The Burmese army plans to go to war with a powerful ethnic militia in Kachin State which could be devastating for around a million Christians living in the war zone.
Independent Burmese media is reporting that both the country’s military and the Kachin Independence Army, which demands greater autonomy for the state, are preparing to fight a fierce battle.
On April 20, Kachin News Group reported that the Burmese army had decided to attack the KIA, labeling the militia as the “government’s main domestic enemy.” Two days later, a report in The Irrawaddy detailed the training and recruitment programs being held in full swing by the KIA.
“It is clear that the central government, in the wake of last fall’s elections, feels it has gained the stability and legitimacy to move against the ethnic militias,” said Joshua Kurlantzick from the American think-tank Council on Foreign Relations in an article.
The CRF fellow for the Southeast Asia said the Burmese army was perhaps trying to “intimidate the militias” so that they disarmed themselves and joined a border guard force “but it’s unlikely to work.” “The militia groups have little to gain from joining a border guard force, so the regime probably would have to make them submit. And that could be bloody.”
Over 90 percent of the 1.2 million Kachins are Christian. While a majority of the Kachin people are in favor of autonomy, only few have taken up arms. The Kachin State is the northernmost state of Burma bordering China in the north and India in the west.
In 1947, a year before the country’s independence from British rule, the Burmese government under General Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) reached the Panglong Agreement with the Kachin and other minorities accepting in principle full administrative autonomy for the Frontier Areas. However, General Ne Win, who captured power through a military coup a few years later, refused to honor the agreement. None of the subsequent regimes made the country a true federation either.
In November 2010, the junta regime held the country’s first “democratic” election in two decades due to international pressure for political reforms. However, ethnic minorities – who live in highlands near the country’s borders – have seen little change as they still have little administrative control over their own homelands.
About two-thirds of the country’s population is ethnic Burman, mostly Buddhist, concentrated in the country’s central and upper plains.
Lajawn Ngan Seng, Kachin State’s chief minister appointed by Burma’s military-dominated parliament, is a Buddhist. Seng was picked for the post “because of his membership in the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, and his religion, Buddhism, Kachin News Group reported in February.
Prior to the election, the junta had asked all ceasefire groups to transform into the border guard force, but the KIA and most other insurgent groups refused to do so.
The country’s new constitution states that there will be only one army in Burma, making a showdown between the Burmese army and the KIA and other armed groups inevitable. There are indications that the confrontation could happen soon.
According to an investigative report by The Irrawaddy, the KIA is training hundreds of students from villages and towns across Kachin State to defend their villages in case of a war. The villagers are being trained in “combat fighting, Chinese language, first-aid and leadership skills with the intention of organizing thousands of militia troops spread out across Kachin State.”
In response, the Burmese army has issued arrest warrants for anyone suspected of attending the course. “Searches at checkpoints going in and out of KIA territory have become more vigorous, as has the level of questioning,” The Irrawaddy reported.
The Kachin militia has built over 40 new buildings in case an emergency evacuation of Laiza, KIA’s headquarters, becomes necessary. “The Burmese army has also been making preparations. In recent months, over 20 KIA liaison offices have closed their doors and all official communication with the regime has ceased.”
A KIA official told The Irrawaddy that the United Nations and other members of the international community should act as mediators in the dialogue between the Burmese government and the insurgents. “If there are no international observers, then Burma will never get peace.”
The decades long stalemate continues and it is only a matter of time when the war will break out. Some local analysts believe fighting may start after the rainy season is finished next month.