The new government in Myanmar is facing its biggest test yet as the now eighteen-month-long conflict in Kachin State continues to attract worldwide concern. Today, Myanmar’s Parliament unanimously called for a ceasefire, approving a motion for peace talks to resume immediately, but the next steps remain in the hands of the military and Kachin rebels.
The UN Secretary-General, the US State Department, the UK Foreign Office, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry have all expressed serious concerns over increasing violence in Kachin State. The use of military planes and helicopters to carry out airstrikes raises questions about the government’s commitment to reform after its transition from five decades of military rule.
The conflict is “one of the most serious threats to peace” since Myanmar’s new government came to power in 2011, writes Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia Project Director at the International Crisis Group (ICG). Fighting in Kachin areas began anew in June 2011, breaking a seventeen-year ceasefire and threatening international confidence in Myanmar’s widespread reforms.
- The unanimous call for a ceasefire in Myanmar’s Parliament is promising, as a quarter of parliamentary seats belong to the military. The vote signals lawmakers’ desire to comply with international calls for the cessation of violence, but the real test is whether they or the president have any power over the military control of Kachin State.
- The Kachin remain the last major ethnic rebel group without a ceasefire agreement with President Thein Sein’s administration. (The violence between dominant Rakhine Buddhists and minority Muslim Royhinga is inter-communal and not a rebel uprising against Myanmar.) The government’s inability to negotiate with Kachin leaders is proving a serious challenge to its political reforms.
- With international optimism about Myanmar’s positive transition dampened, Myanmar faces an internal and international identity crisis. Is it a transformed state with civilian governance, free elections, and eased restrictions across civil society? Or, when faced with an entrenched rebel conflict, is the new government reaffirming its militaristic predecessors? As in other transitioning democracies in Southeast Asia, the result may well be somewhere in between.
With 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, Myanmar is no stranger to ethnic and rebel violence. The government has negotiated ceasefire agreements and tentative peace deals with other major ethnic rebel groups, including the Karen and the Mon, who had also fought with the state for decades.
While much of Myanmar has enjoyed political and economic improvement since the transition, war-torn Kachin State “might as well be another country,” according to The Economist. Political arrests continue in Kachin State, and voting in the historic 2012 by-elections was not extended to Kachin territory. The region suffers endemic unemployment, poor infrastructure, and frequent electricity blackouts, despite the presence of natural resources and the potential for economic success. Kachin leaders have long sought more autonomy from Myanmar and its military, amidst continuous fighting over the control of dams, mines, and timber in Kachin State. The northern Myanmar province remains under military control, technically beyond the reach of political reformists in the nation’s capital.
On December 28, 2012, the Myanmar army launched attacks near the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) headquarters in Laiza. While this was not the first attack since the Kachin ceasefire failed, it was a serious escalation involving helicopters and fighter jets. According to The New York Times, the use of airpower contradicts the president’s order not to take offensive actions and his promise to seek peace with the rebels. The KIO, ICG expert Della-Giacoma notes, are not blameless—having failed to reciprocate the president’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire and continuing their own offensive and strategic operations.
Myanmar’s government has stressed its genuine efforts; state and military officials met with KIO representatives for peace negotiations eleven times since March 2011. In its last meeting on October 30, 2012, Myanmar sent senior commanders to participate while the Kachin sent only lower-level representatives, undercutting serious discussions. Della-Giacoma asserts that the current fighting should be viewed partly in this light. Without a willingness from the KIO to come to the table, the military may feel its negotiation options are limited.
Prior to going on the offensive in Kachin State, Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government rapidly restored relations between the previously isolated nation and the West. The government has released hundreds of political prisoners, including opposition leader and newly-elected member of Parliament Aung San Suu Kyi, who has since freely appeared in Europe and the United States. President Thein Sein has opened up the economy, with transnational corporations now eager to invest. Myanmar’s tourism industry also set a new record in 2012, reaching one million international visitors to the country for the first time in its history. A protracted conflict would jeopardize this new economic vitality.
Despite the lifting of restrictions on domestic media, Internet, and travel, reports about Kachin State violence continue to include conflicting claims and information. Both the government and the rebels have made misleading statements about the violence, and competing reports have continued in recent days. On January 10th, government officials denied reports from the KIO that the military was using chemical weapons as troops seized territory near Laiza. On January 12th, KIO members claimed they shot down a military helicopter, but the army denied the incident. A presidential spokesperson later confirmed the crash and resulting deaths, but described the event as an accident and “emergency landing.” Most recently, on January 16th, the military denied KIO allegations that three civilians were killed by army shells in an attack on Laiza.
Kachin State is so remote and hard to access that it is difficult to independently verify accusations from either side. Nevertheless, the potential for civilian casualties in heavily populated Laiza is clear, as is the developing humanitarian and refugee crisis, with the UN estimating more than 75,000 Kachin have already fled their homes. China has sent troops to its border with Kachin State, fearing both a spillover of violence and a refugee influx.
International actors are calling for the cessation of violence and access for humanitarian workers in Kachin State as conditions worsen. If Myanmar heeds its Parliament’s call for a ceasefire, it could demonstrate its continued commitment to peace, sustain its new international identity, and keep its mostly successful transition on course.
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin is a Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.