The recent military crackdown on the Kachin Independence Army in Burma (KIA) is again drawing attention to the need for more focused political reforms in Burma. Since the end of the ceasefire in June 2011, approximately 700 Kachin fighters have been killed (government sources claim the figure to be 300).
While there have been conciliatory statements from the Centre and from President Thein Sein, and both sides have tried to arrive at a ceasefire with China trying to assist in the negotiation, the ground reality is serious — both sides seem to be gearing up for battle.
The use of force to quell an ethnic conflict reflects the impunity of Burma’s military machinery. It has also undermined the steps taken by the government to move on the path of national reconciliation and left little room for a negotiated settlement to the problems of ethnic minorities in Burma.
The reform process, still in its nascent stage, should seek to be more inclusive towards the minority ethnic groups and this current standoff will only widen the gap between the government and these groups.
Throughout December 2012 and January 2013, there has been a regular onslaught on the KIA along the borders with China, particularly in the border town of Laiza.
Of all the ethnic issues in Burma, the Kachin rebellion is the most protracted. The Kachins are spread across northern Burma and comprise several tribes. They are also found in the inland areas of Yunnan and in India’s north-eastern region. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) represents their political aspirations and their military wing is called the KIA.
The KIA was formed in 1962, in the aftermath of the coup led by General Ne Win. The formation of the KIA is linked to the fact that the military attempted to consolidate its control over all the ethnic groups in the country and centralise its authority vis-à-vis these groups. In fact, the KIA was part of the Burmese military forces till the 1962 coup, after which it separated to fight for independence from the Burmese state.
The KIA carried out a separatist war for more than three decades till 1994, though this grouping did not have much economic autonomy and most of its resources accrued from trade in narcotics and precious gems along the border areas with China. When the State Law and Order Restoration Council mobilised its forces after the 1988 pro-democracy movement, Burma began to move towards ceasefire agreements with ethnic minorities to tackle the smuggling of narcotics and gems. Following the ceasefire with the Kachins in 1994, the demand for a separate state was withdrawn and the KIO began to look for greater autonomy within the Burmese state.
While several explanations are being offered for the recent offensive against the Kachins, the breakdown of the 17-year ceasefire agreement in June 2011 is cited as the primary cause.
The bone of contention, it is argued, was the region around the Kachin state prized for hydro-electric projects and both the Centre and the KIO sought control over it.
Another viewpoint is that there are hardliners in the military who are involved in the current standoff in order to undermine the changes that have been initiated by the reform process. But this is not an acceptable explanation. The government under Thein Sein may not have been strong in its pronouncements on the crackdown against the Kachins, but even pro-democracy leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi responded to the conflict after severe media criticism about her silence. Considering that she is seen as a leader who supports ethnic minority groups, her passive response can push the Burmese government and other groups to greater intransigence.
The Kachins were one of the groups that participated in the reform process by being part of the draft constitution, a roadmap for Burma’s transition to democracy. The need to incorporate a federal structure that would give greater autonomy to the ethnic groups was a significant demand made by the Kachin minorities. In fact, the group reiterated that the plan for a federated Burmese state was laid out in the first Burmese Constitution (1947), drafted when the British were to grant the country independence. It envisaged a flexible power sharing arrangement between the Centre and the regions. But Burma evolved into a unitary state, ignoring power sharing and accommodation of minority rights.
There is an urgent need to work out a clear and pragmatic approach to the problems faced by several ethnic minorities and groups so that they can have real political space and identity. For over a year now the international community has been watching the reform process in Burma, all along exhibiting visible signs of support.
In fact, the suspension of sanctions by the West, the visit of US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron to Burma and the writing off of loans taken from financial institutions were clear indicators of the backing which the Burmese government was receiving for its willingness to bring about a change.
But to continue receiving Western support, the Burmese government will have to persist with the reforms process, which, among other things, means greater accommodation of minorities and ethnic groups within the national mainstream.
The writer is a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi