Address Kachin problem politically

Address Kachin problem politically

Almost all armed ethnic groups have successfully signed ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and its armed wing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is the only major armed group still battling the Myanmar army.

It is pertinent to ask why the government has failed to reach a ceasefire agreement with the KIO/KIA. Similarly, when all other major ethnic groups have agreed to a cessation of armed conflicts, why are the Kachin still fighting? Are their demands different from the other ethnic minorities?

Along with the Chin, the Shan and the Burmans, the Kachin signed the historic Panglong agreement that formed the Union of Burma in 1947, a year before the country's gained independence from Britain. However, since then, the Kachin have felt betrayed and discriminated against.

The Kachin were denied the autonomy that was agreed in principle during the Panglong conference. Moreover, the Kachin, who are mostly Christians, opposed the introduction of Buddhism as the state religion by prime minister U Nu's government during the first parliamentary democracy.

The KIO/KIA, formed in 1961, initially demanded independence but later opted for autonomy based on the Panglong agreement. The group first signed a ceasefire deal with the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the then military government, in 1994.

The 17-year-old ceasefire ended in June 2011 primarily because of two important reasons. Firstly, in late April 2009, the KIO/KIA refused to accept the terms and conditions of transforming itself into a Border Guard Force which would come under the direct command of army. Secondly, the military's interest in controlling lucrative hydropower projects and other natural resources in Kachin state led to the attack on the KIA on June 9, 2011.

The conflict has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives on both sides and the displacement of thousands of Kachin civilians. Rounds of meetings have been held without any concrete results. The KIA demands any cessation to armed conflict must lead to or guarantee a political solution.

It also demands that the government declares a nationwide cessation of hostilities toward minorities and hold a national gathering resembling the Panglong conference. The government's position is that a ceasefire should precede any political dialogue. The Myanmar government wants to sign ceasefire agreements at an individual group level, contrary to the KIO/KIA's demand for a nationwide ceasefire.

As the conflict escalated, the government on Jan 3 admitted using fighter jets and helicopters to attack KIA positions. The government claimed this was necessary to clear KIA fighters who were attacking logistic units of the Myanmar army. The KIO/KIA said the army was preparing to attack its headquarters in Laiza town.

The continued military offensive is an indication of increasing distrust and heightened tension between the two groups. The current violence is a consequence of an unresolved historical problem and should not be seen as an isolated issue. It is part and parcel of the larger minority problems in the country.

Minorities have consistently demanded political autonomy. Armed conflict in Kachin state is a hindrance to Myanmar's democratic transition. The conflict also damages Myanmar's credibility just as the international community has begun to show great interest in the country.

In light of the deteriorating situation, the democratic opposition led by the National League for Democracy must not remain silent on the issue even if both sides have committed rights violations. The aim to win a majority of seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections should not overshadow the urgent need to solve the Kachin problem.

Ethnic armed groups that have signed ceasefire agreements with the government should understand that genuine peace and national reconciliation cannot be achieved on an individual basis. As much as they have struggled together for the past several decades for the restoration of democracy and for the establishment of a federal union, it is now equally important to show solidarity with ethnic Kachin.

Several collaborative efforts have helped highlight minority issues. Leaving the Kachin on their own at this juncture of the political transition will only weaken the bond and friendship resulting from ethnic minorities' common struggle for equality of rights and autonomy.

The international community, especially the Western nations that have lifted sanctions on Myanmar, should use their economic and political influence to end the crisis. If the conflict does not end, the US government should reconsider its intention to invite the Myanmar military to a US and Thai-led multinational military exercise later this year.

Asean should put pressure on Myanmar, saying that continued violence in Kachin state is unacceptable. Since the KIO/KIA does not demand secession or independence from the Union, a negotiated political settlement is not an impossible task.

History has shown that minority problems in Myanmar cannot be addressed militarily. A blame game between the two warring parties will not yield peace and stability. It requires mutual trust, participation and commitment from both the KIA and the military.

The ultimate objective should aim to end the war-like situation; provide assistance to internally displaced persons, and bring a political solution to the lingering problem.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Myanmar.

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