LA NAN is the Joint Secretary General of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of Burma’s (Myanmar’s) largest and best organized ethnic rebel groups. The KIO signed a ceasefire with the central authorities in 1994, but in 2011 the Tatmadaw – Burmese for military – launched an offensive which saw the Kachin insurgents lose territory and tens of thousands of people lose their homes.
According to conservative figures from the United Nations, there were at least 92,000 displaced people across Kachin State in 2015, while a low-intensity war is ongoing between the armed forces and the insurgents. Clashes took place even after the elections, with fighting breaking out near the village of Monhyin in mid-November 2015.
Certainly this is one of the reasons why La Nan is skeptical about the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) launched by the Thein Sein government in 2013, only two years after the army’s battalions first marched north toward the KIO-held posts.
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“Ceasefire agreements with individual groups have not been successful, so we think that all ethnic groups should sign collectively,” he said, referring to the NCA, which eventually floundered in October 2015, when only eight groups agreed to join the agreement. About 12 other organizations refused to sign over the exclusion of three militias – the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – from the discussion.
“The KIO did not sign not because those three particular groups were not included, but because the main idea is that all groups should be included in the NCA,” said the KIO official, explaining his group’s decision to opt out.
Our interview with La Nan took place before the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, called for fresh talks with ethnic leaders on a new deal. On April 27, Suu Kyi met with delegations from the eight groups that signed the NCA and argued that a new Panglong conference is needed to build lasting peace (she was referring to the meeting championed by her father, General Aung San, in 1947).
Whether her efforts will be successful depends on the ethnic armed groups’ willingness to join the peace talks, but also on the Tatmadaw’s position. According to La Nan, so far the Burmese military has pursued a strategy of divide-and-rule toward ethnic minorities, trying to split the ethnic front. “These kinds of tactics are not new, they have always used them, it is a legacy of British colonialism,” he said, arguing that the game is still going on to this day – including in Kachin State, where the formation Shanni Nationalities Army (SNA) is raising eyebrows among KIO officers.
The SNA was created earlier this year by the Red Shans – subgroup of the ethnic Shan minority – living in southern Kachin State. “They worry that the KIO may create misunderstandings, but recently some Shan leaders came to explain that the government provided 40 guns per village in order to form a militia,” said La Nan. He concedes, however, that issues between the two communities do exist: “During the conflict there were some problems relating to conscription. When there is fighting, sometimes we have to conscript every race in a village as all citizens must participate, they all have a responsibility.”
From the point of view of the KIO – as well as from that of many civilians in Kachin State and arguably in other ethnic areas – the endgame is not the ceasefire itself. Rather, it is a political dialogue with the central government, which could then lead to amending the current Constitution and creating a federalist state. “We cannot say exactly how a federalist system would look like,” said the KIO official. “But for us it should be based on ethnic people and every state should have legislative power.”
Creating a federal system in Burma would be challenging even without the army’s opposition. The country is a patchwork of ethnic groups, many of which are opposed to the central authority, but do not always agree among themselves either – as the impossibility of forming a united front shows.
Thorny issues will need to be solved before a workable model is found. One of these is the fate of the ethnic armed organizations: should they survive as their respective states’ armies – in which case the authority of the center would certainly be under discussion – or should they become a local police force? Some suggest the armed groups should disband altogether, possibly turning into political parties.
Another problem is the repartition of resources between the center and the periphery, for Burma is extremely rich in natural resources, but most are located in ethnic areas. Kachin Sate alone is where most of the country’s jade is to be found – and it is worth dazzling sums. According to a study published by Global Witness, jade was worth US$31 billion in 2014 alone, nearly half of the country’s GDP.
“If there is struggle between the U.S. and China, the ethnic people will be like grass between buffaloes.”
Similar to the Wa and Kokangs, but unlike other ethnic armed organizations, the KIO operates close to the Chinese border, making it easy for critics to claim that the insurgents receive support from Beijing. But according to our interviewee, this theory is far from true. “In reality, there is no help whatsoever from China,” he said.
However, he suggests that the People’s Republic’s interests in Burma are not limited to trade and investments, as often claimed by Chinese state media. “Burma is a kind of buffer zone between China and the western world. Since the NLD is very close to western governments, they are worried,” he said, pointing out that future competition between the United States and the People’s Republic could be a severe problem for northern Burma: “If there is struggle between the U.S. and China, the ethnic people will be like grass between buffaloes. This situation may also have advantages, but if tensions mount we are going to suffer.”