The Ripple Effects of Mounting Violence in Kachin

Myanmar president Thein Sein confirmed reports January 2 that the military had employed air strikes and gunship helicopters in its fight against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) near Laiza, the rebels’ capital in northeastern Myanmar. The strikes, which reportedly began December 28 in response to KIA attacks on government convoys, are continuing. . The United States and United Nations, among others, have decried the use of airpower against lightly armed fighters near a population center.

The Myanmar military has taken an 18-month-long humanitarian tragedy and, improbably, made it more tragic. The decision to use air strikes also raises important strategic questions about the reform process in Myanmar. It shines a light on two outstanding issues that are the most intractable for the government and the most likely to cause backsliding in reforms: the civilian authorities’ control over the military, and the chance for nationwide peace with ethnic minorities.

Thein Sein’s admission that troops had used air strikes contradicted government statements just two days prior denying the allegations. It is still unclear how involved the president was in ordering the air strikes, or whether he was even aware of the military’s intention to do so. What is apparent, though, is that the recent uptick in violence is out of step with repeated calls from Naypyidaw for the military to halt offensives against the KIA. Reports throughout December suggested that violence was escalating as government troops attempted to reinforce their positions and retake lost terrain around Laiza. For each offensive, the military insists that it is merely responding to rebel attacks, but that excuse grows less credible with each passing day.

The military remains a strong force in Myanmar politics—many argue the strongest force—and its support for the reform effort is critical to the effort’s success. The armed forces operated for decades with absolute impunity and have no experience with subordination to civilian authorities, creating inherent tension between the government and its troops.

Despite the military’s privileged place in the state, civilian oversight of the armed forces will prove crucial for the consolidation of democratic reforms. The fact that the leadership in Naypyidaw, including the president and most members of the cabinet, are recently retired military officers has likely bought them a degree of acquiescence from the generals on this front. But the situation in Kachin State offers strong evidence that the submission of military commanders to the central authorities is far from complete.

Regional commands in Myanmar have long acted with an unusual degree of autonomy; many commanders treated their areas of responsibility as personal fiefdoms. In a junta-run country usually facing at least a dozen active insurgencies, this is understandable. But in an emerging democracy seeking national reconciliation, it undermines fragile trust in the government and allows a minority of the military to act as a spoiler.

The government’s fidelity and control of the armed forces were regularly called into question in 2012 by incidents like the heavy-handed police crackdown on protesters at the Letpadung copper mine, the reported involvement of security forces in communal violence in Rakhine State, and periodic skirmishes with Karen and Shan rebels, despite cease-fire agreements. These incidents continually mar the building of trust between citizens and the authorities. Creating civilian trust of the government will prove a slow process; it will be knocked back each time security forces appear to buck civilian oversight, and it could be undermined entirely if the situation in Kachin State convinces citizens that the generals, not the president, hold ultimate power.

The escalation of fighting with the KIA threatens stability in more than just Kachin State. The government has signed cease-fire agreements over the last year and a half with most of the country’s major armed ethnic resistance movements, except the KIA. While a few deals, most notably with the Chin National Front, have advanced beyond initial cease-fire agreements, most are like those with the Shan and Karen—fragile at best. The only thing keeping occasional flare-ups with such groups from spiraling back into open conflict is ongoing dialogue with government negotiators and the hope that the authorities are serious about national reconciliation.

Seeing that government offensives against the Kachin are not only continuing, but actually escalating, sends a chilling message to those groups still uncertain about the government’s trustworthiness. The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which represents 11 of Myanmar’s ethnic armies, has repeatedly called on the government to halt its offensive against the KIA. In mid-2012, the group’s members threatened to consider their own cease-fire agreements with the government null and void if the fighting did not stop.

When chief negotiator Aung Min suggested during a meeting with UNFC representatives in early January that their next round of negotiations be held in Yangon, the council declined, citing the situation in Kachin State. The process of building trust between the ethnic armies and the government will be slow and laborious, but can be squandered with relative ease.

Outside partners like the United States have limited ability to shape the outcome. What Washington can and must do, however, is ensure that the issue is not ignored. U.S. ambassador Derek Mitchell traveled last month to Kachin State, although only to government-held areas. Mitchell also said January 8 that he has quietly raised the Kachin issue with top brass in Naypyidaw. These are necessary, but not sufficient, messages of concern. U.S. and other like-minded officials should make it clear that the violence in Kachin State threatens the historic progress made toward opening Myanmar to the outside world and normalizing relations.

The United States can begin to assist in some limited ways, including by attempts to help professionalize the Myanmar military. U.S. military officials held a groundbreaking meeting in October 2012 with their counterparts in Myanmar during which they discussed issues of human rights, the laws of war, and civilian control of the military. Such limited engagement must continue. Myanmar’s leaders, both civilian and military, should be told that continued progress on these fronts will be a requisite for more advanced military engagement. Setbacks on Myanmar’s road to democracy will continue until a cultural change occurs within the military itself, and such changes do not occur overnight. The United States should respond critically, especially in a situation as troubling as that in Kachin State. But it must also remain engaged. The other choice is to condemn from the sidelines, which might assuage consciences but will do nothing to help Myanmar or the United States.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the January 10, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)

Gregory Poling and Kathleen Rustici are research associates with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Kathleen Rustici