Burma’s government today held talks with senior commanders of the rebel Kachin Independence Army in an effort to end a violent ethnic conflict that threatens to undermine the country’s reform process.
“The KIA is fighting for autonomy for Kachin state within a federal Myanmar, which successive governments of the ethnically diverse country have long rejected,” Reuters reports:
The two sides met for seven hours in Ruili, just inside Chinese territory and afterwards issued a vaguely worded joint statement that said further talks would be held in the next few weeks, aimed at setting up a communications channel and monitoring system, to enforce a ceasefire “as soon as possible”.
“China arranged to hold this meeting. China doesn’t want very serious fighting along its border,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, an analyst with close ties to the KIA.
“More than 30,000 Myanmar troops are here in Kachin State. The KIA is resisting them with about 8,000 troops,” he said. “Kachin State is ruined because of the long fighting.”
The Burmese military has tried to “isolate and weaken” the Kachin rebels, said Aung Din, a former student activist with close contacts to armed rebel groups.
Zhu Zhenming, Professor at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, described the gains by the Burmese army as a “turning point in the conflict.” Both the United States and China want to see the conflict resolved, he said, creating “a good external environment” for the peace process.
Kachin activists have called for international pressure, including sanctions, to be maintained on the government until the conflict is resolved.
“If you look at it right now, even in the different ethnic areas all the companies are run by the government,” Kachin activist Bauk Gyar, told a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy. “Therefore if you open the road to people coming and doing business, the ethnic people will have to suffer more than before,” she said.
Eschewing violence and pursuing a political solution to “a deeply wounded, fractured, multi-ethnic society” is critical to the country’s democratic transition, said Timothy Garton Ash, a close friend of Michael Aris, the late husband of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in an address to Burma’s first literary festival.
The three-day event was a “sign of transition to democracy and to freedom of expression,” said author and journalist Pe Myint.
“Now we are trying to be a more open society. Censorship has been theoretically removed and more and more people are writing,” said Daw Suu Kyi:
Literature, she said, had been hugely important to her during house arrest. Some of the people she most admired were fictional characters, such as those in George Elliot’s novels who stuck to their principles even though their ideas might be out of keeping with the times. She called Jean Valjean, the ex-convict and hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a “true revolutionary”.
Many observers fear that the ongoing ethnic conflicts will give the military a pretext for retaining vital prerogatives that are likely to undermine genuine democratization.
“Military intervention in the reform process presents the most dangerous” of the three challenges to Burma’s reform process” writes Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia researcher at Eurasia Group.
“There are some good indications that President Thein Sein is consolidating the civilian government’s control [bit] it is far less clear that Thein Sein can or will be able to assert control in areas where the military, or Tatmadaw, has vested security and economic interests,” he writes for National Review:
The surge in the bloody campaign being waged against ethnic rebels in Kachin State has continued in spite of two orders from Thein Sein and a legislative motion to suspend offensive maneuvers. The Tatmadaw appears unwilling to suspend operations until it has crushed the Kachin Independence Army and terrorized its civilian sympathizers — and regained control of the region’s large mining sites.
In addition to pursuing military campaigns to gain access to mineral wealth, the Tatmadaw’s pension funds are tied up in large military holding corporations, with investments across the national economy. These inefficient military corporations won’t be eager to compete with outsiders.
The National Defense and Security Council remains “a secretive council of senior cabinet ministers, the president, and military leaders that offers the military policy influence over civilian leaders behind closed doors, as an alternative and complement to the 25 percent of seats apportioned to the military in the parliament,” he cautions.
Ethnic conflict is the second significant risk to progress, Lewis asserts:
The central government’s various battles with the ethnic non-state armed groups (NSAGs) — there have been wars with groups of Karen, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin, Karenni, Kokang, Pa-O, Palaung, Naga, and Lahu origin, to name a few — involve different motives and distinct cultural histories, but all the groups share an interest in some measure of political autonomy and control over their economic resources, especially when it comes to profit-sharing agreements for natural resources.
Potential US-Chinese tensions over respective spheres of influence present the third main risk:
In order to take advantage of Burma’s promising moment, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi must balance the inclusion of democracy proponents in a national dialogue, the resolution of longstanding ethnic conflicts, the emerging Chinese and U.S. regional competition for influence, and the Tatmadaw’s commercial and security priorities. The management of these risks will determine whether Burma proves to be the Golden Land, as it was once known, or slips back into its darker recent history.