The violence that has been raging in Myanmar’s Kachin province for almost a year now, claiming scores of innocent lives, is indicative of a much deeper and pervasive lack of political will to resolve marginal issues.
Although the Kachin state remains a pivotal powerhouse as well as a repository of natural resources, the Burmese government showed minimal concern for the raging tensions in the region. However, it needs to be borne in mind that although prima facie the conflict at Kachin was sparked off over the construction of a dam, today it is a manifestation of a much deeper issue that dates far back to the Panglong Agreement in 1947.
The terms of the agreement assured the establishment of a federal union along with complete autonomy for the states that had a majority of ethnic population inhabiting them. Unfortunately, the spirit of the Panglong agreement was never embodied in the Burmese constitution which was drafted shortly after the drawing up of the Panglong agreement in 1947.
The Kachin nationalists took up armed resistance against the Burmese military establishment in 1961 to thrust back the mounting perceived subjugation by the Burmese army.
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is the second largest non state ethnic army in Myanmar, emanates from a political entity known as the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) -- a parallel state which exercises control over a considerable expanse of territory and provides important public utilities such as education, justice, disaster relief and development within its sphere of influence.
The KIA, after fighting a long and dreary battle against the Burmese military establishment, had to relent to a ceasefire agreement that ensued the disbanding of the CPB -- a Chinese flanked force that fought alongside the KIA against the Burmese military establishment -- in 1994.
The ceasefire agreement was signed on February 24, 1994 in Myitkyina. It granted a spectrum of political autonomy for the KIO in a special region in Kachin. However, while the 1947 agreement brought the fighting between the parties to a close, it was by no means a place agreement .
The terms of the ceasefire agreement postulated the exclusive control of certain areas by the KIO in some areas and the other areas were to be shared by the KIO while other areas were to become shared territory along with development in the ethnic areas.
The problem arose, however, in areas where power was to be shared. The Burmese military carried on indiscriminate abuses of power with absolute and complete immunity and these abuses manifested themselves in various forms such as economic exploitation and the abject violation of human rights in their attempt to rig an entire generation of population.
Unfortunately, most of these abuses are still going on till this day and are a major reason for the dismal perception of the Burmese army as a hostile occupying force in their own country.
The conflict whose remnants of which we see today was put to an intermittent rest in the period between 1994 and 2008. However, the year 2008 saw the revival of the conflict when the Myanmar government began to demand that all of Myanmar’s non-state ethnic armies (including the KIA) assemble themselves into a joint Border Guard Force (BGF) under the authority of the Burmese Army commander.
This proposal and the idea of the complete relinquishment of power and control that underpinned it failed to find any kind of favour with the KIO -- especially in the milieu of the unresolved ethnic issues.
Both sides - the KIO as well as the Burmese government -- made sporadic and unsuccessful attempts at negotiating agreements till October 2010 when the search and detention of two KIA officials allegedly provoked the gruesome killing of two civilians in the Pingyaing village by the members of the KIA. This incident marked the running dry of the last hope of Burmese national reconciliation.
The KIA activists, for the first time, were dubbed as ’insurgents’ rather than a ’ceasefire group by the Burmese media since the signing of the ceasefire agreement in 1994.
To make the matters worse, the Burmese government backtracked on its word to ensure Kachin participation in the November 2010 national elections by prohibiting any political party or independent electoral candidates from registering themselves for the ensuing elections.
The turn of events quashed all hopes of a democratic political order in Myanmar and the military rule continued to masquerade behind the new parliamentary system that allotted one-fourth of the parliamentary seats to the military in the new regime that came into being in March 2011. The conflict rapidly amplified thereafter. The numbers of incidents of ambush of both sides increased manifold and the last nail in the coffin proved to be the large scale investment plan at the Myitstone Dam that has been a point of significant public opposition since 2010 due to the deleterious impact that it was to have on the environment and its ostentatious social costs.
An independent Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) revealed the social costs to be much higher than what was postulated by the Burmese government and was thus in favour of stalling of the project. What followed was a series of actions aimed at rigging the report and this sparked off the conflict in its present contour.
The impact of the Kachin conflict should also be evaluated in terms of Myanmar’s ties with other nations, especially Japan - a nation that is one of the principal aid providers and architects of Myanmar’s path to development.
The little or rather repeatedly failed attempts at getting both parties to any kind of a truce agreement can prove to be detrimental to Myanmar’s interests in the international fora. The Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) policy strictly allows Japan to scaffold the self help efforts of only those nations that fulfill the pre requisites of respect for human rights and human security .
Keeping this in mind, a safe observation to make shall be that it is in the absolute interest of Myanmar in the international forum to treat the resolution of the Kachin crisis as a task of utmost urgency considering the complexity of the situation in perspective as only truly inclusive development can usher in democracy in the way it is understood by democratic nations.
(The writer is a research scholar at Observer Research Foundation)
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