Wednesday, February 24, 2010

They have been preparing for this crisis since 1994. They have built a disciplined, equipped, determined force not of hundreds, not of thousands, but of tens of thousands. They are the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and they are not alone. They stand with the United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army, each able to field tens of thousands of fighters in their own right, and with whom the KIA has held extensive joint military training exercises in the past years.

Kachin news networks have been featuring stories of oppression and persecution of their ethnic group by Burmese Junta Soldiers. The BBC reports that:

On the car radio are freedom songs, and at one of the training camps a course in traditional dance is being run - cultural nationalism and propaganda is strong.

The Kachin stand against the Junta in charge of Burma, and, as you read this, they are digging trenches, fortifying their artillery positions, and mobilizing their reservists.

The Burmese Junta has ordered these autonomous ethnic armies undertake a Sophie's choice of sorts: disarm, or merge with the Burmese Army before the upcoming 2010 'elections'. The ethnic armies of Burma seem unwilling to comply. the KIA's Chief of Staff, Maj Gen Gam Shawng today told the BBC that:

"I can't say if there will be war for sure, but the government wants us to become a border guard force for them by the end of the month. We will not do that, or disarm, until they have given us a place in a federal union and ethnic rights as was agreed in 1947."

The Kachin, Shan, Wa, and Karen have faced marginalization, oppression, and the occasional ethnic cleansing since the beginning of the Myanmarese Junta; and, in the current security climate of Burma, they see their security ensured only through the maintaining of their arms.

This past Friday, Kachin News reported that all Burmese forces stationed in the north had been told to prepare for combat.

Crisis has come to Kachin, a corner of South East Asia rarely in the news. The outcome of this crisis, however, may have far reaching consequences. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) may be mobilizing the KIA in the hopes of entering into a very dangerous game of coercive diplomacy with the Burmese Junta. While they have little hope of military victory against the incredibly strong Burmese Army, they can threaten constant instability through protracted guerrilla combat in the jungles of northern Burma -- something that China (the Junta's biggest supporter) cannot tolerate, and the Chinese have already begun to attempt a de-escalation in the region. China has approximately $600 Billion dollars of investments and interests tied up in Burma, and they could stand to lose much of it should the looming threat of conflict blossom into civil war.

But don't count on China to be the champion of de-escalation.

The Kachin should not look to China as a possible stabilizer of this situation. Should armed revolt break out in the region, expect a rapid deployment of PLA troops to the region. China has already begun plans for the massive Myitsone Dam of the Irrawaddi River in the Kachin region -- which would flood approximately 300 square miles, and displace thousands of locals -- while providing massive amounts of power to Yunnan Province. The dam is to be constructed by Junta forces, and ground is scheduled to be broken this year. I would not expect any delays in construction to be welcome news to Beijing or Yangon.

There are also transnational issues at play here. While the KIA/KIO has banned the production of opium in their region -- and have embarked on radical eradication campaigns to enforce their ban, the neighboring Shan state has seen a 300% increase in opium production in their region. Should combat break out in the region, criminal groups, narcotic funded insurgents, and those seeking to profit from a decline in the rule of law will profit -- and those profits may radically protract any conflict.

War may be inevitable in Kachin.

The bottom line? Civil War is likely in Burma, and soon. Any war will involve tens of thousands of soldiers. It will be protracted, messy, and will involve high civilian casualties. Chinese involvement is ensured. Furthermore, the Kachin dyaspora is spread from China to India, and comprises approximately 1.5 million people. With the outbreak of violence, Indian, Burmese, and Thai involvement is possible. Western power involvement is possible. Regional destabilization is ensured. Keep your eyes on northern Burma -- and hold your breath. This may be D&D's first prediction of the outbreak of violence, and we hope it will be our last.


Nathan said...

You mention the potential for narcotic funded insurgents to emerge from heightened escalation in the region. Would these be the more fundamental insurgents infamous in the States, or a broader and more diverse coalition with different, possibly competing goals? And if it is the former, does this potential create a stake for the United States? Has there been any demonstrable concern expressed on behalf of Burma by the United States?

Jeff Schneider said...

Nathan -- it's a great question. I think a majority of the narcotics funded insurgents that could arise from instability in the region would be more akin to the narco-gangs of Laos, Cambodia, or Mexico rather than the opiate-funded afghan groups that get such news coverage in the US. Furthermore, most of the poppy grown in northern Burma becomes opium consumed in the region, either locally, or in the Chinese markets. A small percentage of it may trickle into European markets, but it poses little threat to the United States directly. As for demonstrable concern for Burmese issues from the US, most of it has been centered either on the recovery effort from Typhoon Nargis, or the human rights concerns from the continued repression of pro-democracy efforts of people like Aung San Suu Kyi. There has been litte for the ethnic minorities like the Kachin or Karen. Keep the comments coming!

Nathan said...

Is there anything I can do personally? As a second year law student, I'm applying to many human rights organizations with the hope of working on issues like the repression of pro-democracy efforts in Burma. But from what you describe, these efforts may become secondary in what is soon to be a lawless nation. Basic human rights appeals seem to present the most urgency now.

I don't imagine the Chinese have been amenable to any discussion regarding the dam. Yet the building of such a dam alone would seem to merit some response from bordering nations which might receive the brunt of the displaced people of Burma. Any theories as to why they have been silent? Have they been silent? And one more opium related question - Do the radically different approaches to opium by the KIA and Shan State suggest a potential rift between the two partners?

Jeff Schneider said...

Nathan -- all great questions! First things first -- volunteering: do some research on the most active civil rights groups at work in Burma. I believe that Amnesty International is very focussed on the issues there, but may not have a very effective network on the ground in places like Kachin. Second -- China, over the past several years, has been constructing a massive border fence between Kachin and Yunnan -- so it is unlikely that refugees of the conflict will be able to even escape to china -- more likely they will attempt to enter either Thailand or Bangladesh. As for their silence on the issue -- China does not (as policy) seem to enjoy discussing their support of regimes such as North Korea or Burma, but rather, allow economic ties to exist tacitly. It is unlikely that direct Chinese involvement with the issue will be forthcoming unless there is an immediate outbreak of violence that directly threatens their interests there. Finally, the KIA and Shan approaches to poppy production may suggest a rift, but not one that is large enough to drive them apart in their opposition to the Burmese Junta. They are not seeking to unify their two nations, but rather to each acheive their own autonomous existance. Therefore, they may easily tolerate differences in internal policy within the other's state -- as a matter of sovereignty. Great questions -- and good luck with your law degree!

Nathan said...

Thanks! I'll keep coming back and link the site to my friends. Hopefully we can keep the dialogue alive.

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