A Tentative Peace in Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict
Asia Briefing N°140
12 Jun 2013
The full report is also available in Burmese and Chinese.
On 30 May 2013, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) signed a tentative peace agreement with the Myanmar government – the last of the eleven major ethnic armed groups to do so since 2011. This represents a major opportunity to secure lasting peace in Kachin State, and in the country as a whole. Yet, there will be significant challenges in doing so. Key issues still need to be discussed and agreed, including the repositioning of troops from both sides to reduce the chance of clashes, a monitoring mechanism, and a meaningful political dialogue. Major steps need to be taken to develop an equitable peace economy, and the exploitation of Kachin’s significant natural resources, if not appropriately regulated, could compound inequalities and trigger renewed conflict. Much remains to be done to avoid a repeat of the failures of the previous ceasefire process.
The Kachin conflict is one of the longest-running ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar and in the world. A rugged and independent hill people, the Kachin had played a key role in the allied victory over Japanese forces in northern Myanmar during the Second World War, and were a central part of the post-independence military. After these troops rebelled, the KIO quickly became among the largest and most formidable of the ethnic armed groups.
In 1994, the KIO reached a ceasefire agreement with the then-military government and participated in the deeply flawed National Convention process that ended with the drafting of the 2008 constitution. The KIO was allowed no substantive input, however, and no real discussion of ethnic grievances was possible. In the lead-up to the 2010 elections, the regime reneged on earlier promises to the KIO, demanding that they transform into border guard units under the partial control of the Myanmar army. When the KIO refused to do so, the ceasefire was declared void, and the electoral commission prevented registration of the main Kachin political parties and independent candidates.
In mid-2011, shortly after power was transferred to the new government, armed conflict in Kachin reignited. Numerous rounds of peace talks failed to achieve a breakthrough, and in late 2012 the conflict escalated once more. The prospects for peace looked grim.
It was a firm intervention from China, worried about border stability and security and its major investment projects in the area that brought the two sides back to the negotiating table in February 2013. After two rounds of talks in China, there was once again deadlock, this time because Beijing objected to the presence of other international observers – the U.S., UK and UN – who had been invited by the KIO. The deadlock lasted more than two months, and a compromise was only reached after increasing resentment in Myanmar over what was perceived to be an unhelpful Chinese position.
The compromise was that the next talks, held from 28-30 May 2013 in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, would have the UN and China as the international observers, but no-one else. These talks – held for the first time in government-controlled territory – resulted in a breakthrough. A seven-point peace agreement was signed, referencing longstanding demands of the KIO on the need for force separation, a monitoring and verification mechanism, and a dialogue on political issues.
This is a major step forward. Securing a sustainable peace will not be easy, and depends on more detailed negotiations in these three areas. The 30 May agreement is the beginning of a process of consolidating peace, not the end. Without further progress, a resumption of armed conflict is possible.
Access to displaced people for provision of humanitarian assistance is vital. It is also critical to address the longer-term development needs of Kachin communities. This will require donor support, but most importantly, it requires a shift in Kachin areas – from the present conflict economy to one that provides broad benefits to Kachin State and its peoples. Managing the state’s valuable natural resources in a sustainable and equitable way – including billions of dollars of jade production annually – will be key.
Yangon/Jakarta/Brussels, 12 June 2013