Is Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict Really Over?

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by Joshua Kurlantzick    

The visit on Wednesday by the United Nations’ special envoy to Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, to Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization, is a positive sign that the conflict in Kachin state might really be over. [Asia Times has a fine summary of Nambiar’s visit.] The peace deal between the KIO and the Myanmar government, signed in the spring, was obviously a major step forward to ending the decades-long conflict, but it did not provide real closure—it was not a final ceasefire. Among many Kachin leaders, there remained even after the peace deal signing a high degree of mistrust of both the central government and regional army commanders, who frequently, during past ceasefires, had gone over the government’s orders and launched their own attacks in Kachin state. The Kachin’s armed wing has not put down its weapons, and many Kachin desire a high degree of autonomy from the central government, a type of autonomy hard to imagine for many ethnic Burmans, including those in the National League for Democracy. The fact that Kachin state contains massive natural resources will make this autonomy debate even harder, when it is picked up at the next round of peace discussions in September.

Still, both the Kachin news service and several prominent Kachin leaders say that, since the most recent peace deal, the level of violence in Kachin state has dropped dramatically, suggesting that the central government—with the assistance of China—has gotten a handle on regional commanders and increasingly can prevent them from making policy on the ground.  The fact that the central government allowed Nambiar to visit Laiza, even after the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, recently infuriated Naypyidaw by charging that during a visit to Myanmar he was left unprotected and attacked by a Buddhist mob, shows that President Thein Sein’s government is increasingly confident that the level of violence in Kachin state is dropping and is unlikely to spike again.

Thein Sein’s approach to the UN also reflects the government’s growing confidence that its narrative of peaceful reconciliation and reform is playing extremely well in the international community, drowning out worries about Kachin state and even the inter-religious violence that continues on in Myanmar, leading to the gutting of another town by Buddhist mobs just last week. This sunny narrative has elements of truth in it, but there is still no clear future plan for a federal Myanmar, a federation that would offer the kind of autonomy that the Kachin and many other ethnic minorities desperately want. But Thein Sein is right: the government has gained the upper hand in international approval, as compared to the KIO and other ethnic rebels. Will this force the KIO to make even more concessions at the September round of peace negotiations?
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