The country can ignore the ethnic minorities’ demand for autonomy only at the risk of hurting its democratic transition

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

Along with the Chins, the Shans and the Burmans, the Kachins signed the historic Panglong agreement to form the Union of Burma in 1947, a year before the country’s independence from the British. However, in post-independence Burma, the Kachins felt betrayed and discriminated by the Burmese central government.

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

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

Why the ceasefire ended

The 17-year-old ceasefire ended in June 2011 primarily because of two important reasons. First, 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 the Burmese Army. Second, the Burmese military's interest to control lucrative hydropower projects and other natural resources in Kachin state led to the attack on KIA on June 9, 2011.

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

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

On January 3, the Burmese government admitted the use of fighter jets and helicopters — it had initially denied this — to attack the KIA positions. The government claimed that fighter jets and helicopters were used to clear KIA fighters who were attacking logistic units of the Burmese army. The KIO/KIA said that the Burmese army was preparing to attack its headquarters in Laiza town.

Subsequently on January 14, the KIA claimed that three Kachin civilians, including a 15-year-old boy and a 76-year-old Christian deacon, were killed and four others wounded by the Burmese army’s artillery shells at the heart of Laiza town. The government denied such shelling and suggested that it could have been caused by an explosion of ammunition stockpile.

On January 18, Parliament called for a cessation of hostilities. Hours later, the Burmese government, backed by the military, declared a unilateral ceasefire with effect from the next day on the eve of an international donors’ conference where President Thein Sein unveiled a timeline for reforms in the country’s transition to a more democratic rule.

But the fighting has continued and is an indication of increasing distrust and heightened tension between the Kachin and the Army.

It is important to recognise that the current violence is a consequence of an unresolved historical problem and cannot be seen as an isolated issue. It is a part and parcel of the larger minority problems in the country.

The minorities have made a consistent demand, that is, political autonomy. Armed conflict in Kachin state is a hindrance to Burma’s democratic transition. The conflict also damages Burma’s credibility as it happens when the international community has begun to show great interest in the country.

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

Several collaborative efforts have helped highlight the centrality of minority issues in the decades-old problems of Burma. Leaving the Kachins on their own at this juncture of the political transition will only weaken the bond and friendship resulting from the ethnic minorities’ common struggle for equality of rights and autonomy.

The West must act

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

The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should put pressure on the Burmese government that continued violence in Kachin state is unacceptable. Since the KIO/KIA does not demand secession or independence from the Union of Burma, a negotiated political settlement is not an impossible task.

History has shown that minority problems in Burma cannot be addressed militarily. A blame game between the two warring parties will not yield peace and stability. The ultimate objective should aim to bring a mutually initiated and accepted ceasefire agreement; provide assistance to the internally displaced persons, and bring a permanent political solution to the lingering problem. It requires mutual trust, participation and commitment from both the KIA and the Burmese military.

(Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, concentrating on Burma/Myanmar.)

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