Can the Kachin survive war's escalation by Myanmar forces?
The battle between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar army escalated from a ground battle to a conflict with air strikes on December 28. Even if Myanmar troops capture the Kachin headquarters, this conflict will not stop there - the war will go on, and many precious lives will be wasted.
When U Thein Sein was elected as president of Myanmar, he ordered the army to stop fighting in Kachin State. However, army chief of staff, General Min Aung Hlaing, paid no attention to the president's order and continued to fight. Questioned about this, Nay Pyi Taw said troops on the frontier had not received the order yet, and it was hard to convey the message while they were there. It said the order would reach the troops fighting against the KIA shortly. But it has been more than a year, and now the army is using air strikes to try to capture the Kachin headquarters at Laiza, which is near the border with China.
Without China's blessing or green light, government forces would not dare to use air strikes against the Kachin headquarters. So, it seems that Beijing has agreed to eliminate the KIA, which was once a trade partner with China. A mega dam on the Irrawaddy River was halted by Thein Sein after he began his term as president, because of nationwide outrage over such a project on the most important river for Burmese people. The decision upset the Chinese because the dam would have generated electricity that Yunnan province needs for its development. But the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) opposed the Myitsone Dam, as it was against the will of local people.
In addition, the building of a pipeline from Arakan State to Yunnan has seen a tremendous effort by the Chinese. However, they have used only their own workers to build it. Local people did not get any benefit from the pipeline project and it has upset the whole nation. The pipeline will also cross through some villages in Kachin State. As a result the villagers will be moved by force - destroying their livelihoods.
Furthermore, people that were forced to move when the Myitsone Dam project started now want to go back to their villages, but they have not been allowed to return, even though the project was halted. China needs the Myanmar army more than it needs the KIO. The government gave them a green light to build the mega dam and pipeline for their own benefit. It favoured China - but the KIO rejected both the dam and the pipeline. It is clear that favouring the Myanmar army instead of the KIO is more beneficial for the Chinese government. As a result, they have turned a blind eye to Myanmar government forces crossing the border and making air strikes against the KIA base.
Before 1988, Burma was heavily dependent on a black market economy. Border trade was the main source for basic needs such as soap, clothing and machine parts from neighbouring countries such as China, Thailand and India. Most products came from Thailand and China. The Karen resistance, the Karen National Union (KNU), controlled the Thai-Myanmar border trade and enjoyed close ties with Thai generals and politicians. Buying food, medicine, arms and ammunition from the Thais was not difficult for the KNU.
After nationwide demonstrations in 1988, the Myanmar army changed its "closed door" economic policy to an open-door policy, to eliminate the black market and promote open trade. For the Thais, dealing directly with the military regime is far more beneficial than dealing with the KNU and other ethnic resistance groups. Their national and personal interests favour those who will give them more profit than the other. They do not care if the Myanmar regime commits crimes or violates human rights. They only care about their national interest. As a result, Thais turned their back on the KNU and resistance groups, blocking dealers who used to sell arms and ammunition, and imposing travel restrictions inside Thai territory. The border trade died down and it was hard to purchase arms and ammunition, which weakened the ethnic resistance groups. On the other hand, the open economic policy has caused trade to boom between neighbouring countries and Myanmar.
In the early 1990s, when the Myanmar army started an offensive on the (KNU's) Wankha camp, the Thai army allowed Myanmar government troops to cross into Thailand to attack the camp from both sides. Now, the Chinese are doing the same thing by permitting Myanmar's warplanes to use Chinese airspace to attack Kachin strongholds.
In conclusion, the KIO headquarters may fall into government hands, just like Manerplaw, the KNU headquarters, did in 1995. But the Kachin will continue their fight as guerrilla troops as long as their people support them in the fight against the government. So, the best solution is to discuss this conflict in parliament - and there are many questions that need to be asked.
Why has the fighting continued to now, and for close to 18 months? How was it started? What are the demands of the KIA -are they fair and reasonable? What benefit will the government gain from this conflict? What is its goal? Why is the army still fighting even though the president ordered a ceasefire? All these matters need to be addressed in parliament. The people need to know the answers and should be given the right to respond.
The rational and practical thing is to take immediate action to stop the fighting by both sides and withdraw troops to their previous positions, which was agreed on when they made a ceasefire deal 17 years ago. Then, start a dialogue without any conditions, together with local dignitaries, political party leaders and UN observers. Dialogue is the only option to settle disputes among the ethnic nationalities - not a battle on the ground or bombing from the air.
The KIO headquarters at Laiza developed into a full-fledged town during the ceasefire period and it would be heartbreaking to see it destroyed by government troops. If civil war continues, there will be no development or improved living standards for the Kachin. If Laiza is destroyed, it will cost billions of dollars to rebuild. All the time and effort to build the town will have been wasted. We must stop this meaningless war, once and for all, for the sake of our country and its citizens as a whole.
Htun Aung Gyaw is a former chairman of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front.