Sixteen years after Burma's military regime reached a ceasefire deal with the country's second largest rebel group, the Kachin Independence Organisation, the KIO and the 10,000 soldiers it says belong to its armed wing are preparing for war.
A soldier stands guard last month at a Kachin Independence Army outpost overlooking the Pajau plains near the rebel capital of Laiza, northern Kachin State. Photo: Mizzima/Thomas Maung Shwe
Just outside of the KIO's rebel capital of Laiza in the far north of Kachin State recently, Mizzima met a group of recruits finishing their weapon's training. A 25-year-old nursing student in full battle dress was one of the many female sharpshooters at the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) firing range. With machine gun in hand she explained why she had recently enlisted: “We female soldiers must join our male counterparts in fighting because peace can't be obtained by men alone.”
There are about 800 women in the KIA, she said.
Tensions between the KIO and the Burmese Army have increased significantly since mid-October when the regime's official newspaper the New Light of Myanmar used the term “insurgent” to describe the KIO. Normally the regime only uses insurgent to describe rebel groups such as the Karen National Union that have refused to sign an official ceasefire agreement. This was the first time since the ceasefire began in 1994 the KIO had been so labelled by the Burmese regime.
Following the declaration that the KIO were insurgents, Than Shwe's regime sought to pressure them by severely restricting the movement of goods passing along the KIO's lucrative toll roads, which for the past 16 years have been a vital trade link between Burma and China, and an important source of income for the KIO. The regime also ordered the closure of most of the group's liaison offices throughout the rest of the state and parts of neighbouring Shan State, in territory the regime controls or areas in which the KIO has only partial authority. The offices were established to ensure the truce went smoothly and to maintain lines of communication.
The ceasefire, which benefitted both the KIO and the Burmese regime economically, appears to be on its deathbed and many observers believe it is only a matter of time before war breaks out between the KIO and the Burmese armed forces.
When Mizzima interviewed senior members of the KIO in Laiza recently, they laid blame for the souring of relations squarely with the Burmese regime and Naypyidaw's insistence that the KIA come under the Burmese military's control as part of a Border Guard Force (BGF).
On the issue of joining the BGF, Lana Gumhpan, a senior figure in the de facto government that administers KIO territory, told Mizzima: “We KIO considered the issue deeply and after consultation with our general public and … at our central committee; we came to the conclusion that the transformation of our military wing alone would not guarantee a lasting peace.”
Laiza, on the edge of the Sino-Burmese border, was only a small village when the ceasefire began. It is now a bustling city, home to more than 20,000 people. At first glance, the KIO's capital looks like any other Burmese border town, with transport trucks, several hotels and schools, a thriving market with gem stores, four churches and even a golf course. Until very recently, business had been so good in Laiza there was shortage of housing and many migrant workers found it cheaper to live in China than rent in Laiza.
Recent developments have put the rebel stronghold's civilian residents on edge. Many of the people Mizzima spoke to expressed the feeling that conflict with the Burmese military was inevitable.
Lana Gumhpan, a senior figure in the de facto government that administers Kachin Independence Organisation territory, speaks to Mizzima last month at KIO headquarters in Laiza, northern Kachin State. Photo: Kay Lie
The KIO and its KIA armed wing were established in the Kachin-inhabited area of Shan State in February 1961 in response to Kachin grievances with Burma's central government then led by the mercurial Prime Minister U Nu. Overwhelmingly Christian, many Kachin were infuriated by U Nu's declaration during the April 1960 election that if elected, he would make Buddhism the state religion, a promise he fulfilled in August 1961.
The Kachin were also angered that the Burmese government had never implemented a pre-independence agreement brokered by General Aung San, father of the recently released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with representatives of Kachin, Shan and Chin ethnic groups that outlined the autonomy of those living in Burma's ethnic “frontier areas”.
The February 1947 Panglong Agreement was an important precursor for Aung San's goal of Burma's full independence from Britain. Clause 5 of the deal gave the ethnic groups represented the right to local self-government and declared that Burma's central government “will not operate in respect of the Frontier Areas in any manner which would deprive any portion of these areas of the autonomy which it now enjoys in internal administration. Full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas is accepted in principle”.
U Nu, who took over the reins of Aung San's Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League party following the latter's assassination in July 1947, did little to actually implement the Panglong compact after Burma received independence in January 1948. His failure to live up to the promise of Panglong left the Kachin and other ethnic minorities in Burma feeling betrayed.
While talking to Mizzima, Lana Gumhpan pulled out a dusty copy of the Panglong Agreement and pointed to Clause 5, which he and many others believed if actually followed would have prevented many years of civil war in Burma. “Despite the Panglong Agreement to establish a Union state, it never turned out as we had expected and agreed upon. We the Kachin and other hill tribes were deprived of political and human rights. So eventually we took up weapons and engaged in revolutionary movements.”
Lana Gumhpan said the Burmese junta's massive Irrawaddy Myitsone hydroelectric dam project under way at the confluence of the Mali Hka and Nmai Hka rivers in the north of the state was just the latest example of the Burmese central government ignoring the views of Burma's ethnic minorities. He said the ruling Burmese military junta had ignored both local residents' strong opposition to the projects and the KIO's concerns about major environmental damage. Thousands of people will be forced to move and almost all of the energy generated by the project will be sold to China, leaving little if any local benefit.
In July, the Burmese regime's national election commission refused to allow a political party led by former KIO vice-president Dr. Manam Tuja to register for last month's national elections.
Tuja and several other senior party members had resigned from the KIO last year to pursue “urban politics”. Despite the fact he had represented the KIO during the regime's national convention that drafted Burma's much-criticised 2008 constitution, Tuja and colleagues were prevented from registering their Kachin State Progressive Party or registering as independent candidates ostensibly because of their former association with the KIO.
Kachin officials and Burma watchers have said the regime's blocking of Tuja was in direct response to the KIO refusal to adopt the Burmese junta's BGF proposal.
Formerly a vocal supporter of the regime's national election programme, Tuja was extremely disappointed at his disqualification. In an interview with Burmese media in exile shortly after the election he warned: “Tension is high between the KIA and the government,” and added, “These issues have been resolved through military methods for decades. More bloodshed will occur since there is little chance of a peaceful solution to these issues” – an ominous prediction that increasingly looks like it will become a reality.