The agreement aimed at reducing military tensions that was signed by Burma’s government and ethnic Kachin rebels on Thursday is welcome news, but one must maintain cautious optimism regarding Kachin State’s peace prospects.
The nature of the meeting that led to the agreement on Thursday was very different from past peace talks.
At the request of the Kachin rebels, UN officials, Chinese diplomats and representatives of eight other ethnic militias attended as observers for the first time and the two sides met in the Kachin capital Myitkyina. Previous meetings held since the conflict resumed in 2011 were closed-door discussions organized in China that were observed only by the Chinese.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has learned an important lesson from its past experience of negotiating with Naypyidaw, yet it seems unlikely that it will now rush into a ceasefire agreement.
In 1994, six years after Burma’s military came to power through a bloody coup and while it was engaging in human rights abuses and military operations in ethnic regions, Kachin leaders reached a secret ceasefire agreement. The KIO went back into the “legal fold”, as the military regime put it, leaving an alliance of ethnic rebel groups based along the Thai-Burmese border in disarray.
It was a fatal mistake. Why? The Kachin people did not accept the ceasefire and the image of the KIO among its people went downhill.
When the ceasefire broke down in June 2011 and fighting resumed in Kachin State, the KIO and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), regained popular support from Kachin people at home and abroad.
Young Kachin men working overseas and in neighboring countries hurriedly returned to Kachin State to join the KIA to fight the Burmese soldiers. Those who could not return organized social media campaigns and raised funds. Kachin people said KIO/KIA leaders are rich, but soldiers are poor so “we must support them”.
In one case, a Kachin woman living in the West reportedly donated US $6,000 to the ethnic guerrilla forces. Many followed suit and provided the rebels with financial support — though no figures are available on how much overseas money reached Kachin State, the amount is believed to be substantial.
President Thein Sein pledged to make peace with ethnic groups after assuming office in 2011. Initially, he claimed that the KIO did not represent the will of Kachin people, and that they were but a small insurgent group causing trouble in northern Burma. The response by the Kachin people during the recent conflict proved that he was wrong.
Faced with a choice between the KIO and the Burmese government, the ethnic Kachin will choose their own army and politicians, who can protect their culture, identity, religion (most Kachin are Christians) and natural resources. They simply won’t trust the Burmese government to do the same.
Moreover, the war in Kachin State is not just about politics. The state is rich in jade and other natural resources. During the truce period, the Burmese army encroached on many areas once controlled by the KIA, bringing in tycoons from central Burma and China to remove the jade and other precious stones, and to log vast swathes of forest for valuable timber.
Some Kachin leaders and businessmen who collaborated with the Burmese and Chinese didn’t mind, but locals looking at the rampant looting of their natural resources were upset. This is one important reason why the Kachin rebel army wanted to regain control over lost territory.
After a 17-year-old of ceasefire broke down and fighting resumed in June 2011, the KIO immediately won back the hearts and minds of the Kachins.
But fighting a war ultimately means wanting peace for your people.
When crowds of Kachin people provided a raucous welcome to the KIO/KIA delegation to Myitkyina earlier this week, they knew they had to demand an agreement that benefits ordinary Kachins—and not just the KIO/KIA leadership.
In a response to these experiences with Naypyidaw and its own people, the KIO have become more strategic and savvy.
Kachin rebels leaders demanded the presence of the UN (they also wanted US and UK diplomats to join, but the Chinese reportedly blocked this request) and agreed to sign an initial agreement to reduce military tensions, but they stopped short of signing a ceasefire without gaining more concessions.
If further progress is made and the next round of negotiations prove to be fruitful, a peace deal could soon come within reach.
Political observers and Kachin religious leaders and intellectuals say that they will wait and see how the KIO will seek to achieve further progress. Everyone cautiously welcomed the news of the agreement, but Kachins want to know if KIO will abandon their interests again when the government offers a deal.
On the Burmese side, Aung Min, the government’s chief peace negotiator, can go back to Naypyidaw with some good news to present it to President Thein Sein, who reportedly closely followed the talks from the capital.
Political observers note that Burma’s leaders are eager to showcase a peace deal to the international community before the 2014 Asean Summit, which is to be chaired by Burma. There is also pressure from Naypyidaw’s newfound Western friends, who now have vested political and business interest in the last “frontier market” in Asia, which is located strategically on China’s doorstep.
Also significant during this week’s meeting was the role of the armed forces. They have suffered heavy casualties during the fighting and finally ordered in the air force to attack the Kachin rebel stronghold on the Burma-China border in late December.
Lt-Gen Myint Soe, a high-ranking government army official who commands the Bureau of Special Operations-1, which oversees military operations in Kachin State, attended the latest talks. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, instructed him and granted him full authority to reach an agreement.
Here is what Myint Soe told reporters in Myitkyina: “Even though we cannot yet sign the ceasefire agreement, we are satisfied with the results that we have reached so far.”
“Whatever the Tatmadaw did in the past, we and the KIO are brothers. So this time, we are trying to reconcile with our KIO brothers. This is like a common quarrel between a husband and wife,” he said. “The Tatmadaw never breaks the promise we make or our discipline.”
Extreme caution is needed here because Burma’s military have made such statements before during their dealings with ethnic rebels. Moreover, in an exclusive with The Irrawaddy on Friday, Myint Soe also stated that ultimately the KIA would have to integrate into the Burmese military.
“Even though there may be many different armed groups, they all must be under the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. This is clearly mentioned in the Constitution,” he said, before adding, “It doesn’t mean that Burma’s Tatmadaw will control all [ethnic] territories.”
Everyone, including the UN and the Chinese, are nonetheless upbeat over the new agreement. KIA leader Gen Sumlut Gun Maw said it would help prevent an outbreak of clashes, but he added that it was not a ceasefire.
Other ethnic leaders are also cautious since they know that Kachin rebels once before left an ethnic alliance when they made a deal with the Burmese government. This time, the Kachin courted their ethnic allies in the United Nationalities Federal Council and with political and financial assistance brought them back on board with their agenda.
“We will try to avoid [military] engagement, but we can’t guarantee an end to the war,” Gun Maw said. He cautioned that he was pleased with the preliminary agreement, but added, “We will have to discuss the details.”
After a series of fierce battles in northern Kachin State in the past two years, it seems that the government and Kachin now acknowledge that talking is better than shooting, but when and how they can reach a stable ceasefire agreement remains to be seen.