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Myanmar’s war with Kachin takes worrying turn

Photo by Alyson Neville-Morgan on flickr.
22 January 2013
Photo by Alyson Neville-Morgan on flickr.

Myanmar’s president Thein Sein faces big obstacles if he wants a new ceasefire with Kachin rebels as violence escalates in the north of the country, says a leading expert from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Dr Nicholas Farrelly, based in the College’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, told Agence France-Presse that President Thein Sein needs a ceasefire as the political and human cost of renewed military action increases.

“The Kachin war is a headache and a distraction; it is also costly and incredibly destructive. Thein Sein should know that prolonging this war has the potential to obliterate the gains he has made domestically, and on the international stage,” said Dr Farrelly. 

“A decisive Burmese military victory still seems a way off, although my guess is that the ethnic-based Kachin Independence Army (KIA) defence of its headquarters at Laiza will crumple at some stage.

“But unless the President is prepared to annihilate the formal institutions of Kachin nationalism, and then be ready to fight its remnants in perpetuity, he must see that a ceasefire is the only way forward. In an ideal world it would be followed, almost immediately, by a peace deal with terms that the KIA can't refuse.”

The KIA has been fighting a decades-long war against Myanmar for greater autonomy.  A 17-year-old ceasefire between the two sides was broken in mid-2011. President Thein Sein announced a new ceasefire that was due to take effect on Saturday, but the Myanmar military has ignored this directive and continued attacking the rebels – shelling their headquarters near Laiza on the Chinese border.

Dr Farrelly said that President Thein Sein faced another challenge when it came to controlling the Myanmar army and curbing its military actions.

“President Thein Sein has an unenviably patchy track record of convincing field commanders to follow his public orders. This diminishes his international standing and makes a mockery of his government's emerging reformist and democratic credentials.

“At the same time we need to acknowledge that the major battles occur in remote areas where anxious Burmese troops, often conscripts barely out of their teens, are faced with a well-fortified and combat effective foe. I can see how field commanders are reluctant to give up an inch of their hard-won territorial gains, or to take their boot off the KIA's throat.”

According to Dr Farrelly an effective ceasefire is increasingly urgent as the body count on each side continues to rise.

“Tallies of dead and injured are notoriously unreliable in this war. Each side hopes to use casualty figures to justify their own righteousness and tactics.

“But, with the intensity of fighting since December it would be very surprising if large numbers of Burmese and KIA troops had not been killed and injured.  The KIA have sustained some combat deaths but my impression is that, like in previous major battles, the Burmese have suffered by having to fight against entrenched KIA positions. The KIA have tended to be reluctant to send their troops into imprudently dangerous situations although they are now being forced to stand and defend their ground.”

More: Listen to an interview on the Kachin war with Dr Nicholas Farrelly at ABC Radio Australia.

Dr Farrelly has recently been awarded a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award from the Australian Government to examine the changing political culture in Myanmar.


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