The Kachin and war

Two weeks ago, on 10 January 2013, the 65th anniversary of Kachin State Day passed unremarked. In years gone by, this has been one of the days on the festive calendar when New Mandala has provided thorough coverage of events in northernmost Burma (such as here, here and here).

This month there are no celebrations to report.

In fact, Burmese Army and Air Force efforts to pound the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) into submission have come to define the 2012-2013 dry season. In this new phase of conflict the tragedies of northern Burma are piling up.  Dead Kachin. Dead Burmese.  And others too.

It is less than two months since I suggested President Thein Sein should use these “traditional” war-fighting months as a time to seize a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  My suggestion was made at a moment, before the recent escalation of hostilities, when I judged an audacious move on the part of the President could have eliminated the prospect of much greater bloodshed.

Since he took the Presidency only two years ago, Thein Sein has done so much good for his people, his country, his government and his army that the conduct of the Kachin war is increasingly perplexing. There are many theories about exactly what’s going on.  It’s a tricky and confusing situation.

Parts of the emerging story suggest that within the regime Thein Sein needs to bolster wavering support by letting the army off the leash to prosecute its war.

In recent days his call for a ceasefire has been greeted, ignominiously, by continued offensive operations by troops from his own side. The risks of having his ceasefire orders repeatedly disobeyed might be real, or they might be a mere inconvenience. Some suggest the ceasefire announcement might even be a tactical swerve, but that seems unlikely.

What is genuinely worrying is that the repeated defiance of his order by commanders in the field starts to make a mockery of the President’s leadership. Does it signal something truly and permanently rotten at the heart of the new system? Does it suggest that the world needs to be prepared for other circumstances where the President’s orders aren’t followed?

It naturally gives much ammunition to those who consider him a pawn of the “real powers”: the retired generals and the uniformed men who call the shots in the Ministry of Defence.

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At this chaotic time there is much we do not know. Nonetheless, we can deduce that if the government fails to manage the Kachin war then it flirts with catastrophe.  My quick illustration of why that is the case inevitably picks up the Kachin State Day theme.

Before the new war there was a Manau festival each January. That festival would usually run for around a week. It would be a celebration, of course, but also a marathon.

I recall once being on the Manau ground in Myitkyina long before this new war began. It was right at the end of the festival; there had been days of dancing. The mood among the dancers was incredible. Passionate. Defiant. Stoic. Unflinching. Hopeful. Rejoicing. Firm. At the end of the dancing marathon, they remained energetic and united, swaying with enthusiasm to the beat of the drum and the howl of the singers.

I remember thinking: these are not people you ever want to fight.I have not been surprised that since 9 June 2011 when the new war re-ignited the Kachin have shown themselves to be a very effective, if reluctant, combat force.

It is concerning that if the recent escalation cannot be reversed then we might expect the KIA to abruptly change tactics. Their fighters have tended to remain in mountain strongholds, hesitant to launch offensive operations. From the Kachin side, this has been a war of great restraint. But if they are forced into a corner I have no doubt that there are contingencies for taking the fight deep into Burma. The Kachin are adept at war. Under the wrong conditions we would surely anticipate KIA commandos striking at targets from Myitkyina to Mandalay, and who knows where else.

I still have some hope that somewhere, somehow, the decision-makers realise the futility of these battles and can find a compromise that will work. But it will take courage from those who hold the upper hand.

Readers who are interested in more thoughts on this topic will find this article on the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific deals with other dimensions of the Kachin conflict.

About Nicholas Farrelly