness to woo Burma into its orbit because of strategic consideration and economic interest. The recent lukewarm protest of the West on aerial bombardment of the Kachin for escalating the conflict is the case in point, which is just a slap on the wrist for the regime, so to speak. But the battle field gains of the Burma Army could turn into Thein Sein’s nightmare, once the KIO decided to up the ante by staging urban guerrilla warfare and the initial ceasefire break down with the other ethnic resistance armies, due to lack of meaningful, political accommodation.

The lack of trust and anger from the part of UNFC members could be detected in its statement on Kachin conflict, dated 20 January 2013. One of the paragraph writes:

“Only the most gullible people would believe that Tatmadaw (Burma Army) is reacting only in self-defense when it deploys more than 120 army battalions, jet fighters, helicopter gunships and heavy artilleries against the KIO/KIA, which have only about 20 battalions, a few mortars and some militia troops. There is no doubt that Tatmadaw has been waging a total war against the KIO/KIA and the people of Kachin State.”

For now, Thein Sein regime still have the choice to seriously and earnestly proceed with the reform, which is in tune with the aspiration of the people, or just go on camouflaging its real intention of political domination and centralized control of the military clique, with fake reconciliation reform process.


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