By Karin Dean
MYITKYINA - Armed conflict is not new to Myanmar. Images of internally displaced persons (IDPs) flocking to makeshift shelters and camps after the Myanmar Army has burned down their homes and villages have long been familiar in the traditionally military-run country.
However, President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government's recent use of fighter planes and helicopter gunships, including Russian-made Mi-35s, sometimes referred to as "flying tanks", to fire on the positions of ethnic political resistance forces is believed to be unprecedented.
Thein Sein's drive to achieve "peace and tranquillity" was also part of the state's discourse under the previous ruling military junta. However, his political reforms have recently transformed Myanmar from pariah to darling of the West, despite the ongoing and intensifying conflict in Kachin State. In the Myanmar military vernacular, "peace" in Kachin State means that the Kachin must surrender and subjugate their long-held demands for political dialogue, autonomy and rights.
Months after the collapse of the government's 17-year long ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Thein Sein said in a statement at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Bali, Indonesia, that the Myanmar Army could annihilate organizations like the KIO and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), "within a day".
A year later, that tough-talking prophecy has not been realized. Many Kachins in the state capital Myitkyina note with pride that the Myanmar Army has failed to eradicate the KIA despite the recent ramped up bombardments. Heavy casualties and an apparent lack of motivation among Myanmar Army soldiers confronting more driven Kachin guerrillas could explain the government's recent move to use fighter planes and helicopter gunships in its pursuit of "peace and tranquillity".
Security and survival are key issues for all stakeholders in the Kachin conflict. However, there is a clash in perspectives on how these should be achieved. On one side, the government wants to secure and control its border areas as a basic condition for state sovereignty. The government may also view trade with neighboring China, including the extraction and export of rich natural resources such as jade, gold, timber and hydropower, as vital for its economic and political survival.
The KIO/KIA - founded in 1961 with the objective of establishing independence from the central government, a political aspiration later downgraded to a demand for autonomy in a federal setting - has a competing vision. The KIO clearly articulated its proposals concerning the distribution of legislative power between the center and peripheral regions and federal principles in 2004 and 2007 during the government-established National Convention tasked with drafting the country's present constitution.
The state constitution drafting committee not only refused to discuss the KIO's 2007 motion, known as the "19-point Proposal", but threatened to break the government's ceasefire agreement with the KIO/KIA, declaring that the latter "can be pushed back to the mountain", as the Commander of the Northern Regional Command reportedly said at the time. As part of the central government's own vision for security and a political solution to the Kachin conflict, the KIO (as with all other armed ceasefire groups) were ordered to transform into Border Guard Force (BGF) units under the command of the Myanmar Armed Forces. This plan failed, however, as many ceasefire groups with demands for political autonomy, including the KIO, refused to enter the program.
The government responded with political retribution. During the military-dominated general elections held in 2010, the potentially popular Kachin State Progressive Party, established by a former KIO vice chairman, was not allowed to register due to its perceived KIO connections. Voting was cancelled outright in vast areas of Kachin State during the 2012 by-elections for what the government deemed "security concerns".
To the contrary, it has been the security provided by the KIO/KIA in its controlled territories that has promoted grassroots development, including growing access to international communications via Chinese mobile phones and the Internet, the emergence of non-governmental organizations active in education and environmental issues and the empowerment of local communities, and education in the Kachin language.
The KIO-controlled town of Laiza has flourished recently from the benefits of border trade, seen in the development of modern hotels, 24-hour electricity without blackouts, the emergence of a local TV station, and other benefits unthinkable in the rest of the underdeveloped Kachin state.
At the same time, many locals believed that the KIO lost much of its past relevance and integrity during the ceasefire period due to some of its leaders' private business ventures, including rampant resource extraction for trade with China. The KIO has, nevertheless, worked hard to reconstruct itself as a legitimate political entity representing popular demands for an eventual political dialogue with the Myanmar government.
For now, many Kachins are looking to the KIO for basic protection from the government's onslaught. "Ceasefire does not mean peace," says Brang Seng, a pastor and schoolteacher who has worked for years in KIO-controlled areas and who now lives in Myitkyina. "The government does not want peace, they want ceasefire."
Brang Seng, one of the KIO's earlier critics due to his concerns about a lack of transparency, continued militarization, and leaders' private business interests, now says he looks to the group to safeguard Kachin rights and interests.
What the Kachin witnessed during the 1994-2011 ceasefire period in the government controlled areas in Kachin State has also contributed to this shift in sentiment. Myanmar army-led natural resource extraction and land appropriation for various military and private agribusiness ventures resulted in a doubling of Myanmar Army battalions in the area to protect and enforce their investments.
Environmental destruction from mining and logging is now beyond repair in many areas and is still ongoing. The state's cultural, language and religious policies, all of which promote the majority Burmans' Buddhist way of life, are widely perceived to discriminate against the Kachins. The government's highly touted reforms, including a loosening of press censorship and move towards parliamentary democracy, have had little relevance in Kachin State.
"There is no change between now when there is the [civilian] State Assembly and before when Kachin state was under the [military] Northern Command," says a retired former Kachin government worker who requested anonymity due to fears of reprisal.
Fierce fighting, meanwhile, has caused a rise in the number of internal refugees, with some estimates now as high as 100,000. Physicians for Human Rights, an international NGO, has recently called the situation a humanitarian crisis. Photos and videos of shot or wounded civilians, including pregnant women, schoolteachers, church leaders, and uprooted children in makeshift IDP camps under the KIO/KIA's protection, have spread over the Internet and social media like Facebook, YouTube and independent blogs and are believed to have played a role in mobilizing the Kachin.
"It's not a conflict between the KIO and the Myanmar Army but a war against the Kachin," said a young Kachin man studying for a degree at a Bangkok-based university. He says he is torn on whether to join the KIA to fight or continue his studies so that he may contribute to Kachin State's development after graduation.
Raising money to support IDPs has united Kachin all over the world. Fund-raisers range from young Kachin artists selling postcards and T-shirts in Myanmar's former capital, Yangon, to a Kachin martial arts star based in the United States, Aung La Nsang, who has donated some of his prize money to the cause. However, KIO relief agencies in charge of the refugee camps say that the funds raised so far are not enough to handle the scale and scope of the crisis.
Nonetheless, the government's claim of pursuing "peace" through war has resonated with various Western interest groups eager to see Myanmar open for business and turn away from China. The international community has issued public statements condemning the violence but have also called on the Kachin to enter a political process that is rigged against them.
Calls for an end to fighting and for a start of a political dialogue in Kachin State made by United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and US President Barack Obama have thus missed the mark. Their perspective disregards the KIO's sovereignty and legitimacy, and reduces its actions to being disruptive, if not illegal. This internationally endorsed view allows government officials to reject unfavorable information or news coming from the frontlines, casting off reports of soldier abuses and civilian casualties as unreliable and falsified by the KIO/KIA or other "biased" pro-Kachin sources.
By seeming to side with the government's position on the conflict, the international community's view is increasingly colored by geopolitics rather than morality. The prevailing view is to show patience with Thein Sein's government out of concern his incipient reforms could be derailed without continued international support for the process. Powerful international agencies like the UN, particularly its refugee agencies, continue to work with the Myanmar government even as it denies them access to refugees in KIO-held territories.
Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, from whom the international community has long taken its policy cues, recently emphasized the broad need for security of individuals and communities in the country's political transition. At a recent speech at the US's Virginia Tech University, Suu Kyi said, "Democracy means for me, and I think for those who are in the same movement as I am, a fine balance between liberty and security. We want to be free but at the same time we want to be secure. And we think that so far democracy is the best system that we know that can achieve both liberty and security for us." On the Kachin conflict, however, many Kachins feel that Suu Kyi has remained deafeningly silent.
A high-level government order was given to pursue airstrikes against the Kachin resistance forces, leading to an escalation of a conflict that has already imperiled tens of thousands of Kachin civilians. The same Myanmar armed forces that are bombarding civilian populations in Kachin State have a pending invitation to observe for the first time the annual US-led Cobra Gold joint military exercises in neighboring Thailand.
Many have interpreted the invitation as a US reward for Thein Sein's reforms and engagement initiatives with the West. But as the war in Kachin State intensifies, his quasi-civilian government increasingly looks and acts like the previous military regime the West sanctioned and isolated rather than embraced.
Karin Dean, a political geographer, has conducted research on Kachin communities for the past decade. She is at present based at Tallinn University in Estonia.