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Towards Resolving Myanmar's Kachin Conflict

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By Richard Johnson | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BRUSSELS (IDN) - A tentative peace agreement in Burma's Kachin conflict – one of the longest-running ethnic insurgencies in the country and in fact in the world – signifies a major opportunity to secure lasting peace in what is officially known as Myanmar as a whole. Yet, there will be significant challenges in doing so, says an eminent think-tank.

The peace accord was signed on May 30, 2013 by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) with the Myanmar government – the last of the eleven major ethnic armed groups to do so since 2011.

According to the Brussels-based Crisis Group, challenges ahead derive from the fact that "key issues" still need to be discussed and agreed. These include the repositioning of troops from both sides to reduce the chance of clashes, a monitoring mechanism, and a meaningful political dialogue.

The Crisis Group's Asia Program Director Jim Della-Giacoma says: “An end to the conflict is crucial for relief, rehabilitation and development initiatives to begin, but peace brings with it new risks for the people of Kachin State. Recent experience from ceasefires in other parts of Myanmar points to a potential increase in land grabs and exploitative and environmentally damaging resource extraction activities. This is a particular risk in Kachin State, given its enormously valuable natural resources."

“Reaching a peace agreement between the government and the KIO has been one of the biggest challenges of the overall ethnic peace process”, says Della-Giacoma. “But before this peace can be claimed, many difficult underlying political issues need to be resolved. There is no guarantee of success”.

Notwithstanding the enormous challenges, there are also reasons to be hopeful, says the Crisis Group's report 'A Tentative Peace in Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict', particularly as the agreement has come at a time of unprecedented political and economic reform in Myanmar. Subsequently, the economy is becoming more open and transparent, and the report perceives opportunities for the Kachin state economy to integrate with the national economy and take advantage of its proximity to China and India.

The Kachin state is Myanmar's northernmost state. It is bordered by China to the north and east; Shan State to the south; and Sagaing Division and India to the west.

Hope

The Crisis Group also pins hope on revenue-sharing agreements for the ethnic states, which it says are on the cards. Besides, there is a new generation of KIO leaders at the helm, who are more politically dynamic and who do not appear to be giving priority solely to economic interests. "When combined with more open electoral politics, there is hope that they may prioritise the interests of Kachin communities, among which support for the KIO is at an all-time high," explains the report.

The study finds that "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, it adds.

The report recalls that Kachin, a rugged and independent hill people, played a key role in the allied victory over Japanese forces in northern Burma 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.

The Crisis Group says in an overview of the report: "In 1994, the KIO reached a ceasefire agreement with the then-military government. It 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 May 28 to 30, 2013 in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, would have the UN and China as the international observers, but no-one else. These talks, which took place 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."

Step forward

This, says the report, is a major step forward. But it finds that securing a sustainable peace will not be easy, and depends on more detailed negotiations in these three areas. The report views the May 30 agreement as "the beginning of a process of consolidating peace, not the end". Without further progress, it adds, a resumption of armed conflict is possible.

The report continues: "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."

The seven-point agreement between KIO and the Myanmar government was signed in the presence of witnesses that included representatives of the UN, China and eight ethnic armed groups. The two sides agreed to: move forward with a political dialogue; take steps to achieve “de-escalation and cessation of hostilities”; establish joint monitoring committees; and undertake relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of internally displaced persons.

They also resolved to continue discussions on repositioning of troops; establish a KIO technical team in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina to facilitate more effective peace discussions; and invite the same group of observers to attend the next meeting, with any additional observers being invited only after consultation between the parties.

An analysis of the peace accord shows that the signatories were careful to avoid explicit mention of the term “ceasefire”, which for the KIO and the Kachin public has very negative connotations given the failures of the 1994 process.

However, says the Crisis Group report, this agreement is a ceasefire in all but name. It confirms a de facto cessation of hostilities that has held, apart from minor skirmishes, since February 1, 2013. [IDN-InDepthNews – June 14, 2013]

Related IDN article: Aiding Kachin State Entails Great Personal Risk

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo credit: Crisis Group

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